O'Malley can go long way in city with long way to go; ELECTION 1999

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MEMO TO THE O Man: We didn't vote for a city manager yesterday. We voted for a mayor. The subject is leadership. That's what we want from you, Martin O'Malley -- that thing called leadership. And energy. And enthusiasm. And confidence (not arrogance). And courage. All those grandiose-sounding things they write about in those dare-to-be-great self-help books. We don't need a policy wonk. We don't need a tinkerer. We need a big-picture guy with the common touch.

We need someone with passion, for a change.

The new mayor could get angry once in a while, too. It would be appreciated.

Martin O'Malley has a lot going for him -- starting with the fact he doesn't have a hard act to follow. Let's face it. Replacing Kurt Schmoke as mayor is not exactly like replacing Cal Ripken at third. Everywhere I go in this town, all kinds of people express an anxiousness to get on with projects and improvements, to see the city move forward, led by a mayor with some vigor and daring.

Can we have the Second Baltimore Renaissance now?

It's about a decade overdue.

Then again, it's already happening -- sort of. Which is another thing O'Malley has going for him. Time magazine this summer described a declining, dysfunctional and drug-addicted city, leaving all the good stuff out. That's not some warmed-over William Donald Schaefer Baltimore-is-Best bunk. That's the truth. There are a lot of good things happening in pockets of this city. Even crime is falling.

It's not like O'Malley is rebuilding Dresden.

But there's a lot of work to do -- huge, daunting stuff -- and it would be nice if the mayor got involved in it, for a change. O'Malley frequently allows himself to be photographed with shirt sleeves rolled up and tie askew. That's a good image. Keep it.

Speaking of image, did I mention that it would be nice if the mayor had one? If O'Malley doesn't want to dress up in silly outfits -- as a certain former mayor once did -- that's fine with me. But O'Malley shouldn't be afraid of doing some symbolic things to pump up community spirits. He has the charisma to pull it off. A mayor has to be a cheerleader. I'd like to see him launch some civic crusades like the ones we used to have during the Schaefer years -- Trash Bash and others we ridiculed as corny but knew were important to a city's self-image. I think I heard O'Malley say something about Baltimore being the best city in America. I hope he keeps saying that. Maybe we'll believe it again.

Another thing O'Malley has going for him: He didn't parachute into Baltimore politics. He had two terms as a city councilman and got to hear a lot of citizen complaints along the way. Just yesterday, one of his constituents in Northeast Baltimore told me what a swell job O'Malley did getting rid of rats in her neighborhood a few years ago.

As he goes citywide, O'Malley needs to trust his street-level political instincts. To keep them sharp, he needs to stay plugged in. He needs to keep listening -- and not just to an inner circle. He should attend a different community meeting every week, with members of the City Council. He should ask a radio station in the city -- maybe WJHU or WOLB -- to give him an hour a week to field calls from constituents.

Strategy?

O'Malley has a plan to rid the streets of drug dealers. Fine. But he should also maintain the city's commitment to helping addicts end the demand that creates the supply that creates the crime.

Here's another strategy for neighborhoods: Get a map. Put it on a wall in your office. On the map identify city neighborhoods by these descriptions: stable, stressed and under siege.

After you finish gulping, keep your courage, then do what needs to be done. You need to assure stable neighborhoods that they'll stay that way. You -- that means the mayor's office, the Police Department, housing officials, the public works guys, the local school principal -- need to help the stressed become stable, and you need to move the under siege up a peg. It can be done, block by block.

Look at what the Patterson Park Community Development Corp. is doing in East Baltimore, door to door, block by block, fixing up houses, moving stability ever so gradually north of East Baltimore Street. You don't launch an attack in the middle of a blighted neighborhood; you surround it, build toward it and eventually eliminate it.

The same could happen in the Barclay community. That's where a police officer shot Larry Hubbard a few weeks ago. That neighborhood appears to be right on the border of "stressed" and "under siege." Yesterday, I saw some little kid's school-made Halloween decorations in the window of a nice rowhouse right next to a rowhouse that was boarded up. There's life there; there's hope. A mayor can make a difference in a neighborhood like that. He can draw a line. He can say, "OK, no more abandonment here, no more demolition. This neighborhood is stressed, but we're taking it to stable."

O'Malley should take that pitch to Barclay as soon as possible.

Of course, a mayor can't do everything. That's where it gets tough -- where government action ends and citizen responsibility begins. Even William Donald Schaefer fought an endless battle against trash. Even he found community apathy depressing.

Over the weekend, in Barclay, volunteers cleaned a vacant lot at 20th Street and Guilford Avenue, landscaped it, and planted trees and shrubs. They did this with the help of the Greater Homewood Community Corp. Home Depot in Dundalk donated materials for wooden benches. The garden is a memorial to Barclay residents who were victims of violent crimes over the years. Thirty-seven people came out Saturday to build it. Half of the volunteers were kids, who seemed anxious to work on another project again soon.

It was a nice gesture, a spirit builder for a community.

By yesterday morning, there was trash in the garden. There were plenty of able-bodied men moving about, and none inclined to pick it up.

This is where I invoke the name of Schaefer again. Had he seen what I saw, he would have stopped his car and yelled for neighbors to pick up that trash before the kids who built the garden got home from school.

Yes, Schaefer was married to the city. And, yes, you'd be hard-pressed to identify a single neighborhood he did not try to help in some way -- a playground here, streetlights there. But ask anyone who had to deal with him: When loudmouth activists demanded that he do something, he might have offered to help, but he also would have demanded to know what the complainers were going to do.

It was WDS as JFK: "Ask not what your city can do for you, ask what you can do for your city."

O'Malley should go with that. He'll get results.

There are people everywhere in this town -- in community organizations, in volunteer groups, in business -- who are anxious to help move this city forward. They need to know the city supports them. They need to get their phone calls answered.

Another thing: The mayor should not surrender to the idea that the city is doomed to become smaller still, with less opportunity, fewer businesses. We don't want a mayor who assumes he has no say over whether a corporation stays in the city, or whether more families move to the suburbs. We don't need a guy who shrugs.

Did I mention the public schools?

Not much so far. But that doesn't mean they're not a priority for the next mayor. It only means I see them as generally separate from the rest of the mess O'Malley has to confront. He can't say the city and state are in partnership, and that accountability for the city schools is the state's business. Crime is an important issue -- O'Malley won with it -- but he can't take a walk on education. If we want to keep what's left of the middle class in this town, more people have to have faith in the public schools.

Martin O'Malley, young and full of enthusiasm, shouldn't tolerate mediocre schools, violent crimes, corners abandoned to drug dealers, poor people without shelter, trash-strewn streets, demolition of rowhouses for lack of a better idea, businesses and people leaving Baltimore because they can't make it or stand it here.

We've had enough of all that. That's what these final city elections of the 20th century were all about.

A mayor can make a difference.

Here's hoping this one will.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°