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The Nose

Spin City

John Ellsberry
The best O'Malley could muster on the depopulation problem was to note that, according to 2000 Census results, Baltimore didn't lose as many people as was "gloomily predicted."

Posted 4/11/2001

Mr. O'Malley went to Washington April 5, and all the news from Charm City was charming as Hizzoner addressed a crowd of 50-some fellow urban chief executives at a National Summit for Investment in the New American City hosted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors at D.C.'s Ritz-Carlton.

The official topic of the luncheon session was "Educating the Workforce for the New Economy," but O'Malley ranged far and wide, crowing about the Digital Harbor, crime reduction, property values, even school improvements before passing the mic to developers/deep-pocketed campaign donors Bill Struever and Otis Warren for more happy talk. They made things in Baltimore sound so rosy that Oakland, Calif., Mayor Jerry Brown, leafing through a Digital Harbor info packet, had to ask the Nose, "Is it real?"

Well, no, we told him, not all of it. Much of the good stuff O'Malley and friends shared were projections--hopes for the future, based on a hearty measure of civic optimism. O'Malley was quick to say that $4 billion in private investment is en route to Baltimore, but he didn't mention that key Digital Harbor companies have been tanking, and that his risky public-safety spending spree is contributing to library closures, mass layoffs of city workers, and cutbacks in recycling.

By way of a reality check, Brown noted, "You're still losing people"--and a declining population isn't the best route to ramping up the revenue stream. A fair point: Even though the real-estate market's hot in some neighborhoods, there's no indication that the city is attracting much-needed new residents and their much-needed tax dollars. The best O'Malley could muster on the depopulation problem was to note that, according to 2000 Census results, Baltimore didn't lose as many people as was "gloomily predicted."

To be fair, the optimistic approach was understandable, politically speaking. O'Malley's a young leader with a bright future, and it's only natural that he'd want to strike a clout-filled room of fellow mayors as a get-things-done kinda guy. No sooner did he step foot in the hall than he was pressing flesh with folks he recognized from last summer's Democratic Leadership Conference confab in Baltimore--the last occasion on which O'Malley had the opportunity to gain the benediction of a national political audience.

He started by charming the crowd with an Irish wisecrack, followed by the tale of a champion hunting dog named "Mayor" who loses his edge after someone calls him "Legislator." Then O'Malley launched, with characteristic earnestness, into the sanguine tale of a city on the rise. "I truly believe that my city is going to be in the vanguard of the comeback cities of America," he declared--stopping short of his "greatest city in America" slogan, presumably because it wouldn't fly in this particular room. Then he trumpeted declining crime (even though so far this year the homicide rate is about the same as last year's) and rising property values, and reported that last year, for the first time in a decade, state statistics showed Baltimore gaining more jobs than it lost.

So far so good. But the mayor also heralded improved reading scores for city third-graders, without mentioning that the scores rose after new tests were used for the first time, rendering any comparison to past years meaningless. And while he credited the state for helping bring scores up, he neglected to note that this "help" was court-ordered under a lawsuit settlement that all but stripped Baltimore City of control over the local school system.

If O'Malley was at least offering a state-of-his-city report, albeit a mildly skewed one, his successors at the podium served up pure PR. Struever wowed the crowd with a PowerPoint presentation called "The Baltimore Story," a thumbnail history of downtown and a hopeful look at the potential for reinvestment. The mayors laughed at a day-in-the-life comparison of a Canton high-tech worker and resident worker bee in a hypothetical suburb called "Dullsville," the latter laboring in antiseptic monotony while the former sips gourmet coffee and kayaks to work. The plug was so effective that the discussion's moderator, Long Beach, Calif., Mayor Beverly O'Neill, asked O'Malley, "Is he on your payroll?"

Warren followed with an impassioned tribute to O'Malley, and to himself. He asserted that a large, hopeless population of African-Americans in Baltimore needs success stories for inspiration--success stories like Martin O'Malley and Otis Warren. "We now have a person who has looked at the situation and has said, 'I have to include all of the players.' Believe me, watch Baltimore." Warren's spiel prompted O'Neill to turn again to O'Malley and quip, "Is he on your payroll too?"

Judging by the "oohs" and "aahs" during the Baltimore presentations and the review the Nose heard afterward, the mayors seemed pretty taken with the O'Malley phenomenon. Which we suppose has its benefits, civic PR-wise. And with the shine from the Ravens' Super Bowl victory wearing off, the homicide rate stabilizing, and a budget crisis looming, it's little wonder that O'Malley would take full advantage of an opportunity to keep up appearances while he's still got momentum on his side.

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