City address makes a case for state run


A FEW DAYS after acknowledging that "I am laying the groundwork to run for governor," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley started to construct the public foundation for his bid.

In his State of the City address Monday, O'Malley, while conceding the "stubborn challenges" of crime and education, neatly summed up the accomplishments of his administration, by implication making the argument for his leadership.

Equally important, his speech provided an implicit answer to the question posed by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, another presumed contender for the Democratic nomination against Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. next year, and some of Duncan's Baltimore supporters: How could O'Malley forsake the city when it still so desperately needed his stewardship?

Many of the achievements O'Malley noted in his speech in the City Council chambers are more than familiar by now, at least to city residents: a 40 percent reduction in violent crime; a sharp drop in drug-related emergency room visits; a doubling in home sale values; and the virtual end of the city's population loss.

The not-so-subliminal message: If O'Malley can do all this as the head of a troubled city, imagine what he could accomplish at the helm of one of the country's wealthiest states.

Pace of change

What was fascinating was the way O'Malley talked not only about what had been done during his tenure as mayor but about the pace of the change.

After all, Montgomery County, under Duncan, has much lower crime and much higher home values than does the city, and a growing population that has long made it the state's most populous jurisdiction. And while O'Malley talked about the two biotech parks being developed on the east and west sides of downtown as the "wishbone offense" of the city's job growth and economic development, Montgomery County has the Interstate 270 biotech corridor.

What O'Malley seemed to be doing was casting himself in a position not unlike that of the CEO of a once-near-bankrupt company that has seen a huge turnaround. The company's bottom line may be short of that of the best blue chip firms, but its performance exceeded Wall Street expectations.

"We have come farther, faster than many thought possible," O'Malley said.

For those, mostly residents of the city, who worry whether Baltimore will be able to continue moving forward if he leaves office, O'Malley's speech contained some words of reassurance. In fact, he began by thanking Council President Sheila Dixon, who would fill out the remainder of his term if he became governor for "allowing me to be your colleague and partner in progress." O'Malley has made similar comments before, but the reference in the context of the coming gubernatorial race gave them added resonance.

Translation: Dixon is someone who is on the same page as the mayor and embraces and would continue his policies. The model here is Clarence Du Burns, the City Council president who ascended to the mayor's office when William Donald Schaefer became governor in 1987.

'Shared responsibility'

O'Malley's implicit argument for why the city would benefit from having him in the State House is also Schaefer-esque. As O'Malley put it in his speech, "no city is an island" but depends on "shared responsibility" with the state and federal government to address problems of the high homicide rate and crumbling classrooms.

In one telling example, the mayor pointed out that the volunteer Believe in Our Schools campaign that he initiated completed $5 million of work.

"To put that $5 million in perspective, it represents such a great effort that it surpasses the $4.7 million that the state, so far, has approved this year for our schools' capital needs," he said.

The unspoken assertion: Who better to get needed funding for city school renovations than O'Malley, just as Governor Schaefer got state funding for Oriole Park and the Convention Center.

O'Malley's speech also hinted at how he would handle what could be the Achilles' heel of his gubernatorial candidacy -- the city's unremitting homicides. Although the annual number of killings during his administration has been well below the 300 mark that was the benchmark of the 1990s, last year's total of 278 was the highest since he took office. And last month, the city recorded a disquieting average of one killing a day.

Are those numbers largely the result of a lenient judiciary granting bail to violent offenders and a lack of communication among state agencies, as the mayor suggested in his speech? Or do they have more to do with the revolving door in the police commissioner's office that has seen four people hold the job as the city's top cop in five years?

Those are questions that are sure to be asked in the coming months. For as surely as O'Malley lays the groundwork for his campaign, there will be those who will undermine his efforts.

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