SHORTLY AFTER Martin OMalley was elected mayor, he opened the desk drawer in his office and discovered a note from his predecessor, Kurt L. Schmoke.
The note said: Please remember the truth set forward in Psalm 127: Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.'"
OMalley was puzzled and perplexed by Schmokes message, with its deep, foreboding overtones. Baltimores new mayor prefers a more optimistic message: God helps those who help themselves.
The mayors office has changed since this former councilman took over in December. Sunshine pours through office windows that Schmoke kept shuttered, and music plays softly in the background as OMalley goes about the business of being mayor.
While Schmoke was stiff and formal, OMalley is loose and candid. Baltimores new mayor clearly enjoys the Robert Kennedy look -- shirt collar unbuttoned, tie pulled loose and shirt sleeves rolled up.
Recently, OMalley rankled members of Marylands judiciary by urging state lawmakers to withhold almost $9 million in state funding for the city courts until the judges cooperate more on reform efforts.
In the late afternoon of a grueling work day filled with meetings and city business, OMalley spoke with Perspective Editor Mike Adams about the mayors crusade to make the city safer and about how being mayor has changed his life.
Look five years into the future. Your first term has ended. What will people say about you? What would you want them to say?
I'd want them to say I tackled problems head on, that I did not sugarcoat anything, that I told people the truth and that I woke up the city and got us to face our biggest problem, which is the double standard of justice that exists around drug trafficking, these open-air drug markets and the death and the violence that is bringing us down as a people and a city.
I hope that five years from now, people will look back on my administration and say thats when we came together as a city and turned it around and started growing again. And it all began with recognizing that 300 homicides a year is not acceptable.
Recently, I spoke to one of the top Democrats in the mayors race, and hes convinced that he lost because city residents -- black and white -- were fed up with Kurt Schmoke and did not want to elect another black mayor. Do you think thats an accurate assessment?
No, I dont think thats an accurate assessment. I dont think people were making their decision in this last election based primarily on race or skin color.
I think what people wanted was a change, and I think people wanted a candidate who could articulate a message of change and reform that held public safety up as the No. 1 target.
I think people were looking for a change from the last 12 years. But I dont think it was primarily race based. I think that if perhaps one of the other candidates had been articulating that message of change and reform, there would not have been enough oxygen for my candidacy that late in the game. But the fact is, neither of them was.
What do you see as the problem with 12 years of Kurt Schmoke
I think we had a real self-defeating attitude toward public safety and what law enforcement and human beings can do about public safety. In high school, the Jesuits taught me that expectations become behavior. We were expected not to be able to do anything about drug violence until drugs were legalized. And we failed, because we were expecting to fail.
Mayor Schmoke and his wife could not have been kinder to me and Katie [OMalleys wife] during the whole transition process. We had some knockdown drag-outs [when OMalley was a councilman], but he was always a gentleman, and I have a great deal of respect for him, and I think he believes sincerely that when he started advocating for medicalization or decriminalization or whatever it was, I think he believed sincerely that that was the way to go. But as New York, and Boston and New Orleans started showing [with tougher policing], that wasnt the way to go, but we just couldnt let go of that.
I think we stuck too doggedly to [drug decriminalization], and it made us miss the economic wave that was lifting every other city in recent years.
I think [Schmoke] had a limited view of what government was capable of accomplishing.
Recently, you urged legislators to withhold money for the city courts until judges unclog what you call a dysfunctional system. What, if any, reaction have you gotten?
People are totally with me -- and the judges are coming around. [The interview occurred before OMalley and Chief Judge Martha F. Rasin exchanged harsh words over how to fix the citys beleaguered justice system.] Weve had a fair amount of progress in this last year on this criminal justice reform issue. Weve had more progress in the last year than weve had in the last 10 years, probably. And we had more progress in the seven days leading up to that hearing than we had in the last year. I served notice that Im not going to be pulling the rug out from under our Police Department, telling them that they need to back off because the courts are clogged with cases.
There is a constitutional, fair and just way to deal with large numbers of cases. And the judges have been resisting those changes for three years. What were advocating is to simply have the judges operate an arraignment court over at Central Booking so that we can shake out half of these cases that wind up getting pled out anyway, so that we can shake them out with fair dispositions, so our state courts have more room on the dockets so they can focus on the repeat violent offenses and the gun offenses.
Our new Police Department is going to be putting together packets on every gun case right at intake so that the prosecutor has the certified records that they need to make the demand for minimum mandatory sentences.
Were also turning over the charging function to the states attorney so that she can be involved right up front.
I think the greatest evidence of the dysfunction came last spring when the legislature first held up the funds when a couple of people accused of murder went gleefully skipping across Calvert Street, because our affectionate and compassionate system could not find time to try their case.
I didnt get elected to make friends with judges, I got elected to save lives and reduce homicides and to restore some justice to this city on a whole range of issues.
New Yorks vigorous brand of policing works because the cases are processed quickly. What you want to do here, have a very efficient police department, wont work without streamlining the courts, correct?
In Baltimore City, serious cases crumble over time. The defense bar knows that if you want to do whats in your clients best interest in Baltimore City, you drag out the case as long as possible, and it crumbles under its own weight. We can arrest and arrest and arrest, but if theyre not going to focus on that repeat number of violent offenders, were not going to show results.
Describe a typical day in the life of Mayor Martin OMalley?
We havent settled into the typical yet. Its not unusual for me to have eight, 10, 12 meetings during the course of a day, a press conference or press announcement or something, a ton of phone calls to return, and a ton of paper that I never seem to get through.
Today, I had a meeting with the city solicitor and others at 8: 15 [a.m.] before the Board of Estimates meeting. Then there was an impromtu press conference after the meeting. Then there were four or five people who each wanted to speak to me for one minute, so after that, a half-hour was done -- thats how long it took to speak to the people who just wanted one minute. Then I walked to a senior staff meeting, and after that there were other meetings.
How has your personal life changed since you became mayor?
Time management has become really, really difficult. It wasnt easy before. Im still learning this job.
I remember when I was first elected to the council, it took me about a year to figure out which things I needed to attend to be really effective and which things I really did not need to attend. Im struggling with that balance right now.
It has also changed my life because there is no more anonymity. Just going to the grocery store takes twice the time, even walking down the street takes twice the time. Just getting out of the convenience store with a cup of coffee for the road takes twice as long. Everything takes more time.
Theres a degree of anonymity as a council person. Just walking from point A to point B, you rarely get stopped as a council person. You get stopped every 10 feet when youre mayor. . . .
Obviously, as mayor, you have less time to spend with your family.
Yeah, my poor family is getting short shrift right now, and I need to find a way to fix that. Im not doing too well on that score right now, and home is not happy. My kids [Grace, Tara and William] are 8 and 7 and 2, and for them there is no distinction between quality time and nonquality time; its just time. And time equals love, and if youre not there, its because you care about other things. . . .
Has the job brought you any unexpected joys or frustrations?
The unexpected frustration has been how many of my closest friends feel like I have forgotten about them.
Its an interesting phenomenon. If you dont stay in touch with your closest friends, they start to imagine that somehow youve grown closer to other people. Youre far more suspect after being elected to an important political position like this. People start to question things, and they see subplots and ulterior motives in the absence of communication.
I was expessing that frustration to [William Donald] Schaefer, and he said, You know, you dont have time to stay in touch with all of them, with all your friends -- and you never will. And I said, Yeah, I know.And he said, Yeah, but youve got to find the time or make the time to do it. . . .
Unexpected joys? I run into them all the time with people coming up to me on the streets or sending me kind letters.
A lot of people have a lot of hopes pinned on this administration in terms of turning the city around, especially some of our harder-hit neighborhoods.
So, in the times when youre feeling like the world is in your way, and nobody is with you, just when you feel that way, someone, a little old lady, will come up and tap you on the shoulder and say, Im so glad youre mayor, or something like that.
You seem to enjoy people.
Yeah, I do. Its a funny thing, Im a bit of an introvert, but I really do enjoy people, and I dont run away from a crowd. But Im also happy by myself just plucking away at a guitar, too.
Theres a tremendous energy in the city.
Truthfully, there are times when I dont feel like going out. Theres nothing more Id enjoy than going home instead of to a speaking thing, but when I do go out, there is a certain energy that pumps you up and makes you realize that there are a lot of people who want to help you.
Do you feel that energy when youre speaking?
Oh, yes, definitely. Each audience has its own personality.
How much of you is shaped by your Roman Catholic upbringing?
Whos to sort it out? Its all kind of one and the same -- family, faith, church and school. It was all sort of one and the same, part of an integrated system that I grew up in. I think it had a big impact. One of the things the Jesuits drummed into your head is that you have to be a man for others.
What really determines whether one has made the most of their relatively short time on the planet is how many other lives theyve touched and what youve done for other people.
Are you guided by a set of principles that make you who you are?
I hope so. A friend of mine said, just when I was starting to skirt around the edge of this pool before jumping in, I said to him, Im thinking very seriously about running for mayor, and he said, Make sure you spend some time alone, so you can sort out your convictions from your ambitions. Because when the going gets rough, its not your ambition thats going to sustain you. It will be your convictions. And it was good advice.
I believe very firmly that one person can make a difference. And I believe that each of us has an obligation to try. And I think that all of us have a lot to give.