This just in: Politicians oftentimes are ambitious

August 07, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

MAYOR MARTIN O'Malley spoke last week at the National Press Club in Washington, asserting once again that the Bush administration neglects America's ports.

He's the head of a mayor's association panel on homeland security, but he sounded as if he were running for president of the United States. He probably is.

At the moment, though, he's an undeclared candidate for governor of Maryland and taking advantage of whatever pulpit is offered.

He needs to be careful. He needs to avoid the whispering and the quoting of Shakespeare: "Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed, That he is grown so great?" (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II).

What makes him think he's presidential timber, in other words? He can't appear to assume he'll defeat Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan in the Democratic primary and, after that, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

People know the truth, of course, but they'd like to think their elected officials are not using any office as a jumping-off spot. It's tacky. It's arrogant.

But if Mr. O'Malley avoids that obvious pitfall, his appearance on a national stage should help more than it hurts. He's got an important message, and conveying it is important for the welfare of the city, the state and the nation. Hong Kong, he observed in his speech, surveils 100 percent of its cargo while American ports examine only a fraction of the stuff that slides through every day.

The mayor sought in his speech to make a connection between surveillance of the port and dealing with criminal activity in the city - namely, the drug trade. More cameras, he said, could catch dealers and thieves who threatened people in neighborhoods. Here we had a little two-cushion carom, pocketing the national and the local angles of citizen concern.

Port security can't be paid for, the mayor said, on the proceeds of bake sales - one of several allusions to insufficient federal support for the security tasks.

Looked at in the context of the gubernatorial race, the mayor's foray into the nation's capital has considerable merit politically. He's automatically and unavoidably addressing many of his constituents, men and women who live in Maryland and work in D.C. These are Maryland voters with special expertise in government affairs. If Mr. O'Malley seems to know what he is talking about and if he is heard by people who don't know him well, his speech could only help him as he moves toward announcing his candidacy officially.

The mayor is also advantaged, it seems, in comparison with the speaking and politicking last week by his opponents. Mr. Duncan was in Baltimore defending himself from critics who say his county allowed builders to have their way with housing construction rules that should have - but did not - limit the height of buildings in a new development in Clarksburg. Mr. Duncan flails away at shortcomings in Mr. O'Malley's administration in Baltimore as often as possible. Last week, he was dealing with what could be a storm of controversy at home.

Mr. O'Malley may well have savored an opportunity to change the subject. Mr. Duncan, who trails in some polls, spotlights failing city schools in an effort to close the gap.

Then there's Mr. Ehrlich, who hangs his hat on economy in government and a gimlet eye toward "programs." But he knows people want it both ways: low taxes, high level of service.

So he was not at all averse to playing from strength. Later in the week, he stood before developers and government officials to award $20 million in grants under the Heritage Preservation Tax Credit Program. He did what governors love to do: hand out what legislators, winking broadly, call "worthy projects." Those who say it's pork are spoilsports.

It's all part of the game, of course. Naysayers aside, historic preservation is a worthy exercise, and so is preservation of the port and national security.

People are realistic and tolerant, but they may wonder about those who reach more than one rung higher. But a well-regulated ambition does not undermine - and may promote - the public good.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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