Once more into the social science breach


U.S. DISTRICT Judge Marvin J. Garbis wants a redistribution of Baltimore's poor. He's ordered a regional solution to what he concludes was a government-driven concentration of poverty and racial minorities in the city.

He may have invited a collision of political and judicial forces.

Mayor Martin O'Malley immediately threw down a velvet glove dissent. Baltimore wants to keep its people, the mayor said. It wants to make life good, productive and safe for Baltimoreans in Baltimore. Mr. O'Malley doesn't want to be in the population exporting business. He wants to run for governor in 2006. Suburban voters aren't likely to support anything that brings masses to their neighborhoods. He's not going to embrace issues that appear vulnerable to the charge of liberal overstepping.

At least he's consistent. He's been protective of the 'burbs for some months. He supported the idea of a major-league baseball team in Washington, for example, lest he seem indifferent to the sporting and commercial interests of Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

He's being very accommodating. He doesn't want a monopoly on the amenities, and he'll hang onto the problems.

The social-engineering charge, though not directed at Mr. O'Malley, was not long in surfacing after the judge's decision was announced.

A Sun letter writer had this response to an editorial on the matter: "Before The Sun preaches about moving crime-numbed people with inner-city sensibilities, many of whom will bring antisocial attitudes with them, to our areas ... it should advocate a stop at a way station where they could be shown and taught what is expected of them in our so-called better neighborhoods."

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens hailed Mr. O'Malley's "no thank you" and called Judge Garbis' regional solution "judicial activism at its worst." Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. offered the least-condemning response: He said he hadn't read the judge's decision.

This budding controversy and the political response to it was predictable. Several years ago, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., then a congressman, helped lead opposition to a federal government program called Move to Opportunity. Let's just say MTO was not a popular idea in Baltimore County, an important segment of Mr. Ehrlich's political base. People got angry. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat, helped to get the program derailed.

Now a similar idea is back in a different form: Poor people will have a better chance at life if they're not inundated by poverty and crime.

Judge Garbis may have the power to override opposition, but he's already running into conflict with elected leaders. He's planning a series of discussions to find ways to implement his regional solution.

David Rusk, the social scientist and former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., may have provided the groundwork for the judge's order in a study of the Baltimore region several years ago. Mr. Rusk says local officials have a perfect model to follow: Montgomery County, where local law has required inclusion of low- and moderate-income housing in developments. In an op-ed article in The Sun last Sunday, Mr. Rusk reported that Montgomery County's lower-income housing requirement for developers has produced 11,000 affordable units.

"There has been no pattern of social problems and no negative impact on housing values in these mixed-income neighborhoods," Mr. Rusk wrote. The low- to moderate-income residents are dental assistants, nursing home aides, hairdressers, cooks, salespeople, cashiers and the like, he wrote.

About 600 families from Baltimore have been relocated in recent years without fanfare and with no difficulty.

Mr. Rusk, Judge Garbis and others will be fighting a different perception. If the past is an indicator, suburban neighborhoods fear newcomers will arrive with heavy baggage: crime and drugs. It's possible that assertive and determined leadership from the bench will leverage a new receptivity.

"Maybe there is a way that people can recognize we're all together in this region," the judge said. "But if not, I'll do what I can to make sure that they do." He may need the clout he's alluding to.

It's possible, of course, that the good experience of recent years in the Baltimore area will ease fears. But with the politicians, the judge and his team will be arguing against the lessons taken from the last election: Beware of anything that looks like big-government liberalism.

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

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