Saturday, October 1, 2005

In 2002, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, less than three years into his first term, considered running for governor of Maryland, but was pressured out of doing so by Democratic leaders who were determined to annoint Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. KKT’s campaign subsequently imploded, and Robert Ehrlich became the first Republican to be elected governor since Spiro Agnew’s victory in 1966. Mr. O’Malley, who has never been lacking in self-confidence, no doubt believes that he could have been elected if he had run in 2002 instead of waiting his turn. Last week he made it official that he will seek the Democratic nomination for governor next year.

A handsome, telegenic politician with his own rock band, Mr. O’Malley has arisen to national prominence in the Democratic Party, particularly due to his lobbying for more money for homeland security. He has been the subject of glowing profiles in publications such as Time magazine, and Business Week said the mayor “has become the party’s go-to guy on protecting the homeland.”

But Mr. O’Malley’s penchant for putting his foot in his mouth has undermined his credibility. At a 2004 fundraiser for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, Mr. O’Malley stated: “I remember after the attacks of September 11, as mayor of the city, I was very, very worried about al Qaeda and still am. But I’m even more worried about the actions and inaction of the Bush administration.”

In February, the mayor appeared to liken the Bush administration to terrorists: “Back on September 11, terrorists attacked our metropolitan cores, two of America’s great cities. They did that because they knew that was where they could do the most damage and weaken us the most. Years later, we were given a budget proposal by our Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States. And with a budget ax, he is attacking America’s cities. He is attacking our metropolitan core.”

Even as the mayor was complaining that federal homeland-security spending is too low, the city spent more than $23,000 in grant money for this purpose on embroidered polo shirts, fleece pullovers, Nantucket caps and duffel bags. His critics (including many Democrats) will hammer away at everything from questionable homeland-security spending to the mayor’s plan to spend $300 million in public funds on construction of a Hilton Hotel next to Oriole Park at Camden Yards in order to depict the mayor as a spendthrift.

Mr. O’Malley boasts that he has improved the school system, calling it one of “the biggest turnaround stories” of any urban school system in the nation, but this is open to question. During his first term, then-Baltimore public schools CEO Carmen Russo ran up a deficit of more than $50 million. Mr. O’Malley explained the problem by saying in part that he had been frustrated in his efforts to obtain “basic numbers” from her. In July, a federal judge found Baltimore’s special-education program to be “failing,” according to the No Child Left Behind Act, and ordered Baltimore to relinquish authority for special-education services to the state. State education officials said in a July court filing that when they sent administrators to monitor services being provided at three city schools: “In each school, they found no students receiving services, principals and staff who did not even know that their school was [a site for a remedial education program], and …service providers left on their own to muddle through student files.”

Mr. O’Malley’s claims to have reduced violent crime by nearly 40 percent will be carefully scrutinized. Given that Baltimore remains one of the nation’s most violent cities (last year it had a murder rate more than five times that of New York City), it remains to be seen how much political benefit Mr. O’Malley will derive from an overall reduction in violent crime. Another problem is that violent crime in the city last year increased for the first time since 1999. There is also likely to be a debate over whether he has fudged some of the violent-crime statistics. In November 2003 the city police department’s director of information technology quit and wrote a resignation letter describing the department’s crime data as “inaccurate and at best unreliable.”An internal audit summary suggested that the city had underreported rapes in 2002 by 15 percent. The former director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics in Washington told the Baltimore Sun that there has been a “repeated pattern” of city officials attempting to classify crimes as lesser ones in order to minimize the violent-crime problem.

The fact that Mr. O’Malley has gone through six police commissioners in less than six years will not help the mayor. Nor will the fact that the longest serving of those, Ed Norris, was convicted and sentenced to prison on corruption charges for his actions while serving as Mr. O’Malley’s police chief.

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