A Charmed City Dubious of Change
Style Wins Mayor Fans, but Some Doubt His Political Substance

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2003; Page A01

BALTIMORE -- The mayor breezed through Araina Mason's neighborhood this summer, all handshakes and promises. The alleys will be cleaned, Martin O'Malley said as he trolled for votes, and the drug pushers will have reason to pack up and leave.

More police officers soon appeared on the streets. The dealers retreated into the shadows, and people said they felt safe again to sit on the broad porches of their vintage 1920s rowhouses in Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello. The northeast Baltimore neighborhood is a community of sharp contrasts -- well-maintained homes within sight of crumbling, empty buildings and trash-strewn alleys -- that has struggled to keep out the junkies and violence that have consumed much of this proud but troubled city.

O'Malley fumed and cajoled and charmed, and progress magically followed in his wake. But given the neighborhood's long and sad decline, which Mason has witnessed over her 20 years here, she wonders how much is fleeting, the result of campaign-season theatrics. The dealers, she said, will likely be back before long.

"The police have been coming around again," said Mason, 45. "But the police always slack off again, and [the dealers] just come back like roaches."

As Baltimore voters head to the polls Tuesday for a Democratic primary, in which O'Malley is the overwhelming favorite, they will have at least two versions of their city to contemplate. There is Baltimore Rising, the scrappy, winning city of O'Malley's public relations campaigns. And there is the Baltimore that Mason has watched from her stoop: strong but still declining, nearly as violent as ever.

At the center of both is O'Malley himself, who in his four years leading one of the nation's most violent and drug-addicted cities has cut a muscular, tough-talking figure -- alternately charming and combative, profane and pious. Even his critics acknowledge that he has conjured new hope, often by sheer force of personality.

He has also established himself as a star among the nation's mayors and a likely prospect for bigger things. Party operatives regard him as a Maryland gubernatorial candidate in 2006 or a possible successor to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, should the five-term Democratic incumbent not seek reelection.

But in this city of 650,000, the statistics -- and the street-level experience of people such as Mason -- tell a more complicated story.

Among the nation's 25 largest cities, Baltimore's rate of violent crime is still second only to Detroit. Drugs, while perhaps not the epidemic they were in the '90s, still eat away at communities such as Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello. The population continues to drop.

This month, 22-year-old Darrell L. Brooks was sentenced to life in prison without parole for setting fire to a rowhouse, killing Angela Dawson, her husband, daughter and four sons in October. Witnesses said Brooks, who had been selling drugs near the house, was angry that Dawson had repeatedly complained to police. The horrific act of revenge seemed to crystallize the desperate conditions in some Baltimore neighborhoods.

"His approval ratings are sky high, and there's a lot of star-shine around him, but the city is in fact not in very good shape," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University professor who has advised one-time O'Malley opponent Carl Stokes, a former City Council member. "The crime rates are going back up, the budget is a mess, and he doesn't seem to have any particular agenda beyond crime."

O'Malley disputes Crenson's assertion that crime rates are rising, saying that while murder is up over last year, it is too early to predict year-end totals.

"Public safety is the foundation of our city's comeback, but it is not the end of the comeback," O'Malley said in an interview. "There is a remarkable turnaround going on in a city that was facing a mountain of problems, and we are only a few years into it. But if we can continue to reduce violent crime at the same rate for the next decade, you're going to see a very, very different Baltimore."

The betting among the political class in Baltimore is that O'Malley himself won't be around that long. Many assume he will be gearing up for a campaign for higher office even before Baltimore's mayoral general election, which, because of a one-time legislative quirk, will be in November 2004, 14 months after Tuesday's primary. In a city that is 87 percent Democratic, victory in the primary effectively means election to a second term.

O'Malley has been a bracing transition from Kurt L. Schmoke, the cerebral and restrained mayor who served while homicides spiked in the '90s. O'Malley is more in the mold of state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, mayor from 1971 to 1986 and governor from 1987 to 1995: bluntly outspoken, occasionally impolitic and in constant motion.

O'Malley has also displayed a fondness for catchy public relations campaigns driven by mantralike catchphrases designed to inspire:


Baltimore Rising.

And, his current campaign tag line: Because BetterIsn't Good Enough

The mayor's Believe campaign is emblematic of his effort to bring the city back from the brink. Featuring television spots and banners emblazoned with a single word, "Believe," the campaign has been both heralded as sleek and effective and dismissed as empty sloganeering.

Stokes, who this summer started a campaign against O'Malley only to bow out and run for City Council president, called the effort the "make-believe campaign."

"There's no substance behind it," said Stokes, who grew up in east Baltimore, one of the city's most impoverished sections, and represented the area on the City Council from 1989 to 1995. "This city has been in distress for so long, there's no way a public relations campaign will help."

Rates of drug addiction, violent crime and infant mortality have all improved under O'Malley, but they still hover near the top of the charts nationally. Still, supporters say he has brought new life to city government.

"Look, I know a politician when I see one, and politicians don't do nothing for you. And Martin O'Malley is not that kind of politician," said Casey Wilkes, pastor of First John Tabernacle Baptist Church in east Baltimore. "He puts 100 percent into his job."

O'Malley's power to galvanize was on display at Wilkes's church when he came to congratulate members of his Baltimore Rising campaign -- an effort to link troubled youths with mentors.

In the sweltering stone church, a refuge in a neighborhood of vacant lots and ramshackle liquor stores, O'Malley's speech -- one of the half-dozen he delivered that day, all without a text -- combined biblical references with a carefully contained street-level rage, sounding at once expansive and burdened, victorious and tragic. The congregation responded with nods and shouts of affirmation.

"We all have an obligation; we all have a responsibility," O'Malley said. "There's an Old Testament saying that if you save one life, it is as if you have saved the whole world. . . . We're here to celebrate the fact that we put one foot in front of the other. We didn't hide behind excuses. We didn't look the other way and tell ourselves that nothing could be done."

While O'Malley uses passionate rhetoric to deliver his message, he relies on numbers to demonstrate results. But the numbers tell a mixed story.

In June, the FBI released statistics showing that from 1999 to 2002 (O'Malley's time in office) serious crime -- murder, aggravated assault, rape and robbery -- declined 26 percent in Baltimore, the largest drop in the nation for that period. The number of murders dropped from 305 to 253.

But serious crime has been dropping nationwide: The Justice Department recently announced that violent and property crimes dropped in 2002 to their lowest level since 1973 and that the national murder rate was at its lowest in more than 20 years.

There are signs that Baltimore's gains are eroding: Police have logged 189 homicides this year, 18 more than at the same time last year and well above the number at which O'Malley pledged to hold the line two years ago: 175.

O'Malley has been accused of massaging crime data to his advantage -- a criticism he refutes vehemently. He hired a consultant to audit the statistics for 1999, the year he was elected. The investigator concluded that police had underreported serious offenses. With FBI approval, Baltimore added nearly 10,000 serious crimes to its ledgers for 1999, a 14 percent increase from what had been reported.

With so many crimes added, it was almost inevitable that the numbers would later drop, Stokes said.

"They're not comparing apples with apples," he said. "Obviously, his 2000 numbers were lower than his 1999 numbers."

City officials rebut this, saying that reporting procedures established in 2000 continue to be followed, so the numbers are comparable. But without an external audit, there is no way to verify that claim, and the city has not conducted a comprehensive audit since the 1999 review.

Numbers aside, O'Malley and his supporters say the mayor has worked wonders in a grim situation.

"He's swimming upstream against a very strong current," said Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "It will take literally years to achieve the levels of performance that people in the suburbs take for granted."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company