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 strikes midnight?

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 dust.

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 campaign.

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 is hockstaderl@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company