Firm answer gives rise to new questions

Many say mayor's career holds promise, but few offer specific predictions

By Laura Vozzella
Sun Staff

June 6, 2002

In making the toughest political decision of his career, Mayor Martin O'Malley answered one nagging question but left a lot of new ones about his future hanging.

Although his many supporters predict that he'll go far, his taking a pass yesterday on the governor's race could confine him to City Hall for many years to come, political observers say.
And holding on to that office is no sure thing, they say, for a white man in a majority black city.

"If he wants to advance to higher office in Maryland, he really doesn't have many opportunities if you think about it," said Donald F. Norris, professor of policy sciences at the
University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Whoever wins in the fall will probably be in office for eight years. We tend not to unelect governors unless they really do a bad job."

Maryland's two U.S. senators are getting older - Barbara A. Mikulski is 65, and Paul S. Sarbanes is 69 - but it's not clear that either intends to retire soon.

"They both seem pretty vigorous to me, and they love their jobs," Norris said. "And I just don't see either one stepping down."

Even so, many people predict a bright political future for O'Malley. At 39, he is young enough to wait for the right opportunity to come his way, observers say.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. predicts that O'Malley, his son-in-law, will be president of the United States in the not-too-distant future.

"I think you'll see him on the national ticket in eight, 10 years," Curran said. "And then I'll be able to baby-sit in the White House."

Even Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, now the presumed Democratic candidate for governor, declined to count O'Malley out on a day when he twice referred to the "vacuum of
leadership in the state Democratic Party."

"I think he has many possibilities," she said.

Some say O'Malley's political appeal was greatly enhanced by his decision to finish the job he was elected to do.

"I think he's got a tremendous political future because he did the right thing," Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said.

Yet being a big-city mayor can be a thankless job, even for a hard-working and gifted politician, if he or she is confronting problems - crime, failing schools, a shrinking population - that
are 30 or more years in the making, said James Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"He's really taking quite a risk in sticking around as mayor because Baltimore City has a lot of problems," Gimpel said. "The luster of Kurt Schmoke's mayoralty eventually faded. People
were pretty excited about him in his first term, too. And by the time he decided to leave office, a lot of people decided it was overdue."

Yet the city's challenges also present tremendous opportunities for O'Malley, who has presided over reductions in the city's homicide and drug-addiction rates since taking office two
and a half years ago.

He spoke of those accomplishments in his announcement yesterday: the average sale price of city homes has jumped from $69,000 to $90,000 since he became mayor; the number of jobs
has grown after a decade of loss; first-graders have scored above the national average in reading and math for the first time in 30 years.

He raised expectations for further progress with his announcement, saying he decided not to run because he did not want to risk "leaving this city's turnaround only half begun."

Just before the noontime news conference at a downtown hotel, O'Malley met with his cabinet and told them, "We must kick our efforts into high gear," according to an e-mail he sent to
community groups yesterday afternoon.

Despite publicly sparring with O'Malley over his interest in running for governor, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he thinks the mayor could have a promising future. "If the
people in the city of Baltimore see continued improvement in their city - they're already seeing improvement in their schools - if he can continue to battle this war on drugs, if he can make
people feel safe in their homes and protect their personal property, he'll be re-elected."

"It won't matter who gets picked as his opponent," Miller said. "If he improves life in Baltimore, the people of Baltimore will re-elect him. ... I see him as a major factor in state politics for a
long time to come."

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a Baltimore Democrat, agreed.

"His future is going to be brighter because people will see the sterling job he's done for the city," Rawlings said. "He'll be a little older and a little wiser. ... I've told him I'd endorse him for
U.S. Senate when Mikulski or Sarbanes leaves."

Some say O'Malley's charisma will carry him through any rough times at City Hall.

"He's got game. The guy has game," said lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano. "He walks in a room and the whole chemistry of the room changes. People just flock around him."

But Julius Henson, a political consultant who backed Lawrence A. Bell III's losing campaign against O'Malley and Joan M. Pratt's successful campaigns for comptroller, said he doesn't
believe O'Malley would be re-elected in 2004 if he ran.

"If he hangs around, I think of a couple of candidates could beat him in 2004," Henson said. "O'Malley's a bully and he calls people names, but he doesn't want to get in a real fight. I
don't believe he had the courage to run against Kathleen."

Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a former city councilman, said he thinks it is wrong for people to suggest that
Baltimore's black majority would refuse to re-elect O'Malley in 2004 because of his race.

"People are beyond that," Mfume said. "If he deserves re-election, he will get it. Pocketbook issues and neighborhood issues are what come to play in an election. And that is why
Martin was able to defeat two [African-American] candidates last election by earning more votes than both of them combined. ... I think the next election will be decided on issues with
more credibility than race."

Gene Bracken, spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee, an influential business group, said he is confident that O'Malley will continue to make the city a better place - particularly
through ambitious east- and west-side revitalization plans. In doing so, Bracken said, O'Malley would secure his political future.

"He's laying the groundwork for a lot of really important things," he said. "And I'm not sure everybody really grasps it yet."

Sun staff writers Allison Klein, Sarah Koenig, Howard Libit, David Nitkin and Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun