Honeymoon with mayor: Council says, 'Yes, dear'


Leaving the final City Council summer session last Monday night, East Baltimore Councilwoman Bea Gaddy was accosted by a protestor who accused her of being a "rubber stamp" for Mayor Martin O'Malley's initiatives.

And anyone who has followed the council for the past seven months knows that Gaddy and her 18 colleagues might have difficulty arguing to the contrary.

The council unanimously supported O'Malley's nominee for police commissioner despite some vocal opposition. It gave his five new deputy mayors six-figure salaries. With little fight, it let him close five fire stations across the city, over neighborhood and union protests.

And last week, the council interrupted its summer break to return at the urging of O'Malley, himself a two-term councilman, to approve creation of a new Baltimore City Parking Authority, which was high on his list of priorities.

"Cozy," said Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association, describing the relationship. "There's no question about it, he's one of them, and it's been a long time since they had one of their own as mayor."

The success is particularly stark compared with relationships between the council and two of the mayor's predecessors, Kurt L. Schmoke and William Donald Schaefer. Both men faced regular challenges by presidents of the City Council during their tenures.

City Hall watchers say O'Malley is still on a "honeymoon" with the council and has prolonged it by going out of his way to provide access and share the ribbon-cutting spotlight with members.

"When he has lunch with the council, he gives them whatever time is necessary to hear their views," said Ronald L. Schultz, director of the city Office of Council Services.

"If 2 o'clock arrives and they need another half-hour, he wrecks his schedule, and that goes a long way," Schultz said.

Anthony W. McCarthy, chief of staff for City Council President Sheila Dixon, agrees. Unlike Schmoke, who never served on the City Council, O'Malley is able to negotiate council issues knowing the reaction members face in their districts, he said.

"It helps to have a mayor that came from City Council," McCarthy said. "He takes the opportunity to make the council members feel that their input is valuable."

Working together

Much of that good will is because of Dixon's pledge to work with O'Malley. As a West Baltimore councilwoman, she watched Schmoke regularly battle with former Council Presidents Mary Pat Clarke and Lawrence A. Bell III, resulting in less being accomplished.

So long as O'Malley initiatives are good for the city, Dixon said, council members will continue their support.

"We didn't agree on the fire stations, but we sat down," Dixon said of O'Malley. "People come up to me and say that they like the fact that we're working as a team."

Clarke, council president during Schmoke's first two terms, said residents shouldn't be surprised by the current warmth between the traditionally opposing government branches. Schmoke also had a short honeymoon after he was elected in 1987, she said.

"A honeymoon is very normal after the election of a new mayor," said Clarke, who is now teaching at Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute. "You have to get the city going."

Yet Clarke and others agree that O'Malley has had that grace period extended because council members are fully aware that he won every council district in last year's primary and general elections.

"The council can count votes, too," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. "He's still early in his term and has turned out to be surprisingly popular."

Added Clarke: "Some people have a weekend honeymoon and others have a cruise. He is on a cruise."

Gaddy, a first-term council member, joins colleagues in offering no apologies for supporting O'Malley.

"He's a people person and I like him," she said. "I have to work with the person who is doing something. I want to be with the person who is taking us up on the roller coaster."

But the question remains: How long will the good will last?

City Real Estate Officer Anthony J. Ambridge, who represented East Baltimore on the council for 13 years, calls O'Malley's first veto last week - of a bill to establish a Hampden parking lot - a developing crack in his council relationship. The council overwhelmingly had backed the parking lot.

"It's hard to build that trust, but easy to lose it. A council member has to be loyal to their constituents," Ambridge said.

"Council members aren't going to fall on the sword often," he said.

West Baltimore Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. represents Hampden, which in addition to not getting its parking lot is one of seven city neighborhoods that will be affected by the fire station changes beginning tomorrow, when it loses a fire engine.

Despite facing resident complaints over the mayor's decisions, Mitchell said he appreciates O'Malley's striving to keep communicating on such matters.

He recalled a recent night when he walked over to find O'Malley still in the office. The mayor welcomed him in and the two talked out budget worries, Mitchell said.

"We drank a beer and went over the budget," Mitchell said. "Here's the mayor of Baltimore being a regular guy. I don't think the trappings of office have affected him."

With Baltimore's strong executive government in which the mayor controls the budget, departments and the Board of Estimates spending board, council members have little choice but to try to get along, said Fugate, of the fire officers union.

"If you're not getting along with the mayor, you're not going to be an effective council person," Fugate said.

Benefit of the doubt

For his part, O'Malley understands that the council will give him leeway to get his agenda running but that the length of the leash will rely on results.

"We're all elected by the same people," he said. "I think early on, there is a definitely a deference to letting the administration get its agenda rolling. Just like everybody else, they're giving the administration the benefit of the doubt."

Council members such as Dixon agree that unless city problems improve, the good will between O'Malley and council could quickly evaporate.

"You can't win for losing," Clarke said. "If you agree with the mayor, you're a rubber stamp. If you don't, you're a troublemaker."

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