Baltimore a strength and liability for O'Malley


The rush of recent good news about Baltimore - its ranking as a top international travel destination, an uptick in how Wall Street views the city's fiscal future - seemed too good to last.

And sure enough, what many consider to be the reality of Maryland's largest city hit home this month. Violent crime rose last year for the first time in five years, according to the latest FBI statistics.

Those are the kind of numbers that haunt big-city mayors as they attempt to advance in politics.

As Mayor Martin O'Malley prepares for an expected run for governor, he must persuade voters to concentrate on the positive - such as Time magazine ranking him in April as one of the country's five best mayors - and brush aside negatives such as the city's high homicide rate and struggling classrooms.

In short, he must buck a trend in modern American politics: the career stagnation of city mayors.

Cities can be tough places to live in, and even harder to govern. Blight, crime, substandard housing and poor schools have stymied generations of policy-makers. Residents with means move to the suburbs, leaving behind a population often mired in poverty and addiction.

"No matter how successful a mayor you might be in a big city, you have an awful lot of problems that remain," said Stephen Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis who was defeated in a run for Indiana governor in 1996, and is now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "You can be very successful in a lot of areas, but it doesn't take a genius as a political opponent to come up with almost an endless list of things you haven't fixed and mistakes you made."

School testing results released this month offer a prime example. O'Malley can rightfully claim that Baltimore schools have made impressive academic gains that rival those of any big city, according to the latest Maryland School Assessment results. But his opponents are sure to note that they remain the worst-performing in the state.

For most of the past century, big-city mayors have been larger-than-life figures, characters who dreamed big and lived large - Fiorello LaGuardia in New York, Richard Daley in Chicago, Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia.

But none of them moved on to higher office. Roads to state houses are lined with the failed candidacies of supremely popular mayors. Consider Ed Koch in New York, who won a second term in 1981 when three of every four voters in the nation's largest city cast a ballot for him and lost a gubernatorial primary the next year to Mario Cuomo.

A variety of factors explains the phenomenon, from tension among cities and rural and suburban sections of a state in the battle for tax dollars and other scarce resources, to racism and xenophobia as cities have grown more ethnically and racially diverse.

"In the age of sprawl, cities that cannot expand - Baltimore's last annexation was 1917 - become filled with high concentrations of poor people," said David Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., and an urban government expert who has studied Baltimore and its suburbs. "They are looked upon as having city problems. And that is just a euphemism for poor blacks."

For O'Malley, there is hope: Baltimore and Maryland have shattered the rules before.

William Donald Schaefer rode the success of Inner Harbor redevelopment to Annapolis. Before him, Theodore R. McKeldin was a Republican mayor and then governor.

"I think every state is different. ... I think people in our state are smart," O'Malley said in an interview. "They expect their leaders to be effective and make progress."

In Maryland, county governments are preeminently important - more so than in most other states - and Baltimore functions much like one of the state's 23 other counties, said Rusk.

Seen in that light, Maryland has been governed for 16 of the past 19 years by a mayor, covering the tenures of Schaefer and Parris N. Glendening, the former county executive of Prince George's County.

"But that is relatively rare," Rusk said.

Inevitably, mayors who seek higher office must campaign on a theme that they have a successful legacy, that they will do for the state or the nation what they have done for their city.

That's how former Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell became governor of Pennsylvania. An accessible leader who regularly appeared on sports television shows promoting the region's beloved Eagles, Rendell was embraced in the Philadelphia suburbs as a politician who could grapple with the city's problems.

O'Malley might be following a similar route. His visibility as the lead singer in an Irish band gave him a sort of star quality that eludes many leaders.

The Baltimore television market permeates most of the state, so even Marylanders who rarely cross the city's borders can follow his exploits nightly.

And in Maryland, much of the state is populated by ex-Baltimoreans who still think fondly about their hometown.

Ocean City Mayor Jim N. Mathias Jr. was born in Hampden, and lived in Baltimore and Carroll counties before settling in the resort town in 1972. He's a tireless cheerleader for his small city, but like many in Maryland, harbors a soft spot for his hometown.

"An objectively thinking taxpayer and resident of the state says to themselves, 'As goes Baltimore, as goes Rockville, so goes the state,'" Mathias said. "And if you have a leader that is putting those tax dollars at work, they give that person a chance."

Karen Reaver, 47, a registered Democrat from Carroll County, likes what she sees of the mayor from afar: "I like his style. I like what he does," she said.

A retired small-business owner, Reaver moved to Maryland three decades ago from the mountains of North Carolina and relishes in her peaceful lifestyle.

"I would not want to work in the city, and I would not want to live in the city," she said.

But still, she would vote for O'Malley in the primary, and, if he gets that far, against Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"I think he's made improvements," she said. "Because of that, as far as a governor, he would work for the state as well as he's worked for the city."

That's why school and crime statistics such as those released this week are so crucial, because O'Malley must do what he can to show voters that he manages a well-functioning metropolis. And that's why O'Malley tried so hard to cast the statistics in the best possible light.

Baltimore's schools may be the worst in the state, but their improvement constitutes "one of the biggest turnaround stories of any urban school system in the United States of America," the mayor said in a burst of hyperbole that he could not immediately prove.

Violent crime rose 4 percent last year, but it has dropped nearly 40 percent since the mayor took office, he said.

O'Malley said he is willing to stand behind statistics that show the city's progress, even if he hasn't been able to meet all his goals, such as reducing the homicide count to below 200 yearly.

"We're not successful every week. And we're not even successful every year. But over the course of six years, we've been more successful than any city in America in reducing violent crime," O'Malley said.

In an attempt to emphasize the city's momentum, Jonathan Epstein, O'Malley's campaign manager, sent out a packet this month that included feel-good clippings from the past several weeks, including a Wall Street Journal article about the city's real estate boom. Epstein said he simply wanted to note the city's progress.

The most recent poll conducted for The Sun, taken in mid-April, revealed little anti-city backlash against O'Malley.

The poll showed the mayor ahead of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan in a Democratic primary, 45 percent to 25 percent; and leading Ehrlich, 45 percent to 39 percent statewide.

Still, O'Malley, a Democrat, seems less popular than the governor in many areas of the state outside Baltimore.

In Baltimore County, a critical swing jurisdiction that surrounds the city, Ehrlich led O'Malley, 46 percent to 40 percent, the poll showed. But in another measurement, Baltimore County voters were just as likely to have a favorable impression of the mayor as they were the governor, who represented the county in the state legislature and in Congress. Sixty-three percent of county voters surveyed said they felt favorably about Ehrlich, and 61 percent said they had a favorable impression of O'Malley.

In Anne Arundel and Howard counties, the governor led, 50 percent to 46 percent; and in rural areas, Ehrlich was ahead, 51 percent 30 percent.

O'Malley, who has not declared his candidacy, is traveling the state, trying to build support. But as he embarks on a campaign, he must always keep an eye on Baltimore, where some headline-grabbing crime or crisis of the week will always await.

"It presents a particular problem for mayors to govern and run at the same time," said Goldsmith, the Harvard professor. "Helping a city succeed and helping it avoid catastrophe are not an automatic-pilot deal. The chances of something going wrong are not inevitable but significant."

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