Floyd R. Blair, Baltimore's embattled Social Services Department head, strongly defended his credentials yesterday, suggesting that the law requiring management experience for his job should be ignored because similar rules have been used to discriminate against minorities in the past.
"As an African-American, laws have been used against us in the past to keep us out of certain positions. Couldn't even vote because of the law. Was that fair?" asked Blair, a 39-year-old lawyer appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on Sept. 3 as interim director of the 2,500-employee Baltimore Department of Social Services, which serves more than 50,000 children and adults.
"So I believe we need to take a hard look at that law and say, 'Is it valid in today's times?' Maybe that's the issue," Blair said. "But who am I? I am just a poor kid from the projects."
Mayor Martin O'Malley filed a lawsuit over Blair's appointment yesterday, asking a judge in Baltimore Circuit Court to remove Blair because he doesn't have the five years' experience required by law or the mayor's approval, also a requirement.
During a pair of dueling news conferences yesterday, Ehrlich defended his pick, and O'Malley said a more veteran administrator is needed to overhaul a dysfunctional system in which children die if their cases are not managed properly.
The mayor said Ehrlich refused to work with him to conduct a national search for a qualified manager, preferring a candidate such as Blair who is inexperienced and indebted to the governor so he won't complain about budget cuts.
"There are other candidates who are much better experienced who I believe could stand a much better shot at improving this department than the current director," O'Malley said. "Children have tragically been slipping through the cracks of this department, which is understaffed and in great need of tighter internal controls and better management."
O'Malley did not address the subject of Blair's race. But his aides noted that the last two directors of the department, Yvonne Gilchrist, who left in June, and Alvin Collins, were African-Americans and had the required experience.
Meanwhile, at an evening news conference on the front steps of the governor's mansion, Ehrlich called the lawsuit "unfortunate" and "counterproductive" and said he was pleased with Blair's performance.
The governor said he believed Blair met all the requirements of the law. The governor's attorney, Jervis S. Finney, said that because the appointment of an acting social services director is the governor's alone to make, O'Malley may not have legal standing to bring suit.
The choice of a permanent agency director requires the agreement of the governor and mayor. Although it was clear yesterday that O'Malley would not approve Blair, Ehrlich was not backing away from his pick. He vowed to fight the lawsuit and urged detractors to give his appointment a chance.
Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele suggested there were heavy political overtones to O'Malley's challenge. But they said it would be irresponsible to be distracted by bickering when the challenge of reforming a dysfunctional agency remained.
"Everybody wanted to start the 2006 [governor's] race last November, but we are talking about the most vulnerable people in society," Ehrlich said. "No one, not one person in the city, has come forward with a complaint about [Blair's] performance or his capacity to do the job.
"I would like to get back to the substance," Ehrlich said. "We're trying to do the job. I'm governor. My job is to perform and make sure the most vulnerable among us have appropriate protection. That has not been the case in Baltimore City, and we are here to correct it."
Steele said, "I just find this the height of hypocrisy for the mayor ... to engage in a form of behavior that is, quite frankly, not mayoral, but more bordering on something you'd see in high school."
During an interview at the department's offices at 1510 Guilford Ave. in Baltimore, Blair said he believes he is qualified for the job in important but unconventional ways. He may not have five years of management experience, but he said he completed some study toward a master's degree in public management at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Wearing an American flag pin on the lapel of his suit, Blair said that just as important is his inspirational life story, rising from poverty to work for President Bush for 17 months as an associate director of a faith-based social services initiative.
"I grew up on public aid in the public housing projects of Brooklyn, N.Y. And that experience taught me that one has to rely on oneself and on God every day," Blair said. "And to fight every single day, literally and figuratively, to get out of that poverty."
The department has a troubled history. This month, a group of child advocates issued a report complaining that the agency wasn't conducting criminal background checks on many foster parents and that caseloads of foster children are dangerously high.
Since starting his job, Blair said, he has taken several steps to make the department more efficient.
Blair said he's trying to streamline management, asking more than 300 supervisors to submit their resumes so he can decide who's necessary. Three supervisors have retired under Blair. About 300 vacant positions have been eliminated since a hiring freeze began in October 2001.
"There are about five layers between upper management and front-line workers, and we need to squeeze that down," Blair said.
Blair, who serves in the mayor's Cabinet, said he has attended only one Cabinet meeting, receiving a chilly reception from O'Malley.
After sitting through most of the Oct. 28 meeting in City Hall, Blair said he was finally introduced by the mayor to the others. "He introduced everybody else, the dogcatcher, and I was the last guy. He said, 'Oh, by the way, this is the unilateral candidate of Ehrlich.'"
"That's how he introduced me," Blair said. "I said, 'Thank you for inviting me, sir,' and shook his hand. What am I supposed to say? He is the mayor of Baltimore, and I am not trying to antagonize him at all," Blair said. "I'm just trying to do my job."