Survey takes pulse of city and beyond

Gallup poll asks residents how satisfied they are

Findings could affect O'Malley bid

July 03, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

It can be argued that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's mission since taking office six years ago has been to save the soul of his struggling city. What are those austere "Believe" stickers and signs adorning bumpers and buildings if not testaments to the spiritual quest behind fighting violent crime, drug addiction and population loss?

But do city statistics demonstrating crime reduction, drug treatment improvements and an influx of new development relay whether residents believe Baltimore is improving? Ultimately, how can the state of a city's soul truly be gauged?

Ask God? Nope. Ask Gallup.

More precisely, ask the Gallup Organization to ask city residents. That's just what the prominent polling outfit is doing, and it has been conducting extensive surveys (called "deep dives," in polling parlance) of 2,000 people in the Baltimore/Washington region this summer.

The surveys are part of Gallup's "Soul of the City" program, which aims to probe 4,000 residents from a total of 20 cities. Organized by an international group of city leaders that includes O'Malley, the goal is to provide a statistical tableau for urban areas throughout the world to determine their political, economic and social well-being through what is essentially a resident-satisfaction survey.

The poll's results - politically risky though they might be for O'Malley - could show, for example, that Baltimore area residents love the city despite high crime, poor public schools and a stubborn drug problem. The poll's findings, Gallup leaders say, will also provide city leaders with clear indications of what's going right and wrong, informing policy decisions.

"Leaders of cities are managing huge constituencies and second-guessing where their human needs actually are," said Jim Clifton, Gallup's chairman and chief executive officer. "I can tell you with 30 years in this business that leaders do very poorly on pop quizzes on what their citizens are thinking."

By September, Gallup will know what Baltimore and Washington residents think of their cities - from crime and leadership to open-mindedness and lifestyle opportunities. The results are to be presented that month at the Washington convention of one of the poll's sponsors, Glocal Forum, an international association of city leaders based in Rome.

If the results are positive, the poll might boost O'Malley's bid for governor in 2006. One question asks Baltimore respondents to compare life in the city today with five years ago, just about the time the mayor was first elected. It also asks how residents believe Baltimore will fare over the next five years.

If negative, the poll's findings - especially on the ethics and effectiveness of city leaders - could become objective ammunition for O'Malley detractors.

After all, the survey, in many ways, will help pass judgment on the mayor's 1999 inaugural remarks in which he summoned an enigmatic collective faith to help cure urban ills.

O'Malley isn't worried.

"What it is is what it is," the mayor said of the poll's final tally. "Feedback is always good."

Gallup said it does not conduct polls for politicians and that the five-year range is a commonly used standard, not one devised for or against O'Malley. Glocal Forum wanted "deep dives" of Baltimore and Washington because it counts O'Malley and Washington's Anthony A. Williams among the first U.S. mayors to join the group, said Glocal Executive Director Holly Muldoon.

"We have no political affiliation," Muldoon said.

The creative class

One of the poll's designers was Richard Florida, an economist and author of The Rise of the Creative Class. The main thrust of Florida's work, which O'Malley summarized in his 2004 State of the City address, "is that our country's economy is now fueled by the growing creative class, a diverse and expanding class of Americans whose economic and social lives are organized not by employer but by place, by cities."

"This is an amazing study," Florida wrote in an e-mail. "The survey ... provides the first way ever to collect systematic and comparable data on a large sample of city-regions around the world and over time. Currently such data do not exist. The survey will gain information on how residents view their city, its economic potential, its livability and quality of place, its [openness] to diversity and tolerance to outsiders, as well as crime, safety and health care."

In the 2004 speech, the mayor pointed out that Baltimore has civic, cultural, educational, recreational and economic attractions - nearly all the amenities that the Gallup poll has set out to survey and which it will continue to monitor in participating cities for years to come.

Last week, the mayor reiterated his belief that his administration's efforts to meet regularly with communities and to make local government open and transparent have provided him with positive feedback that he hopes the Gallup poll will confirm.

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