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Top Ten

The Year in News

Uli Loskot

Top Ten 2006

The Year in News Republican rule was supposed to be good for Maryland, tightening up the fiscal scene and challenging... | By Van Smith

The Year in Quotes 1 "We dress up funny, run around in the woods, and hit each other with sticks. There's something ...

The Year in Movies Must 2006 be the year of Borat? Not trying to take anything away from director Larry Charles and act...

The Year in Television Three-quarters of a century into its existence, television may finally be becoming our mirror. Yes, ...

The Year in Music A bad year for hip-hop? People kept saying that throughout the last 12 months, but you'd never know ...

The Year in Local Music This was hard. A shit-ton of Baltimore bands, singers, rappers, and bang-on-some-pots-and-pans'ers r...

The Year in Art The year's past first Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays have been ridiculously event-packed. How to ...

The Year in Stage There's no denying the pleasures of maximalist theater. A large-cast, elaborate-set production such ...

The Year in Books David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest first appeared 10 years ago. And, apparently, the 10th annivers...

By Van Smith | Posted 12/13/2006

Republican rule was supposed to be good for Maryland, tightening up the fiscal scene and challenging the Democratic hegemony in the Free State with a bit of house-cleaning. It didn't turn out as hoped. The rainmakers and puppet masters just switched sides in 2002, ushering in Robert Ehrlich as GOP governor for business as usual--the same old cronyism, the same old culture of corruption, the same old structural deficit. This year, Maryland tradition was restored as the Dems took back the governorship--and gained even more of an advantage in the legislature. Meanwhile, on the national scene, the GOP still has the White House, but it lost both houses of Congress. Thus, 2006 brought partisan change, but in many ways the song remains the same, especially here in Baltimore--the gap separating rich from poor continued to widen, ethics stayed low on the priority list for leaders, power kept being abused, children continued to be left behind, corporate handouts remained the norm, and the media itself stayed in the news. What changed is the economic trend: After tech stocks crested and fell at the turn of the century, real-estate became the hot-ticket item, but now it's cooling off, too. Just in time for winter. Brrrr.

New Blood Between them, outgoing state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, 85, and retiring Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., 75, both Democrats, have served nearly 100 years in Maryland politics. Their replacements, Democrats elected this fall, are toddlers by comparison. Incoming comptroller Peter Franchot, 59, has been a member of the House of Delegates since the mid-1980s, while Doug Gansler, 44, will replace Curran after serving as Montgomery County state's attorney since 1998. Not-so-new blood is entering the U.S. Senate to replace the outgoing Paul Sarbanes, 73, a 40-year fixture of Maryland politics--U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin of the 3rd District, a 63-year-old whose two-generations-long rise in Maryland politics now goes even higher. The most momentous move is Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's to Annapolis. The Democrat beat out Republican incumbent Gov. Robert Ehrlich. O'Malley's blood may not be so new--he's restoring Democratic rule to the statehouse after a brief GOP stint, and, while young at 43, he's Curran's son-in-law and a favorite son of the Democratic establishment--but it runs thick with bold ambitions.

Power Vacuum Back in 1999, the General Assembly was proud to deregulate the state's energy market, promising massive rate reductions for consumers as competitive kilowatt trading replaced cost-based prices set by the Maryland Public Service Commission. Lawmakers eased the transition by imposing a 6.5 percent rate reduction and a six-year cap on rates. Until early this year, nothing much else was said about the change. Then, as the cap was about to expire, all hell broke loose--and legislators ran for cover as consumers learned they would soon face rate increases of more than 70 percent. Over the summer, the General Assembly passed a measure aimed at mitigating the pain of the rate-rise, and ordered the PSC to study how to structure the energy market with rate-payers' interests in mind, with a year-end deadline for recommendations. The electoral fallout from the snafu was expected to be dire for incumbents, but after this fall's elections, the roster change was minimal--and in favor of Democrats, the party most responsible for deregulation in the first place.

Bad Cops It was a tough year to be a good cop in Baltimore, as the bad apples seemed to sour the whole bunch. In January, three officers in the Southwestern District flex squad were charged with rape, bringing to light evidence of other possible crimes by the same squad. Then, in April, two detectives were convicted of robbing drug dealers, an officer was charged with stealing rims off a car belonging to an arrested citizen, and a cop was convicted of gambling. In July, two city officers were charged in Baltimore County in separate crimes--fraud and theft in one case, burglary and stalking in the other. And in August, a Baltimore officer was charged with identity theft in Pennsylvania. Adding to the image problem, record-setting numbers of arrests raised allegations of widespread violations of citizens' rights and brought in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Tainted Politicians It's hard to give politics a bad name in the post-Nixon era, but this year in Maryland it got worse. Retired state senator Thomas Bromwell of Baltimore County stands accused of using his elected position to steer major state construction contracts to a firm that, in return, allegedly funneled money and free services to him and his wife. The noose tightened substantially this year in the federal case, as six players in the scheme have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate against Bromwell and his wife, who have maintained their innocence and are scheduled to go to trial in February. Meanwhile, in the Baltimore City Council, President (and soon to be mayor) Sheila Dixon is under a cloud for appearing to advocate during city hearings on behalf of a firm that employed her sister and for apparently bypassing required oversight channels in paying city funds to a company owned by her former political campaign chairman. State investigators are probing the situation, but the city Board of Ethics has been holding back in its investigation.

Media Muck-ups The new year started with a bang in January for Michael Olesker. The long-time Sun columnist was dropped like a hot potato after allegations that he was a serial plagiarist were borne out by a Sun investigation. The new daily in town, The Examiner, published spurious stories this year about a serial killer in lower Park Heights and teen-sex parties in Carroll County. City Paper's feature on raw vegans missed the fact that the story's poster child occasionally noshes on nachos with cheese. WJZ-TV ran a breaking-news story that simply wasn't true--that ex-Seinfeld star Michael Richards, on the heels of a racist tirade at a comedy club, made a blackface appearance at a celebrity roast for Whoopi Goldberg. The media in this town can be part of the problem, at least some of the time.

Poor, Broke, but Not Lonely The U.S. Census Bureau this year released its 2005 figures, and for Maryland the good news was clouded by indications of poverty on the rise--especially for children, and especially in Baltimore. Exactly one-third of the city's under-18 population now lives in poverty, up by 2.3 percentage points since 2000. The proportion of the city's overall population below the poverty line stands at 22.6 percent, up from 22 percent in 2000. Statewide, meanwhile, the proportion of all residents in poverty dropped to 8.2 percent from 8.3 in 2000, but for children the situation is reversed--with 10.8 percent poverty-stricken compared to 10.7 in 2000. Privileged households with $200,000 or more in income, meanwhile, were on the upswing--from 3 percent of all Maryland households in 2000 to 4.9 percent in 2005. The city enjoyed a smaller boost on this score, from 1.4 percent in 2000 to 1.8 percent in 2005. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer--a sad trend that can't continue if Baltimore is ever truly going to rebound.

Historic Insignificance In July, the rectory of St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church in Fells Point was demolished to make way for condominiums. In September, the Rochambeau apartment building on North Charles Street was cleared away in favor of a prayer garden for its owner, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In November, the City Council and Mayor Martin O'Malley quietly enacted a law that stripped protections for 1820s rowhouses on St. Paul Place--the last of their kind downtown--to make way for a hospital tower that the properties' owner, Mercy Medical Center, wants to build there. Each of these moves fulfilled the wishes of religious institutions over the protests of historic preservationists. Perhaps they should go to church more often.

Schools in Crisis Baltimore City public schools seem perpetually ridden with scandal, and 2006 was no exception. Financial-control problems persisted, with emergency contracts that lack accountability being used profligately and allegations of fiscal misconduct being investigated by criminal prosecutors. Standards for students were lowered, so that 60 instead of 70 became a passing grade. School violence was in the news shockingly often. Criminals were hired to teach. A state takeover of 11 failing Baltimore schools was averted when the city's delegation to the General Assembly acted--but academic performance continues to lag, with notable exceptions among some younger students. Former schools CEO Bonnie Copeland resigned, perhaps due to these ongoing problems, and interim chief Charlene Cooper Boston inherited them--and what may be the toughest schools job in the nation.

Relaxing Real Estate The state is facing a slow-down in revenue collection, driven, in large part, by a slow-down in the real-estate market. Whereas home-sales prices in Baltimore in 2005 were 20-30 percent above what they were the year before, this year the gains are in the single digits--or negative in other areas of the state. As Maryland budget officials explained to legislative leaders in November, Maryland "has two different economies going--one that's related to real estate, and one that isn't," adding that the state's real-estate economy "collapsed" this year, and "we expect that that's going to continue."

Buildings Collapse Fallout from the hot real-estate market of the past several years includes falling buildings--the result of poor oversight of renovations gone awry. Nosebleed prices for housing in waterfront neighborhoods spurred a flurry of restoration work, some of it risky to the point of damaging the worked-on structures--and those around them. A favorite: digging out basements to create more living space, but corner-cutting contractors in some cases undermined buildings, which collapsed. In other cases, the work caused damage to neighboring abodes. The problem spawned lawsuits and criminal investigations.

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