- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2004

An assortment of troubles in Baltimore — including turmoil in police leadership, a high murder rate and a near-bankrupt school system — is dimming the once-bright political future of Mayor Martin O’Malley, political insiders say.

Mr. O’Malley, who won re-election this month to a second term as mayor, has been considered a rising star in the Democratic Party and a presumptive challenger to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2006.

But state Democratic leaders have begun second-guessing Mr. O’Malley since he fired Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark last week. Mr. Clark is the city’s third top cop to leave since Mr. O’Malley took office in 2000 with a pledge to lower the murder rate.

“You can’t have three police commissioners in a short time and have people not asking questions,” said Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat who served as Baltimore mayor for 17 years and governor for eight. “The city is still falling apart.”

Another Democrat noted other city woes.

“Look at what has happened in Baltimore,” said Delegate Tony E. Fulton of Baltimore. “It’s dirty, it’s bankrupt, it’s not safe, the school system is in total disarray.”

Problems and annoyances continue to mount for the 41-year-old mayor — and the city. On Tuesday, Mr. Clark filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against Mr. O’Malley, saying Mr. Clark and his three top aides were fired to stop city police from involving federal investigators in a probe of a mayoral Cabinet member. A city judge yesterday rejected Mr. Clark’s lawsuit and request to be reinstated.

The Baltimore Sun reported yesterday that the probe targeted Labor Commissioner Sean R. Malone, who was not named in the lawsuit, after police found “graphic material” in what was believed to be Mr. Malone’s government-issued laptop computer.

In firing the police commissioner, Mr. O’Malley cited revelations that Mr. Clark had a history of domestic violence that the mayor either ignored or failed to check. Mr. Clark was accused of assaulting his fiancee in May.

Mr. O’Malley named Leonard Hamm as interim commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department.

“The lawsuit is completely without merit,” O’Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said yesterday, citing a clause in Mr. Clark’s employment contract that provided for his termination without cause.

Baltimore is facing other problems:

• The number of murders this year has reached 255 and is expected by year’s end to top 300, which would be the city’s highest murder tally since 1999.

• The city in June raised telephone, energy and real-estate taxes by $30 million to avert a deficit and massive layoffs of city workers.

• More than 40 fires have been set at 14 public schools in the city since September, and police have had to quash riotous violence at two high schools this year.

• The school system was on the verge of bankruptcy, with a $58 million deficit, before the start of the school year. Mr. O’Malley rejected state aid and tapped the city’s rainy-day fund to finance a temporary bailout.

“These things have tainted whatever his [political] goals are,” said Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon, a Democrat. “But right now he just got elected mayor, and we’re talking about ‘06.”

Mr. Abbruzzese said critics ignore the mayor’s accomplishments: $6 billion of new development, improved math and reading scores for first- and second-graders and a 40 percent decrease in violent crimes other than murder.

“The people of Baltimore believe in the progress this city is making and they believe in this mayor,” Mr. Abbruzzese said. “The problems in Baltimore are not tarnishing how people view this mayor.”

Mr. O’Malley’s record contrasts starkly with that of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, an increasingly attractive rival for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Mr. Schaefer said.

“Duncan is a tried-and-true success story. All you got to do is go to Montgomery County and look at Rockville, look at Silver Spring. Everywhere development has taken hold,” the comptroller said. “You look at Baltimore, you see the same run-down houses.”

Mr. O’Malley’s record would be a liability on the 2006 campaign trail, said a 20-year veteran of Democratic campaigns in Maryland who asked not to be identified.

“Let me be fair,” the Democratic strategist said. “I think O’Malley has a political profile that most politicians would kill for: He’s charismatic, he’s a good speaker, he gets national attention.

“Unfortunately, that profile is set against the backdrop of a city that has serious, serious troubles,” the strategist said. “At some point, the question will be asked, ‘Is there any substance [to Mr. O’Malley] or is it all just image?’”

Still, Mr. O’Malley remains popular in his city.

He won the last Democratic primary with 66 percent of the vote — the widest margin of victory in a Baltimore mayoral primary in 20 years. He then captured 88 percent of the vote in the Nov. 2 election, a landslide victory in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of 10-to-1.

Isiah “Ike” Leggett, chairman of the Maryland State Democratic Party, said Mr. O’Malley’s statewide appeal has not waned, noting a poll that showed Mr. O’Malley would defeat Mr. Ehrlich 51 percent to 44 percent.

The Maryland Republican Party has called the polling data “skewed.”

Mr. Leggett said Marylanders understand that large cities such as Baltimore have problems and they don’t necessarily blame the mayor. “Unless you can attribute these things directly to [Mr. O’Malley], I don’t think these things will reduce his status as a credible candidate to run for governor,” he said.

Marc Steiner, host of a talk show on public radio station WYPR in Baltimore, said Mr. O’Malley continues to enjoy statewide appeal. However, he said he has detected a chink in the mayor’s armor.

“If this next [police] commissioner doesn’t work, it’s going to hurt him,” Mr. Steiner said.

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