Focused on crime, mayor rides high

Police patrol Baltimore neighborhoods in 2001.
Police patrol Baltimore neighborhoods in 2001. (Karl Merton Ferron, The Baltimore Sun)

Just weeks after Martin O'Malley took the oath of office two years ago Friday, former Mayor William Donald Schaefer gave him an early job review over breakfast.

"You've already accomplished the hardest thing, and you haven't done anything yet," Schaefer told the new mayor. "You've made the people believe in the city again.


"Most people have to struggle for years and years to pull that off," said Schaefer, who then concluded, the way O'Malley recalls it now with a chuckle, "Most people have to actually do something to pull that off."

Two years later, many, including Schaefer, say O'Malley's greatest achievement remains that he has given hope to residents of the city.

His detractors, including political rivals and some opponents of his 1999 mayoral candidacy, argue that O'Malley has cut services, laid off low-paid workers and done little of substance to improve people's quality of life throughout much of the city. But they say he overcomes many negatives with his talent for projecting a positive image.

"Every time there seems to be a problem, it's not a problem because he displays a certain determination to get it done," says former state Sen. John A. Pica Jr., who as an incumbent barely defeated O'Malley, then 27, in a Democratic primary 11 years ago. "Now, whether it gets done is a different issue."

In two years, O'Malley has become a popular mayor in what is customarily a thankless job. Partly by force of charm and personality, he has won over crowds, garnered national television attention and, though he is less than halfway through his five-year term, has positioned himself as the only viable Democratic challenger to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for next year's governor's race.

Along the way, the question has lingered: Is he getting the job done as mayor?

"We've raised expectations," O'Malley says. "And whether or not the product is as good as the promotions and the wrapper is what people are trying to figure out."

Regarding O'Malley's No. 1 priority, crime, the answer has to be a qualified yes.

Homicides declined nearly 15 percent last year, to 261, falling to fewer than 300 for the first time in more than a decade.

This year, despite a violent past two months, homicides are down an additional 4 percent. The overall violent crime rate is also down, dropping 14.1 percent last year and 11 percent more this year.

Drug-related emergency room visits dropped nearly 20 percent last year, and city officials say overdose deaths are down considerably this year. The administration attributes those improvements in part to O'Malley's successful lobbying for drug treatment funding in Annapolis.

O'Malley's critics say other city services and programs have suffered because of his focus on crime and drugs, and are suffering now from his more recent passion for terrorism preparedness.

The terrorism security issue placed O'Malley before Congress and network television cameras, but it also cost the city millions of dollars it doesn't have.

In two years, O'Malley has closed firehouses and looked the other way as library branches were shut down; laid off city workers; cut funding for museums and the arts; and raised income taxes to stave off steeper budget cuts.


In addition, trash buildup continues to be a seemingly intractable problem in some neighborhoods, despite O'Malley's citywide cleanup days and his declared efforts to improve collection.

And the mayor's signature initiative for this year, a church-based mentoring program, has stalled and sputtered most of the year.

Criticism from Conway

"You can't consistently focus on one issue and forget about the little things like the neighborhoods, the communities," says state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat whose relations with the mayor have been strained since the 1999 campaign, when she was one of O'Malley's crucial early supporters.

O'Malley argues that despite spending cuts, he has generally improved city services, especially with the help of his trademark CitiStat, essentially an institutionalized method of measuring city workers' performance and grilling their managers.

O'Malley thinks crime and drugs matter more to the public than any other issue.

He says that's what defines him as mayor, much as redeveloping the Inner Harbor helped define Schaefer as mayor.

Focus on crime and drugs

"Our place in time, our karma and really the reason that motivated me to try something as crazy as running for mayor was the belief that I knew what needed to be done now on the issue of reducing violent crime and drug addiction," O'Malley says.

"And we had become, I think, the most violent and most drug-addicted city in America," he says.

Since taking office, O'Malley has seemed to some to be as much police chief as mayor, constantly in touch with Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris and keeping a constant vigil over crime statistics, which have declined two years in a row. That has been noticed.

"My neighborhood is safer," says Clayton Guyton, co-director of the Rose Street Community Center in East Baltimore.

Guyton has his gripes with the mayor, but not regarding crime. Referring to the goal of fewer than 300 homicides, he says, "It seems like he's going to do it again this year. We've got to give him his marks there."

Homicides: a difficult goal

This year, homicides are on a pace to total about 250, making O'Malley's mayoral campaign goal of 175 homicides next year look difficult. O'Malley needs the number of homicides and the crime rate to keep falling because they are the standards by which he is measured, and because he has gambled by investing so much, politically and financially, in Norris and his Police Department.

He's betting on the city's future, and possibly his own, and the stakes became apparent this year.

While writing what some City Council members call a "blank check" to the police, he has imposed hiring freezes, spending cuts and layoffs in other city departments, and he pushed through the first major tax increase in years, a 20 percent income tax increase.

Now, with police overtime running millions of dollars over budget for the second year in a row, and with the economy in recession, O'Malley has announced another hiring freeze, with the prospect of more layoffs soon.

On another front, his police politics have opened him to attacks from some black leaders.

Last year, the abrupt departure of his hand-picked black commissioner, Ronald L. Daniel, and O'Malley's elevation of then-Deputy Commissioner Norris, a white officer who came from New York City, ignited racially tinged resentment in what was otherwise a honeymoon of a first year.

This year, some black political and religious leaders and commentators have pointed to missteps - real or perceived - as evidence that the O'Malley administration doesn't understand the black community.

They point to a profanity-strewn tirade against State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy in January, Norris' ouster of two high-ranking black police officers (along with two white commanders) in May, and the Police Department's recent near-retreat from the HotSpot program.


But, possibly because of the decline in crime, and because of the power he wields, and certainly because of his popularity, O'Malley has emerged from a tough budget and some racially charged dustups largely unscathed.

Some members of the City Council have been critical at times, but they haven't openly rebelled. Some of his former allies, including Conway, have cooled to him but have kept their anger in check.

Union leaders, social activists and a few black leaders have taken their shots at the mayor, but the rhetoric doesn't seem to have had much effect in community halls and churches, where O'Malley tends to be well-received.

If O'Malley's broad public support is cracking, as some critics claim, the fault lines have yet to become obvious.

Some critics say that's partly because of positive news coverage - he's popular, so leaders praise him, and the news media treat him kindly, ensuring that he stays popular, and so on.

Flaws `hard to gauge'

"It's hard to gauge [his flaws] unless there's a very vigilant media, and right now the media is happy with the mayor," Pica says.

O'Malley rejects the notion that he has received favorable coverage. He says he needs to do a better job of promoting his administration's accomplishments.

Perhaps to that end, he held a news conference last week to tick off accomplishments he claims for his first two years, including the decline in crime and drugs.

Among the successes he noted are increased trash collection; a more intense effort to attack police corruption; better enforcement of lead-paint laws; a rise in minority contracting; CitiStat, which is being studied by other cities in the nation; and increases in employment, home sales, home sale prices and downtown property values.

He acknowledges that more must be done, saying, "We're not where we need to be. We're not where we want to be." But he says the administration has the right approach. That's why his goal for next year is "more of the same," he says.

The job of mayor might become still more difficult next year.

The issue of crime in Baltimore never seems to go away, and the late-year surge in homicides - nearly one a day for the past couple of months - has gotten to O'Malley at times, just as the job can get to him.

"Sometimes, at the end of the day it gets to you. You get tired, like everybody," O'Malley says. "It's like pushing a car up a hill, though. You can never relent. Every day, you've got to keep pushing the car up the hill, because if you don't, the gravity will just pull it backward and run you over."

Then there's the relentless criticism from some of his old foes.

Last week, it was Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), members of which disrupted a Board of Estimates meeting with protests that the mayor had broken a campaign promise to fund one of its programs.

Last month, it was state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat who took a jab at O'Malley for his terrorism security spending, saying Osama bin Laden wasn't lurking in the city. O'Malley and his aides think some critics want to appease Townsend, the presumed front-runner in the governor's race, or are spurred on by her supporters to undermine his popularity.

Whatever the circumstances, O'Malley acknowledged in an interview this year that with time, his popularity as mayor will inevitably erode.

"I suppose every day I'm in office I lose support," O'Malley said. "With every decision you make as mayor, the longer you're in, the more people you lose, both black and white."

`A tap dance'

So, might his third year as mayor be his last, with Annapolis in his sights?

O'Malley says the definitive word on whether he'll run for governor will have to wait until at least spring, after the 90-day legislative session, and possibly as late as summer. When he ran for mayor in 1999, he didn't announce his candidacy until late June, two weeks before the filing deadline.

Last week, O'Malley teased reporters asking him about the gubernatorial race and wouldn't promise that he'd serve out his five-year term.

"I plan to serve out today and tomorrow and next week. I'm going to do the best job I possibly can every single day that I'm here. How's that for a tap dance?" he said. "I like this job. I think I'm only now starting to get good at it."