O'Malley's landslide is mandate for change; Transition: New mayor must shape his administration in five weeks before Dec. 8 inauguration.


YESTERDAY's landslide victory gives Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley an undisputable mandate for change. He now has to deliver, particularly on his pledge to quickly make Baltimore a less violent city.

In taking over a financially strapped and aging municipality, Mr. O'Malley faces a challenge that will test the limits of his energy and political skills. His self-imposed goal is to stop the flight of residents and businesses that has drained the city's tax base and economic viability.

He has certain advantages:

His resounding victory shows voters have faith in his ability to implement his campaign themes -- reform and inclusiveness.

In his impatience with crime and stagnation, he can make good use of strong African-American allies and advisers who range from state Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Howard P. Rawlings to the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of the influential Bethel AME Church.

In Annapolis, Mr. O'Malley benefits from good relations with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is his father-in-law.

Financial uncertainties

Mr. O'Malley confronts plenty of disadvantages as well.

He has to deal with a sizable projected budget deficit in a city where the declining population has already been taxed to the hilt. Meanwhile, he is obligated to honor certain spending commitments -- chiefly in education -- under "maintenance of effort" state laws.

As for Washington, federal policies and aid to cities are likely to change as a result of next year's presidential elections. Whatever happens will be beyond his control.

At home, he will be a white mayor in a city with an African-American majority. His motives, priorities and even-handedness in appointments will be questioned.

This has happened already. Several prominent black ministers, used to wielding influence under Mr. Schmoke, wasted no time in attacking Mr. O'Malley's commitment to zero-tolerance policing. The new mayor can either ignore the ministers, who campaigned against him, or try to win them over.

Sensitivity on trial

Overall, Mr. O'Malley's sensitivities will be on public trial as he implements the crackdown on crime. The harder police work against drug offenses and nuisance crimes, the greater the possibility of a backlash from families whose members are caught in police dragnets.

Mr. O'Malley has no time to waste before the Dec. 8 inauguration. In five weeks, the 36-year-old Mr. O'Malley has to find people he trusts to lead about 40 city agencies. He will undoubtedly keep some holdovers. But he has pledged to bring in his own appointees to key departments, including police, housing and public works. He also has to set priorities, assemble a personal staff and find volunteers to serve on boards and commissions.

The last time a change of this magnitude swept City Hall was in 1987, when Kurt L. Schmoke wanted to make a break with the practices of his predecessors -- Clarence "Du" Burns and William Donald Schaefer. Now it is his time to suffer political rejection as Mr. O'Malley jettisons vestiges of the past 12 years, including many of the 197 city officials who have served at Mr. Schmoke's pleasure.

As Mr. O'Malley starts putting his imprint on local government, he is lucky to be guided by a group of seasoned political advisers. They are headed by Richard O. Berndt, a former operative in the Schaefer City Hall whose law clients include the Catholic Archdio- * cese, and Joseph J. Haskins Jr., president of Harbor Bank of Maryland.

During the interregnum, transition task forces will focus on a dozen policy areas. Their members represent all segments of Baltimore. A lawyer who once was Mr. O'Malley's college roommate is among steering committee members. So are veterans of the Schaefer mayoral administration and doers from philanthropic endeavors.

Not too much should be made of several advisers' past links to Mr. Schaefer. It is true that some of them contributed to Mr. Schaefer's early successes as mayor and were also active in his gubernatorial campaigns. But these movers and shakers also worked for other Democratic politicians, ranging from Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell.

Ultimately, though, the decision making will fall on Mr. O'Malley, a former prosecutor and Celtic folk musician with two CDs among his credits.

Ambition, astuteness

In his public career, Mr. O'Malley has shown ambition, good timing and astuteness and an ability to deal with people with backgrounds different from his own.

The Montgomery County native burst onto the Baltimore political scene in 1990, when he challenged state Sen. John A. Pica Jr. He narrowly lost but was elected to the City Council in 1992. When Mr. Pica abruptly resigned five years later, Mr. O'Malley wisely did not seek the vacancy. Instead, he threw his support behind Joan Carter Conway, who became the first African-American woman to rise to the Senate from the racially mixed Northeast Baltimore district.

This year, Senator Conway's early support proved instrumental when Mr. O'Malley decided to run for mayor just days before the filing deadline. Although his late-starting campaign was initially given little chance to succeed, his zero-tolerance stand captured voters' attention, enabling Mr. O'Malley to overwhelmingly defeat his Democratic primary rivals. He had a focused message and good organization.

His new position will make Mr. O'Malley one of Maryland's most prominent Democrats. If he succeeds as Baltimore mayor, he could become a future contender for some other high office, a seat in the House of Representatives, perhaps, or U.S. Senate.

For now, though, he will have to prove that he can make Baltimore work. He has to be able to stop the continuing exodus of people fleeing crime, high taxes and poor schools and increase the city's regional competitiveness.

Mr. O'Malley must persuade Baltimoreans that their financial -- and emotional -- investments in the city are sound, secure and likely to appreciate. He has to be able to sell outside investors on Baltimore as a city of growth and promise, in which government policies are predictable, their administration is honest, the regulatory environment is welcoming and the delivery of high-quality services is predictable.

Many other troubled big cities have staged near-miraculous turnarounds. Voters have anointed Mr. O'Malley to provide the inspirational leadership of words and deeds that will enable Baltimore, too, to regain its status as a national and international powerhouse.

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