Mayor steers a path through his first crisis; O'Malley receives applause in handling Daniel's resignation


After his police commissioner abruptly quit a week and a half ago, Mayor Martin O'Malley's supporters found the usually brash, confident mayor uncharacteristically somber.

His ordinarily festive City Hall office seemed more like a funeral parlor. "He was visibly shaken," said West Baltimore Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh.

But by last Monday, O'Malley had begun doing what helped him beat 27 other mayoral candidates last summer: campaigning. A whirlwind of private and public meetings with supporters and critics -- wrapped around the potentially divisive appointment of Edward T. Norris as the new commissioner -- helped O'Malley navigate the first crisis of his new administration last week.

That's not to say that O'Malley was not deeply stung -- and possibly politically scarred -- by Ronald L. Daniel's departure. Daniel was O'Malley's first Cabinet pick and one that the mayor last December called the "biggest decision" of his life.

And O'Malley's success lasts only until the next crisis, particularly if it involves a police shooting of an unarmed suspect, as has happened three times over the last 13 months in New York City, where Norris worked until earlier this year as a deputy police commissioner. That tenuousness is a clear signal that the damage done by Daniel's resignation officially ended the mayor's honeymoon period.

"The first time a police shooting happens, especially if the victim is African-American and it's conducted by a white police officer, that's when there could be trouble," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor.

For now, observers say, the mayor appears to be succeeding -- not only by talking, but listening.

"Any change is going to cause a ripple," said city Republican Party President Victor Clark, a member of the city Community Relations Commission. But "a good level of activity has made people feel comfortable that he is at least doing something."

O'Malley moved quickly to shore up his support among City Council members. At a two-hour luncheon Tuesday, the mayor allowed his former colleagues to vent over the tough political position Daniel's departure left them in. The resignation put pressure on council members from predominantly African-American districts where residents are wary of the "zero tolerance" crime-fighting approach O'Malley plans to employ.

Behind the closed doors of the mayor's conference room, O'Malley talked to a 19-member group that could have become his biggest political hurdle. He brought them into the crisis by asking them to stand with him on his choice of Norris and to be leaders in their community.

"He defied gravity, he fell up," City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who with 23 years is the the longest-serving member of the council, said of O'Malley. "The fact that he said, 'Stay focused, it's about lives, it's about a clean city,' convinced us."

Monday evening O'Malley had traveled to Annapolis with Norris in tow to meet with the city's legislative delegation. There he convinced the predominantly black delegation to trust him.

"I knew when I supported this man that he was [then] 36 years old, had never managed anything beyond his law practice and his home and his household budget and had extraordinary political skills with a very open mind," House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawling said. "I knew the realities of youth were going to intersect with the realities of governing."

"The mayor is impatient, he has very high expectations," Rawlings added. "I think most people, rightly, perceive him as a fair-minded person."

By Tuesday morning, O'Malley took what many considered his most risky, yet strongest response to the crisis, by participating in "The Larry Young Show" morning radio program. The former state senator has become one of O'Malley's most vocal critics over the Daniel resignation. Yet even Young ended the week crediting O'Malley with being "a master" communicator.

"Going on 'The Larry Young Show' was brilliant," said Fred Siegel, an urban affairs expert with the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

The campaign, however, was far from over. On Tuesday afternoon, O'Malley introduced Norris to the media. At midnight, he showed up unexpectedly at roll call in the Northern District to speak with the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift members before they hit the streets, asking them to hang with him through the turbulent times.

On Wednesday, O'Malley took his pitch to residents at a community forum at Edmondson Vo-Tech High School. The meeting -- slated to run from 6: 30 p.m. to 9: 30 p.m. -- spilled over to well past midnight as O'Malley stayed to listen to the 80 or so people who asked to speak.

"It went so long that the last participants came up to the microphone and said, 'Good morning, Mr. Mayor,' " O'Malley said, chuckling.

On Thursday, O'Malley took his show to Capitol Hill, meeting with members of the state's congressional delegation. To aides, including Norris, the week was grueling. But one O'Malley adviser said the mayor feeds on the interaction, getting stronger with each exchange.

"This isn't rhetoric," O'Malley said, explaining himself at his weekly press conference on Thursday. "People in this city are fair, people in this city are smart and I don't think people give them enough credit.

"Part of it is just the importance of the mission," O'Malley said. "A lot of [people's] life and death depends on this."

Six weeks ago, when city residents were singing O'Malley's praises for bringing energy, confidence and urgency to city government, former Mayor and Gov. William Donald Schaefer said the real test for O'Malley would be handling his first crisis.

O'Malley has passed in the eyes of Wilhelmina Vaughan, who knows firsthand the problem of crime.

"I'm not going to agree with everything he does and he's a very young man, he's going to make mistakes," said Vaughan, a retired West Baltimore schoolteacher and O'Malley supporter whose daughter was killed several years ago. "[But] I don't care if the police commissioner is from Mars, Pluto or Timbuktu as long as he gets the job done."

In looking back over the week, O'Malley said the words of former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke echoed in his head. Before he left office, Schmoke told his young successor that the chief mistake of his administration was his failure to get out and let the people know the city's plans.

"The former mayor told me, 'Make sure you talk a lot about what you're going to do,' " O'Malley said. "Secrecy breeds suspicion and the mistake we're not going to make is failing to communicate."

Pub Date: 4/09/00

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