Council finds its own voice on hotel

It refuses to rubber-stamp convention center project

August 15, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

There has been political posturing against a popular mayor. There have been demands for pet projects in exchange for votes. Tempers have flared, muscles have been flexed, and a significant legislative defeat has appeared imminent.

The City Council debate swirling around Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's plan for a $305 million publicly financed downtown hotel is just the type of legislative drama that O'Malley once relished as a Northeast Baltimore councilman.

But in six years as mayor, O'Malley has rarely endured the level of resistance that the council mounted against his plan for a publicly financed headquarters hotel for the Baltimore Convention Center. And the mayor has seldom resorted to the types of quid pro quos needed to gain a 9-6 majority support from the council, which is set to cast a vote on the deal tonight.

So why has the council only now traded in its collective rubber stamp? According to many political observers, the reason is simple: single-member council districts.

Not everyone agrees that the new council structure enacted in December deserves credit for the council's newfound scrutiny of O'Malley. Some say the debate has been fueled by a genuine dispute over public and private financing. Still others say council members may be jockeying for higher office in case O'Malley is elected governor next year.

"Once the king says he's leaving, people start saying, `I want to be king next,'" said Carl Stokes, a former councilman who lost to O'Malley in the 1999 Democratic primary election. "When Martin says he's leaving it emboldens council members."

If O'Malley wins in his expected bid for governor, Council President Sheila Dixon automatically assumes the job until the 2007 city elections. At that time, any number of council members and others could mount challenges for mayor. Others are likely to run for council president, city government's second highest elected position.

If Comptroller Joan M. Pratt runs for mayor, still more council members are likely to seek to succeed her.

Staking out an independent voice on the biggest public project in city history could be critical, several council members say.

"There's an evolution going on," said Mary Pat Clarke, a North Baltimore councilwoman. "By the time of the next election this will be a very independent council. There will probably be more new people coming into the council as others run for higher office."

Dixon said she believes some council members are motivated by making a stand that they can campaign on in the next election.

Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., one of the hotel deal's opponents, said it is "premature" to talk about seeking higher office with city elections two years off.

But Mitchell did admit that the political games surrounding the hotel vote included threats on council members' chances in 2007. He said unions have been sending letters to garner hotel support that were signed by those who also sign campaign checks.

Arthur Murphy, a political consultant, and others believe the hotel vote will not play a substantial role in the 2007 election because the hotel will not be finished until 2008. Murphy said the hotel debate was natural for such a large project.

Council Vice President Stephanie Rawlings Blake agreed.

"A big project tends to lead to big debate," she said.

Many observers have argued that the new single-member council districts, mandated by voters in 2002 and implemented in December, have made council members more accountable. Under the old configuration, the council was composed of six three-member districts. That allowed council members to vote without fear of reprisals because they could later campaign on incumbent slates that were often unbeatable.

Bishop Douglas I. Miles said that he was originally opposed to single-member districts but that the hotel debate has changed his mind.

"This most recent debate around the hotel has created an atmosphere where the council probably will no longer be a rubber stamp for any mayor," Miles said.

Glenard S. Middleton Sr., a union leader, and Mitch Klein, an organizer for the community group ACORN, both campaigned for single-member districts and said the hotel debate has proved that the council can be independent.

"O'Malley has gotten everything he wanted" from this council, Middleton said. "Single-member districts have empowered the council like it's never been empowered before under this administration."

Councilman James B. Kraft said residents of his district made it clear to him that they did not support the hotel.

"This new structure really lends itself to the revitalization of the council," Kraft said.

And to the revitalization of community groups like Miles' BUILD - Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. The group took a strong stance against the hotel, demanding that the council steer more money toward eliminating neighborhood blight. The result: O'Malley crafted a $59 million housing trust fund that garnered BUILD support.

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