Baltimore's Muscle Man
By Lee Hockstader
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page B07
On a weekend evening in Bethesda, Martin O'Malley looks like a man
without a care in the world. His Celtic band, O'Malley's March,
launches into "Danny Boy," and O'Malley, whose day job is mayor of
Baltimore, carries the tune on an Irish whistle. A suddenly soulful
crowd at the Barking Dog roars its appreciation.
O'Malley, eyes closed, commanding the audience, is clearly in the
moment, but you've got to wonder: It's Saturday night -- what are the
odds that someone will get murdered in Baltimore before the clock
Nearly everything has been going O'Malley's way lately, but his city's
appalling homicide rate is the one monster problem that won't be
wrestled to the ground. And unless it is, his plan to become governor
of Maryland and catapult himself onto the stage of nationally prominent
Democrats may elude him.
In a party starved for buzz and desperate for hope, O'Malley provides
both. Possessed of telegenic good looks and cocky self-regard -- check
out www.omalleysmarch.com and click on "Martin" for an extensive
photographic survey of the mayor's biceps -- he can turn heads and
mesmerize a crowd. A white chief executive in a heavily black city, he
has won elections in Baltimore by margins better suited for an Arab
potentate than an East Coast pol: 90 percent in his first race, 87
percent in his second, last November.
And no wonder. During his five years in office, Baltimore has pulled
itself out of an epic slump that left it, by the end of the 1990s, a
touristically pleasing harbor enfolded by an urban disaster zone.
Whether by luck, good timing or adept administration, O'Malley has
presided over a staggering rebound in the housing market, a building
boom downtown and an end to three decades of middle-class flight that
slashed the city's population by a third. "Believe" is the civic slogan
he has plastered around the city, and many Baltimoreans do -- in him.
Even longstanding rumors about the mayor's supposed marital infidelity
have broken his way, thanks to a huge assist from the media. After The
Post reported that a Republican operative had actively spread the
rumor, O'Malley stepped before the TV cameras with his wife, Katie,
swore that he had never cheated on her and spoke of his family's
suffering at the hands of what he later called a "state-sponsored smear
campaign." In a single stroke, he neutralized the rumors, raised his
profile and forced the GOP governor, Robert Ehrlich, on the defensive.
The other prominent contender for the Democratic gubernatorial
nomination, Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, was left in the
In the race for the Democratic nomination, O'Malley plays the hare to
Duncan's tortoise. Like a lot of hares, he can seem showy and
vainglorious. Bashing the Bush administration for cutting federal aid
to cities, he likened the effects of the president's budget to the
impact of the hijacked planes on Sept. 11. As for Ehrlich's plan to
establish slot machine gambling casinos in Maryland, the most important
question facing the state legislature, the mayor called it an "immoral"
way to raise money for schools -- but said he supports it. He refers to
his weak-kneed position as "nuanced."
Still, O'Malley is doing good things in Baltimore, which needs them.
These days he receives visitors to City Hall not in his office but at
the CitiStat command center -- a nerve center where the mayor and his
aides hold top city managers to account for a range of service and
performance standards covering potholes, illegal dumping, broken water
mains and dirty alleys. Unleashing a well-rehearsed blitzkrieg of
statistics, O'Malley takes credit for a managerial revolution in
Baltimore that has helped the city get back on its feet.
The one major metric that has refused to bend to O'Malley's will is the
city's murder rate. As a candidate in 1999, he rashly promised to cut
it in half; instead, it has been creeping up for the past two years,
and so far, this year looks to be as bad as last. Baltimore has the
nation's highest homicide rate, and January was the deadliest month in
the city since Richard Nixon was president.
Quick to press any statistical advantage, O'Malley notes that "right
now there's a very good trend," by which he means that February was
less lethal than January. But whatever the broader picture -- and in
fairness, overall crime is down in Baltimore -- being mayor of
America's most murderous city is a weak springboard for a gubernatorial
The reasons, and the blame, for Baltimore's murder rate will be fodder
for the governor's race next year if it pits O'Malley against Ehrlich.
The mayor is adept at pointing out the shortcomings in the state social
services and juvenile justice systems, both of which are under
Ehrlich's control, not his. It's also true that federal prosecutors in
Baltimore have been so preoccupied with white-collar crime and
corruption cases that they've dropped the ball on gun prosecutions.
But a debate about the murder rate in Baltimore is a scrap on Ehrlich's
turf, not O'Malley's. For all the mayor's talents as a politician,
speaker and Irish whistler, the homicide rate at home may sound a
discordant note in a statewide race.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address
© 2005 The Washington Post Company