- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

Maryland and Baltimore, which had enjoyed close relations for decades, now are at odds over a variety of issues resulting from the ambitions, personalities and politics of the state’s Republican governor and the city’s Democratic mayor, political insiders say.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O’Malley — or their representatives — have sparred over bailing out the city’s mismanaged school system, battled in court over a city agency appointment and traded barbs over a state energy program.

Their disagreements have remained civil, but their clashes contrast with the relationships between their predecessors when the state and its largest city were both run by Democrats.

“The relationship between O’Malley and the governor is not good because the mayor always tries to make him look bad by criticizing him to make him look foolish,” said state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat and longtime Ehrlich supporter.

Issues such as education have become points of contention for an “ambitious” Mr. O’Malley, who is said to eyeing the governorship, Mr. Schaefer said.

“Like the situation with the schools, where we sat in for three days and then O’Malley makes a decision he did not need the state, then he takes cracks at the governor, which is dumb,” said Mr. Schaefer, a former Baltimore mayor and two-term governor.

“Any mayor has to be out of their mind not to get along with the governor … because you are dependent upon the [governor], and particularly Baltimore.”

Isiah “Ike” Leggett, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said differences between Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Ehrlich have likely been exaggerated.

“It is acute,” he said. “But I don’t think it is as great as it has been described.”

But he added: “I don’t think the issues have changed. I just think the political atmosphere around them has changed.”

Mr. Ehrlich, in 2002, was elected the state’s first Republican governor in more than 30 years.

Earlier this year, Mr. Ehrlich offered the Baltimore school system a $42 million short-term loan to help it pay a $58 million deficit and avoid laying off 1,200 teachers and staff. In exchange for the loan, the mismanaged school system would have been overseen for 22 months by a state-appointed panel.

After about three weeks of negotiations with state and city officials, Mr. O’Malley rejected the governor’s offer and pledged $42 million from the city’s rainy-day fund to the school system.

“Sometimes you get the impression that the mayor is looking very hard for things to disagree with,” said Republican strategist Kevin Igoe. “And given the situation in the city of Baltimore — with schools, crime and drugs — it seems like the mayor would try to work together with the state.”

Mr. Ehrlich’s office did not return a call seeking comment.

O’Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese defended the mayor, noting how the city has improved since Mr. O’Malley first took office in 2000.

“Some critics might not like the mayor’s style, but violent crime is at the lowest level in Baltimore since 1970,” he said, “home values have more than doubled, and there is $6 billion in economic development since 2002 after years of little investment.”

“He gets things done. Other people talk about getting things done,” Mr. Abbruzzese said.

Delegate Nathaniel T. Oaks, Baltimore Democrat, said Mr. O’Malley “is running for governor. … And everything that goes on that has a state implication is going to be viewed as political.”

However, Mr. O’Malley has not formally announced his intention to run for governor in 2006.

A major point of contention between the city and the state has been Mr. Ehrlich’s appointment of Floyd Blair, a lawyer who worked with President Bush’s faith-based initiatives program, to serve as interim director of Baltimore’s Department of Social Services.

Mr. O’Malley objected to the Blair appointment, saying he lacked the five years of experience as an administrator required by state law and that the Ehrlich administration shut the city out of the selection process.

He filed suit against the governor, and a Circuit Court judge concurred with his position, ordering Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. O’Malley to agree on a candidate for the troubled agency.

On Friday, Mr. Ehrlich appointed Mr. Blair as a deputy secretary for the state Department of Human Services.

Meanwhile, the governor and the mayor have not yet agreed on a director for the city’s agency.

“Blair was absolutely the right appointment for the city,” said Delegate Tony E. Fulton, Baltimore Democrat. “And I think that it is regrettable that this mayor has chosen to deny a competent African-American professional [Mr. Blair] an opportunity to manage a critically important department.”

Last month, Ehrlich and O’Malley staffers sniped over an announcement of a change in how Baltimore residents can apply for energy assistance in the city. Residents can apply for energy aid at one location in the city instead of six.

The state Department of Human Resources, which funds the program, announced the change — not the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the Maryland Energy Assistance Program.

“It was irresponsible for them to not have done that themselves,” Norris West, a spokesman for the state agency, said last month. “It was kind of weird. The city didn’t send anything out.”

However, city housing spokesman David Tillman argued that the state’s action created the erroneous “implication that we’re reducing our commitment to Baltimore families in need of energy assistance,” the Associated Press reported.

Disagreements between the mayor’s office and the governor’s office are not uncommon, Mr. Schaefer said, but it behooves Baltimore’s chief executive to learn to work with the state’s top official.

“When [Marvin] Mandel was governor, I had a super relationship with the governor,” Mr. Schaefer recalled of his days as mayor. “When the next governor came in, my relationship was not as good, but I did know that you must get along with the governor. If you don’t, you are a fool — you are very foolish.”

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