Victory raises pressure, stakes for mayor


The day after his victory in the mayoral primary four years ago, Martin O'Malley was stopped at the Inner Harbor by a woman clutching a baby who immediately let him know he was in a tough town and facing intense pressure.

"She walked up to me and said, 'O'Malley, I voted for you, and now I'm going to hold you accountable,'" he recalled, describing how the mother formed her hand into the shape of a gun and pointed it at his forehead.

"I guess that's what voters should do, hold you accountable," O'Malley said yesterday, laughing at his first brush with high expectations as the city's chief executive.

Four years later, O'Malley has a gun up to his head again after winning the Democratic mayoral primary Tuesday. He faces a probable second term knowing that his record will be even more intensely scrutinized because many expect him to challenge Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2006.

The way O'Malley sees it, the growing speculation about his aspirations will help by pressuring him to produce concrete improvements on the streets of Baltimore so he'll have a record to run on. Schools, blight, crime, drug treatment - they're all at the top of his agenda.

"I think it's a happy coincidence for the voters to know that I'm under this pressure to produce. I don't think it bothers them in the least," said O'Malley. "I've got to produce in order to survive. That's the way it should be, right?"

During a wide-ranging interview over a paper cup of coffee in his office yesterday, O'Malley seemed exhausted and exhilarated by his victory. He now faces Republican challenger Elbert R. Henderson in the general election Nov. 2, 2004, although few think O'Malley will lose because Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to 1 in the city.

"I really need a nap," said O'Malley, 40, who has four children and is married to District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley. "It's been brutal on the family, brutal for Katie, with the late nights and the early mornings."

As he reflected on his sometimes emotionally grueling first four years in office, he also laid out his priorities for his second term.

He said he wants a stronger hand in running the city's schools so that he can encourage tighter financial controls. He believes he can achieve this now that a majority of the nine school board members are his co-appointments and because, he said, he has the increased cooperation of a new interim schools chief.

O'Malley said he intends to demolish more abandoned homes so the properties can be marketed to developers. And the city's police department, under Commissioner Kevin P. Clark, will increase its focus on the dismantling of drug gangs as O'Malley strives to continue his expansion of drug treatment programs.

But some warn that he's unlikely to be successful with his agenda if he's driving around the state over the next three years, trying to build support for a gubernatorial run in 2006.

"It's a distraction," said state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a former mayor and governor. "He should spend more time worrying about the people of the city. Things like potholes that directly affect people. He should spend more time in the neighborhoods and at community meetings.

"He has not done that," said Schaefer. "But he won't listen to me. If I say it's Tuesday, he says it's Wednesday."

O'Malley's margin of victory Tuesday - capturing 66 percent of the vote to 32 percent for challenger Andrey Bundley - was the largest in a city mayoral primary in 20 years. The margin was wider than any achieved by former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who served from 1987 to 1999, but not as high as those enjoyed by Schaefer, who won 89 percent of the primary vote in 1975, 72 percent in 1983 and 69 percent in 1979.

Another former mayor, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, who served from 1967 to 1971, said O'Malley's overwhelming victory yesterday shows that he's on the right track and doesn't have to change anything.

"I feel that the vote yesterday was a vote of confidence in his leadership and an endorsement of his priorities - crime, education and economic development," said D'Alesandro.

State Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said of O'Malley: "He just needs to stay focused, which he is. I'm pleased that the things that he has been doing have generally proven to work."

O'Malley reflected on the most difficult and rewarding moments of his first term.

Although the public didn't know about it, O'Malley said, he at times doubted that he could handle the job when he first took office as a 36-year-old lawyer.

This anxiety grew when his first police commissioner, Ronald L. Daniel, resigned in March 2000 after only 57 days in office after a disagreement over crime-fighting strategies. Daniel was replaced by Edward T. Norris, who resigned in December and was replaced by Clark.

"Early on, there was a lot of self-doubt. And a lot of prayerful, lonely moments at that desk," O'Malley said, glancing toward an oil painting of a bullet-riddled Irish-American Union captain named Patrick Clooney waving his fist and charging into a storm of bullets at the Battle of Antietam.

"That was my most humbling, introspective moment. But it was not the hardest moment," O'Malley said.

That came in October. In the midst of O'Malley's campaign to encourage residents to report drug dealers to police, Angela Dawson, her husband and five children died in an East Baltimore fire that police believe was set to punish the family for reporting drug dealers.

O'Malley's eyes reddened and tears welled up as he described trying to cope with the Dawson children's funeral.

"The hardest moment of this administration was going to March Funeral Home and filing by five tiny caskets," O'Malley said. "But the Dawson loss just strengthened my resolve. The tragedy was our Alamo, it was not our Waterloo."

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the mayor said he has felt the most joy visiting city schools and being mobbed in the hallways by children.

And he said he's overjoyed that preliminary returns tallied by his campaign suggest he captured more than 50 percent of the African-American vote Tuesday, which is significantly more than the roughly 33 percent he captured four years ago. Election officials have not released a detailed breakdown of the vote.

"I think it says a great deal about the fairness and the optimism of the people of Baltimore, black and white," O'Malley said. "I think it was a real testament to our country's progress toward the realization of Dr. King's dream."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad