Baltimore, feel free to celebrate your election victory

URBAN CHRONICLE

November 16, 2006|By Eric Siegel

Add Baltimore -- and, by extension, cities in general -- to the list of winners in last week's election.

It's not just that a Democratic-controlled Congress is far less likely to go along with cuts to such programs as Community Development Block Grants that have proved vital to revitalizing the city.

Nor is it just that when Mayor Martin O'Malley takes over as governor of Maryland in January, the city will have in the State House someone who understands the city's needs and problems.

Among other things, O'Malley's victory over incumbent Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. should help dispel the conventional wisdom that being mayor of a large city, with all its attendant problems, is such a liability that it makes political advancement all but impossible.

Perhaps a new wisdom is needed that views cities as a political opportunity to demonstrate leadership and innovation.

O'Malley's election is in part affirmation that what's most important is not the magnitude of the problems a mayor faces coming in, or the extent of the woes that remain going out, but what was done to address them in between.

For further evidence, see former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, who won a second term as Pennsylvania governor last week. Or former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who saw his national stature first rise after a substantial reduction of the city's crime rate and then soar after he rallied his city in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks; he took the first step this week toward a possible presidential run in 2008.

From the outset, Ehrlich tried to make the state of Baltimore -- and O'Malley's stewardship of the city -- a key element of his campaign. As soon as Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan dropped out of the Democratic primary in June, Ehrlich declared that he couldn't wait to focus on the "horrific nature" of O'Malley's record as mayor.

At the time, I wrote that the governor's comments were obvious hyperbole and postulated that, despite the city's continuing problems, people around the state had a more favorable image of it than is generally believed.

True to his word, Ehrlich relentlessly criticized O'Malley's city over the next four months for continuing problems, mainly in schools and crime.

It would have made for a vastly different campaign -- though maybe not a different outcome -- had Ehrlich taken a different approach. Suppose he had acknowledged the city's progress, noted the substantial state financial contributions, pointed out that the improvements were made with him in the State House and O'Malley in City Hall and asked voters in the Baltimore area, "Why change?"

O'Malley had a ready rejoinder to the criticism. As he did in his campaign for a second term as mayor, when he ran behind the slogan "Because Better Is Not Good Enough," O'Malley noted improvements while conceding the obvious: that a whole lot more needed to be done.

It didn't hurt that O'Malley had the facts on his side. Crime under his watch was down, though certainly not as much as he had promised and maybe not as much as he had claimed. Test scores were up, though mostly in the elementary grades. Investment and appreciation in housing prices were impressive, and not just because of national economic trends; in the 1990s, the national economy boomed, while Baltimore sagged.

What makes the city a winner in the election is that so many people recognized the reality.

In the final poll conducted for The Sun late last month, potential voters were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, "O'Malley should not be governor because he has left so many problems unsolved in Baltimore."

Statewide, 40 percent agreed, while 52 percent disagreed and 8 percent were not sure. In the Baltimore region, 46 percent agreed with the statement -- including one in five in the city and slightly more than half in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

That sentiment about O'Malley and the city was borne out on Election Day.

Much has been made about how O'Malley essentially erased the 65,000-vote margin in Baltimore County that Ehrlich piled up four years ago against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. (The unofficial tally, including absentee ballots, showed Ehrlich ahead by just under 10,000 votes.) But O'Malley also won Howard County -- though just barely -- and substantially cut into Ehrlich's 2002 margins in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties.

When all was said and done, O'Malley, who won statewide by 108,841 votes, cut into Ehrlich's 2002 margins in the Baltimore suburbs by 120,00 votes.

And in the city, where two-thirds of the residents are African-American and where Ehrlich surrogates urged black voters to shun the mayor because of the Police Department's practice of arresting people for minor crimes that are often never prosecuted?

City voters chose O'Malley by better than 3-to-1.

That's better than the totals O'Malley ran up in his last competitive election, when he beat Andrey Bundley, a high school principal and novice candidate, in the Democratic mayoral primary in 2003, when many of the improvements apparent today were just beginning to take hold.

eric.siegel@baltsun.com

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