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National Perspective | DATELINE BALTIMORE

The City's Mayor Battles Crime, Wins Praise as a Savvy Leader

August 17, 2000|JACK NELSON | CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

Last spring, disaster seemed near for Martin O'Malley, the first-term white mayor of this aging and predominantly black industrial city.

The black police commissioner had quit. And O'Malley's chosen replacement was not only white but a principal architect of the aggressive "zero-tolerance" tactics that made New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's name synonymous with racial tension.

"I think it would behoove every black mother to put a tight leash on all of our African American young men with a hope of saving their lives," thundered the Rev. Douglas I. Miles, expressing the rage that surged through Baltimore's black community.

"Now we will run from the New York boys in the drug world and from the New York boys in the Police Department," he said.

Four months later, O'Malley, a 37-year-old former prosecutor who still leads his own Irish band, has done more than survive. He has solidified his support in Baltimore's black community without giving an inch on his law-and-order approach to life on the streets.

Though daunting problems remain, that achievement is enough to catapult O'Malley into the front ranks of a new breed: savvy big city mayors who win black voters' support while attacking crime and drugs without the violent incidents and allegations of police brutality that have divided New York and some other cities.

New York's Giuliani represented the first wave: a single-minded leader who sent his police force out to impose peace and quiet on troubled streets and succeeded--but at serious social and political cost. O'Malley, like the mayors of Pittsburgh, Cleveland and New Orleans, seeks similar gains in safety and quality of life for the inner city without the toxic side effects.

If he succeeds, bigger things may lie ahead politically. Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, whose own police crackdown has cut his city's homicide rate in half since 1993, said that--of the nation's young political leaders--"O'Malley's the one guy I know who could be president of the United States. He's charismatic, has great ability to communicate with a real cross-section of people and can put together the right people with the right talents to succeed in office."

David Petts, a pollster for Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, agrees. "The sky's the limit," he says.

Since taking office last December, O'Malley has kept a promise to close down the city's top 10 open-air drug markets and he is now working on shutting down 20 more.

O'Malley is also pressing--so far in vain--to cut Baltimore's spiraling murder and drug addiction rates. The city has an estimated 60,000 drug addicts, almost one-tenth of its population. It has averaged about 300 murders each of the last eight years, 80% drug-related.

While attacking crime and drugs, O'Malley has reassured once-suspicious black leaders. Even Miles, who worked against O'Malley's election last year, says: "He's tried to live up to his campaign promises and has sparked enthusiasm and hope throughout the city. It's obvious he's popular in the African American community."

Indeed, African American women, old and young, hug the tall, handsome mayor at public functions and line up with children to get his autograph.

Early on, O'Malley, who won election with 53% of the vote and carried every district in the city, created a sense of optimism in a city weary of continuing decline under Kurt Schmoke, its mayor of 12 years. A once-popular black leader, Schmoke had grown increasingly remote and did not run for reelection.

Some black leaders openly supported O'Malley over his two major black opponents. Kweisi Mfume, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People president who declined to run himself, defended O'Malley from charges of racism. "People voted, not for the best black candidate or the best white candidate, but for the best candidate," Mfume said after the election.

Poverty Levels High

The mayor will need all the support he can get as he grapples with the problems of a city still spiraling downward. Poverty levels are extremely high. Middle-class residents are fleeing at the rate of 1,000 or more a month. In some neighborhoods, three-quarters of the houses are abandoned. And budget director Edward Gallagher describes the tax base as "exhausted."

O'Malley has some difficulties but did not face a real crisis until his first police commissioner, Ronald L. Daniel, resigned rather than implement a reform program that included a "zero-tolerance" enforcement strategy.

One feature of "zero tolerance" is arresting suspects for minor crimes as a way of catching repeat offenders and discouraging more serious crimes. Critics see it as a heavy-handed tool that unfairly targets blacks and leads to police brutality.

Similar programs have been credited with helping reduce violent crimes not only in New York but in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, New Orleans, Charleston, S.C., and other cities. But when O'Malley insisted on implementing it expeditiously in Baltimore, Daniel resigned.

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