On this, O'Malley and Dixon agree: Let's win

THE BALTIMORE SUN

During a boisterous rally at a steelworkers union hall last week, Mayor Martin O'Malley rolled up his sleeves and railed against the direction that the city's political leaders took the city in the 1990s, when federal officials began to identify Baltimore as the most drug-addicted city in America. O'Malley then raised the hand of City Council President Sheila Dixon, who was standing on stage next to him, and shouted that working people should vote for Dixon to be the city's No. 2 leader. That would make her his replacement if he runs for governor and wins in 2006.

As the steelworkers, plumbers and pipefitters roared their approval, what was not discussed was the irony of O'Malley's anointing of Dixon as the city's future boss. After all, Dixon is held accountable by some as one of the local political leaders responsible for the city's downward direction in the 1990s. She was former Mayor Kurt Schmoke's strongest ally on the council, while O'Malley was one of his most ferocious critics.

O'Malley and Dixon air-brush their differences today -- campaigning together and calling themselves "team Baltimore" -- but they remain diametrically opposed on the central change brought about by the O'Malley administration: drug enforcement.

Dixon keeps relatively quiet about the issue because she doesn't have the power to implement her vision of policing. But if she were mayor someday, she might return to a Schmoke-like philosophy of enforcement that favors "medicalization" -- meaning more medical treatment, but fewer arrests, of dealers and addicts. Ordering the arrests of small-time crack peddlers and junkies on street corners was O'Malley's first major action when he took office four years ago, and he went on to boost the number of drug arrests in the city by 66 percent, from 17,815 in 1999 to 29,653 in 2001.

The big picture here is that O'Malley is endorsing as his replacement someone who might reverse the policy for which he was selected by voters four years ago. And drug enforcement isn't the only area where he and Dixon differ. While O'Malley boasts about the success of his computerized 311 system for delivering city services, Dixon calls the 311 phone system a "total joke" and suggests that she might pull the plug. O'Malley says he's proud of his housing department and his Project 5000 initiative to take possession of 5,000 abandoned homes, but Dixon questions the success of the program and discusses overhauling the housing agency. On another level, O'Malley is a showman who enjoys media attention and favors open government. Dixon is an awkward public speaker who is suspicious of the press and who has been criticized for holding closed meetings.

Why would O'Malley push as his successor someone who is so vastly different from him? Ambition? O'Malley wants to be governor, Dixon wants to be mayor. Both know that they'll climb farther by using their political muscle to lift each other. They first joined forces a week before the 1999 Democratic primary, when O'Malley wanted the endorsement of Dixon's minister -- the Rev. Frank Reid, leader of the city's largest African-American congregation -- to help show voters in this majority black city that he had substantial black support.

Dixon, 49, also benefits from her odd-couple relationship with O'Malley. Although she is a political force in her own right -- with 16 years of experience and high name recognition -- she faced skepticism from some of the city's business leaders because of her reputation for stridency and combativeness. She also faced a near-mutiny on the City Council after she bungled the council's legislative maneuverings to try to evade a redistricting referendum that eliminated four of their $50,000-a- year jobs. But with O'Malley throwing his weight behind Dixon, many local business owners and 12 of 19 council members have suddenly lined up behind her, too, with all of them wary of crossing a popular mayor in a system that grants almost all of the municipal power to the executive branch.

What options does O'Malley have in the City Council president's race? He would never endorse Carl Stokes, who harshly criticized O'Malley during Stokes' failed campaigns for mayor in 1999 and this year. The mayor could consider another candidate. City Councilwoman Catherine Pugh, for example, has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police because officers worry that Dixon will cut the Police Department's budget after O'Malley boosted it by 24 percent. If O'Malley doubts Pugh's ability to win -- as some of O'Malley's supporters do -- the mayor could pull a non-endorsement-endorsement. That was how he wrapped the gift to former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend when she was running for governor: He hugged Townsend even as the tilt of his smile sent a message that undermined her campaign.

That's the cynical view -- the perspective that the most successful politicians often make the strangest bedfellows. John F. Kennedy, an idol of O'Malley's family as he was growing up, teamed, after all, with Lyndon B. Johnson, even though they were about as close as Texas and Massachusetts. Politics is all about coalitions, not ideology.

Another view is that Dixon and O'Malley have learned from the city's troubled history that Baltimore will make progress only if leaders of different backgrounds and philosophies work together to advance the city's interests.

One of the themes of O'Malley's campaign is "there is more that unites us than divides us." In this sense, he has built a partnership with someone from the opposite side of the fence to create enough support for reform. Even in the area of drug policy, O'Malley and Dixon have something important in common: Both have pushed for increased drug treatment. The number of addicts being treated annually in the city has grown by almost 60 percent during the four-year O'Malley/Dixon partnership, up to 25,337 last fiscal year, while the number of drug-related emergency room visits has fallen by 25 percent, according to federal statistics.

Some argue that it is this kind of teamwork that the city needs, no matter what the political theories of the officials at the top.

"Before Martin became mayor and I became president of the City Council, he and I were on two different sides," Dixon told the 400 union workers Tuesday night at the Steelworkers Local 9477 union hall on Dundalk Avenue.

"But when we were elected, we made an agreement that we would put aside the politics," Dixon said. "You have a true partnership in this city, and the progress that we've made will take us to the next level."

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