O'Malley strikes a chord on drugs, violence


Martin O'Malley's huge victory is a measure of how tired, how angry, how fed up Baltimoreans have become with drugs and killings -- the cancerous stuff at the city's core. Black and white, we voted for someone with energy and drive, and we seem to believe that energy and drive should be focused, for starters, on eradicating the violent drug commerce that brought Baltimore national notoriety.

O'Malley grabbed this issue right out of the gate.

Last night, an hour before the polls closed on one of the most stunning mayoral elections in the history of Baltimore, I stopped for the traffic light at the corner of Harford Road and the Alameda. That's where, in June, O'Malley had laid claim to the issue that would catapult him to victory.

One night, O'Malley claimed, someone had approached him and his brother, Peter, at the same traffic light about buying drugs. The next day, under the faded "Drug Free Zone" sign on the corner, he announced his candidacy.

Last night, under the same sign, men and women talked, laughed and strolled under the trees. There was an "O'Malley For Mayor" sign on the fifth house from the corner, across from Clifton Park.

"The opposing forces of hope and despair cannot exist on the same corner," O'Malley had said in June, pledging to wipe out the city's 10 hottest drug corners in his first six months in office.

"I think the working families of this city -- both black and white -- are hungry for change."

At times -- many times -- he sounded like he was running for state's attorney. But that's OK, for starters.

O'Malley said drug dealing and related violence would not be tolerated in Roland Park, so it should not be tolerated anywhere else. That resonated with voters. Even Carl Stokes' grandmother, in all those radio commercials, sounded as though she was ready for a mayor who would get tough on drug dealers and violent criminals.

Voters were ready for a mayor who would act fast on crime, for starters.

"It shouldn't be about race," Carietta Hiers-Garrison, a labor organizer who worked for O'Malley in Harford Heights, said yesterday. "We've had an African-American mayor for 12 years, and it hasn't made any difference. You really want to feel safe again."

It was the plight of children that moved Sam Snowden to O'Malley. Yesterday, he was working for O'Malley at a precinct on Monument Street, near Old Towne Mall.

"When I read about women who have to put their children in bathtubs to protect them from stray bullets, when little kids in school draw pictures of crosses and caskets, I am moved," he said. "I've had a pretty fair life and I think it's important to give back."

Snowden mentioned two children, in particular.

One was James Smith. You will remember him if I mention two things: Gunfight. Barber shop.

It was a winter day in 1997. James was in a Southwest Baltimore barbershop called Fresh Cuttz. He was there to get a birthday haircut. He was 3 years old. A gunfight broke out in the barbershop. A dozen shots were fired into a crowd of customers. James was killed. He was the fifth homicide victim of 1997; he died on the third day of the year. There had been 300 or more homicides in each of the previous six years. That's an epoch of violence.

The other child Snowden mentioned was killed by a stray bullet near North Avenue, in an area known for drug activity. "I drove up there," said Snowden, "and there's more drug dealing going on there now than before the girl was shot."

Snowden retired from a management position with the U.S. Postal Service in 1992. He grew up in West Baltimore but lives in Northeast Baltimore. That's a good part of town, and he knows it. It doesn't have drug dealing and decay on the scale you see across acres of the old inner city.

"But all this violence, the drug dealing, it's a cancer," he said. "At Johns Hopkins, they can treat a cancer and stop it from spreading. If we don't do something [about drugs and homicides] it'll spread all over."

O'Malley has been Snowden's councilman, but Snowden had never worked for him before. In fact, he had worked in other elections with Julius Henson, the now-discredited political consultant who this year, while on Lawrence Bell's payroll, orchestrated that obnoxious "counter-rally" against O'Malley in early August. Snowden attended that rally; he'd already chosen a candidate, and it didn't matter that the candidate was a white man.

As long as that white man was going to take up for the children who live in neighborhoods where drug dealers are a menace.

Pub Date: 9/15/99

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