No `horrific' hyperbole, just a fair look at Baltimore

Urban Chronicle

June 29, 2006|By ERIC SIEGEL

So Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says he can't wait to concentrate on the "horrific nature" of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's record.

The mayor's accomplishments and failings - what he could have done better and what he could have done differently - during his 6 1/2 year tenure are certainly worth examining in the impending gubernatorial showdown between Ehrlich and O'Malley. Just as they were before Douglas M. Duncan dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination last week, an event that provoked the governor's denunciation.

I'll make no attempt to definitively evaluate the mayor's performance in this limited space.

But for the moment, suffice it to say that, depending on your point of view, O'Malley's record could be described as anything from impressive and substantive to disappointing and spotty, and anything else in between.

But "horrific"?

No way.

For that matter, neither is the Ehrlich's record as governor, though I don't recall O'Malley describing it quite that way.

"Horrific" might be an apt for the record of, say, Detroit's second-term Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick, whose tenure has been marked by massive budget deficits, spending scandals and a population decline of nearly 65,000 people - though even in his case I'd be reluctant to use the term.

It would clearly be too much to ask Ehrlich to concede that some progress has been made in the city during O'Malley's watch. After all, Duncan never made such a concession.

Forget the O'Malley administration; it's a move that would recognize the positive efforts of cops, teachers, community leaders, business owners - and the state, which provides about 20 percent of the city's $2 billion operating budget, not including education.

Still, it's a long way from such an acknowledgement to the kind of hyperbole the governor engaged in last week.

Maybe I'm being naive, but I don't think the kind of thinly disguised Baltimore-bashing approach will gain as much ground with voters as some obviously think it will.

Sure, the drumbeat of headlines about top school officials resigning and of an 80-year-old man being charged with murder sometimes makes it seem that the apocalypse is at hand. And some former residents and current ones are not shy about expressing their disdain for the city in general and the current mayoral administration in particular.

But I think a lot of people around the state have a better image of the city than is generally believed.

The all-too-obvious ills of the city - crime, drugs, underperforming schools - affect those who live here, mostly in certain neighborhoods.

Friends I have from other parts of the state seldom see the seamy side of the city. When they come to the city, they come for the restaurants, the museums, the baseball games and the waterfront. They must like what they see; they keep coming back.

That's not very scientific, I know. Hopefully, some of the political polls we're going to see in the next four months will sample voters' perceptions of the city.

I'd love to see the breakdown of answers to some multiple-choice questions, such as:

Which answer best describes your impression of the direction the city is heading? (A) It's improving, (B) It's staying the same, or (C) It's getting worse.

Or, which of the following best describes your feelings about the city? (A) It's a dirty, violent city, (B) It's a city with many problems but many positives, or (C) It's a vibrant, interesting city.

As an older industrial city burdened by a nearly 25 percent poverty rate and a legacy of decades of decline, any overall improvement is likely to be more incremental than dramatic.

And so a murder rate that once stood stubbornly at over 300 now stands, just as stubbornly, at a few dozen less than that. Elementary school test scores show improvement, but secondary scores are still, on the whole, deplorable. Some neighborhoods are thriving and reviving, but others, as I wrote in a series this week, are stagnating and deteriorating. The property tax rate gets shaved by a few pennies, but it is still the highest by far in the state.

And the city's percentage population loss, the fourth worst in the nation in the 1990s, is 34th from the bottom so far this decade.

Does all that suggest a record that is trifling, significant, or something in between?

I don't have a ready answer.

But I do know one thing.

It doesn't suggest a record that's horrific.

eric.siegel@baltsun.com

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