For O'Malley, cementing ties to labor unions


August 16, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

After pushing a risky $305 million convention center hotel deal through a divided City Council last night, Mayor Martin O'Malley is poised to harvest political rewards from labor unions that will fill the more than 500 construction jobs the Baltimore project would create.

The project is just the most recent example of the mayor's patching his sometimes bumpy relationship with organized labor as he prepares a Democratic bid for governor next year.

"A large portion of our members still live in the city," said Ron DeJuliis, president of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council. "It offers them a chance at gainful employment and bears some fruit for our members as well as the mayor."

But the prospect of increased union support and O'Malley's burnished image as a leader who can turn out votes to close a deal could be offset by handing a campaign issue to political opponents.

Critics wonder why the city is involved in the hotel project: If a new hotel is needed to boost convention business in Baltimore, shouldn't private businesses build, own and manage it rather than the city?

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat who is expected to challenge O'Malley for governor, has criticized the deal.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, raised similar concerns during a radio interview last weekend when asked how his administration would respond to a possible request for state money for the project.

"We are going to have some very, very serious questions to ask, most particularly, why not the private sector, what's wrong with the private sector? Why public money?" Ehrlich said on WBAL radio.

The hotel project, tentatively approved by the City Council on a 9-6 vote last night, illustrates that nearly every decision made by O'Malley will be infused with campaign overtones. The mayor's allies argue that the hotel would be good for the city and would boost convention business regardless of politics. But the project's success or failure - and O'Malley's ability to deliver the votes to make it happen - have consequences for his gubernatorial bid.

"Building a convention hotel is important for Baltimore's future, and over the past several weeks the mayor has demonstrated once again that he is an effective leader who gets things done," said Steve Kearney, his communications chief.

In other cities, hotels paid for through public bond efforts have faltered when occupancy rates or room prices have failed to meet expectations. If that happens in Baltimore, the failure will occur long after the 2006 election.

Still, critics ask why the mayor is pushing the project now. He and his staff spent weeks persuading reluctant council members to support the project, in part by assuring them that neighborhoods far from the Inner Harbor would also see improvements. Officials who manage a national AFL-CIO housing fund have tentatively agreed to spend millions in Baltimore neighborhoods, a bonus that appeared to sway some council votes.

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House GOP whip from Southern Maryland, says O'Malley has misplaced priorities.

"Baltimore City has a failed school system. They've done very little in the city to change the drug problem. It is one of the most dangerous cities in America, in terms of drugs and homicides," O'Donnell said. "One would think that the mayor has more pressing concerns on the top of his priority list - like life and death issues - and not be concerned with a darned hotel. I would say, `Get with the program, Mr. Mayor. Your people are dying.'"

By landing the hotel project, O'Malley appears to have patched a hole in his sometimes difficult relations with labor unions. Although waning in numbers and influence, union members remain key voters for Democrats, valued for their campaign donations and organized support in waving signs, knocking on doors and staffing phone banks.

The mayor recently signed an agreement with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, providing a 4 percent raise to members who felt they were being overlooked in favor of police and firefighters. City teachers recently received a raise for the first time in three years.

Glenard S. Middleton Sr., the AFSCME president, said his union had been troubled by O'Malley's efforts at privatization and contracting out earlier in his tenure but added, "That's all changed now."

"I've gotten all my unfinished stuff resolved now. It's been a cooperative relationship. He's available to talk," Middleton said, suggesting that the coming election year has had much to do with the improvement in relations. "Everything falls back to politics, I believe."

Ernie Grecco, president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council AFL-CIO, said his organization is strongly supporting the hotel because it will employ a unionized work force and therefore can host union conventions.

"When I go to another city, people [ask] me, `When are you going to get some union hotels?'" Grecco said. "When our union guys come to town, they are not like the Little Sisters of the Poor. They spend some money."

The timing of the project is good, he said, because other big construction projects in Baltimore are nearing completion.

The timing is also good for O'Malley.

"I feel pretty confident we will be supporting him for governor," Grecco said.

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