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Why being mayor can be hazardous to political health

A TALE OF two political lives:

You're Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and you're trying to ease the fears of schoolchildren whose classmates have been brutally murdered.

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You're Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and you've just been photographed in a sea of smiling kids happy about a $9.6 million road improvement. No one's smile is wider than yours.

This happy outing comes a few days after you vetoed a bill that would have put $88 million or so in the state's budget. The national economy is looking brighter, and so is Maryland's.

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And the mayor?

You're looking at a $40 million general fund budget deficit - not to speak of a deficit of $58 million (at last count) in the school system. So you're asking for a new tax on cell phone users, energy users and sellers of property. Not much smiling here.

Once again last week, Mr. O'Malley found himself in the role of city father who must explain to parents and children alike why unspeakable horror seems to lurk around the corner. Three children are killed - one of them decapitated - and family members are charged. In October 2002, five kids and their parents died after someone deliberately torched their house.

So, the political world wonders anew if Mr. O'Malley can survive his tenure in a big city mayor's office to run against Mr. Ehrlich for governor in 2006.

The backdrop for last week's murders in Baltimore was the overall killing rate on Baltimore streets. Mr. O'Malley promised to get the numbers down, and they are down marginally. But he needs a dramatic drop. What he got was a dramatic increase.

And what of the rest of his city? The mayor's police commissioner, Kevin P. Clark, faced accusations of spousal abuse. He's been cleared by police investigators from Howard County, but the incident leaves scars. And he's the second police commissioner to face big trouble in the O'Malley administration: Edward T. Norris, Commissioner Clark's predecessor, pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges surrounding his use of a special police fund.

A rash of bad luck may create a perception of failure - and when the bad luck continues, people begin to wonder if it's not something more than that.

Only millimeters beyond the flesh-and-blood carnage in Baltimore, there's fiscal hemorrhaging.

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A mayoral rescue team moves into the school headquarters to save the day. In what some called a foolish risk, he turned away from humiliating terms set by the governor and decided to forgo a state bailout. Now he has to find millions to balance the school system's books - while simultaneously preserving efforts that had begun to show positive results. Much of what looks now like profligate spending may have been necessary to achieve gains in student test scores. But which side of the equation will get the people's attention?

Meanwhile, the man he might face if he's the Democratic candidate for governor in 2006 basks in relative prosperity.

Governor Ehrlich strolled onto the state-owned Pride of Baltimore II the other day to sign a bill designed to save the Chesapeake Bay from damage caused by poor wastewater treatment systems. The governor doesn't have a murder rate to contend with. He does have a child welfare system desperately in need of repair. Children are dying in the care of the state. But these deaths have fallen somewhat below the charnel house level of death of Baltimore.

If gas price increases don't choke off economic recovery, the state's tax receipts will rise, easing Mr. Ehrlich's budget problems.

That prospect made it less risky for Mr. Ehrlich to veto a bill that would have brought $88 million or so to Maryland in the form of uncollected taxes. The General Assembly voted to hold corporations responsible for back taxes they didn't pay. The governor decided not to.

Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, Mayor O'Malley was booed at a recent fund-raiser for Coppin State University. Booed by whom? By friends of Andrey Bundley, the man he defeated in last year's mayoral primary election? By friends of the police commissioner? By angry cell phone users unhappy with his proposed $3.50-a-month tax?

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No one knows. But everyone knows this: In politics, getting booed isn't good even if you don't deserve it.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.


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