Line forms for those who would be mayor

November 10, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

Help Wanted: CEO needed to run sprawling, bureaucratic organization with $2.4 billion budget, 15,000 employees and 636,000 often-disgruntled customers. Qualified applicants should have excellent skills in backroom dealing, horse trading, sound bite delivery, civic cheerleading and knowing why Mrs. Ethel Flagstone's garbage was not picked up today. The ideal candidate would have thick skin, a surfeit of charm (genuine preferred, faked acceptable) and the ability to work with a 14-member council and its president, all or most of whom covet your job. Four-year contract; position comes with driver, security detail and lavish office in historic downtown building. Hours are 24/7; salary neither commensurate with experience nor comparable to private-sector equivalent.

Who would want such a thankless job? And yet no sooner had the office of Baltimore mayor opened up, with current job holder Martin O'Malley's election as Maryland governor, than the line of applicants started forming.

You saw their names in a story by Sun reporter John Fritze yesterday, which included those who have definitely declared - Council President Sheila Dixon and Comptroller Joan Pratt - as well as about 10 others who are either floating balloons, sticking their arms out begging for them to be twisted, or not saying they're not running, which of course means they might be.

Not to disparage anyone on this initial list - there certainly are some bright lights on it - but they're mostly the usual suspects. Current and former and no doubt future officeholders, all the familiar and predictable figures, surely nice people all, but: zzzzzz.

At a time of sweeping political change elsewhere in the country, Baltimore remains the city that doesn't so much sweep out the old as recycle it.

Where are the wild cards, the out-of-the-box candidates along the lines of Michael Bloomberg, the self-made multimillionaire who became New York's mayor, or Washington's wonky Anthony Williams?

"People like the same old names in Baltimore," observes Anirban Basu, the oft-quoted economist who, as a first-termer on the school board, is one of the few new faces to emerge in the city's public life in recent years.

Basu expects some unexpected names to jump into the mayor's race in the coming months now that the initial wave of known quantities is out there.

He isn't throwing any names out, but will throw out some characteristics that he thinks the mayor's job requires.

"It takes an individual of high intellect. It takes an individual who works within the confines of Maryland tradition - getting in a room and working out whatever issues there are," he says. "You need someone with impeccable diplomatic skills. And one final thing, because the city's so challenging, intellect is not enough. Charisma is really important."

(No, Basu isn't necessarily describing himself or offering his own candidacy - at least not this time, or for this office. "I have an eye on the City Council, actually," says Basu, noting that his school board term doesn't expire until 2008. "I don't think I'm ready for mayor.")

Count Peter Beilenson, the former city health commissioner who lost a bid for Ben Cardin's congressional seat, as someone who would welcome some new names as well.

"Part of the issue is [that] it's sort of the same old folks," he says. "It would be nice to have someone new and dynamic."

Beilenson has his own job description: someone who will continue O'Malley's CitiStat system of departmental accountability, the focus on drug treatment and the improvement of the schools.

Maybe that's why no one outside the usual city-government crowd has expressed interest - that sounds both boring and daunting.

"When it's done well," Johns Hopkins political scientist Matthew Crenson says of the mayor's job, "it's not glamorous."

Still, he says, maybe there's someone out there who has been there, done that, at the highest levels in the public or private sectors, and who is ready to simply do some good. It's not like they'd be starting from scratch, Crenson says, noting progress the city made under O'Malley, such as the Project 5000 effort to take over abandoned properties.

"Maybe it's time for a John Quincy Adams," Crenson suggests. "He'd already been president, and he went on to be elected to the House of Representatives, where he died."

Literally - Adams collapsed on the floor of the House, and died in the Speaker's Room.

Hmmm, maybe not quite the factoid to bring up when we're trying to make public service sound attractive.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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