The delicious subplots of September await

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HE DOESN'T have Arnold's biceps (yet), but he's Baltimore's heavy lifter, the star of our own election carnival.

Unstoppable on the road to re-election, Mayor Martin O'Malley has nevertheless begun the sort of media campaign a candidate like Arnold Schwarzenegger needs to prevail in California's recall brawl, an all-comers affair complete with ladies' night and movie stars.

Mr. O'Malley's going to win big here in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary, though he may not be any more daring than Mr. Schwarzenegger, whose campaign so far has been marked by a refusal to answer questions. Maybe they have some controversial ideas, but ideas are dangerous and don't count as much as money and star power.

Wisely, Mayor O'Malley runs as if he had a real contest. He's on TV with expensive commercials. His backers are on the radio with pro-O'Malley spots. He's got a nifty, nimble slogan: "Because Better Isn't Good Enough." How do you lay a glove on that one? It undermines the charge that he hasn't solved all the problems he inherited. The murder rate is up, but he says violent crime is down more than in many other U.S. cities. So, there's your campaign.

It's not too consoling to find a secondary contest of comparable importance just below the surface.

Mr. O'Malley's running hard to establish himself as a pre-emptive candidate for governor of Maryland in 2006. He would like Montgomery County executive Doug M. Duncan to smell the O'Malley coffee early so he doesn't get in the way of fund raising. He would like to make Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. feel and look like a one-termer.

He will spend big because he would like to win big. Nothing personal. He wants to win by a margin, wider than any of his predecessors -- William Donald Schaefer in particular.

Mr. Schaefer, as always, forces the issue. He'd like to see Mr. O'Malley fail or stumble. The former mayor, now comptroller of Maryland, would like to see Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh win the race for City Council president because Ms. Pugh is running against Mr. O'Malley's candidate, the incumbent Council president, Sheila Dixon.

Mr. Schaefer would like to put political hurt on Mr. O'Malley because the guitar-playing, rock star mayor fails to show Mr. Schaefer the proper respect and, the former mayor thinks, Mr. O'Malley doesn't do the job with sufficient devotion.

But Mr. O'Malley's three-year record is not so shabby. He's implemented a new system of computerized accountability called CityStat, a computer-driven picture of pothole-filling and accountability directed at improving public works responses to Baltimore's needs.

He's been a national figure in the drive for properly equipped first responders should there be more bouts of terrorism. He's started a program to demolish 5,000 vacant houses and to restore the neighborhoods they are blighting. He's gone after the drug dealers. He's been impatient and sharply critical of those he finds guilty of poor performance or less than vigorous support of the drug war.

As for ideas, a few more would be welcome. Given the intense effort to drive drug sellers under ground -- which has not interrupted the parade of young offenders into prison or death -- the conversation ought to be directed toward some recognition that the drug war has been lost.

It won't happen because ideas like medicalization or decriminalization of drugs is like declaring opposition to public education. You could ask former mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who dared to suggest a new approach and never recovered politically. It's not the candidates' fault, entirely. The voters and the pundits are waiting to pounce if they're naive enough to try something risky.

But some are willing: "I would support medicalization of drugs," said 8th District Council candidate Beatrice Hawkins: "It's my observation that drug addiction starts out as a social event, and evolves into a dependency that perpetuates sickness, crime and despair. With tighter policing and heightened awareness for those that are trapped and really want out, medicalization might be a way of escape back to the real world."

At the mayoral level, though, only a perennial candidate like A. Robert Kaufman can espouse something other than strict law enforcement with impunity. The discussion he urges should be at the very center of this campaign.

It won't be. It's a political world in which muscle and money win out over ideas.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer and columnist for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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