The Year in News
O'Malley vs. Ehrlich, Public Housing Segregation Trial, Computer Voting, Baltimore's Primary Election, and More
The Ongoing Battle Royale Between Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert Ehrlich Over the course of the year, we've seen numerous reports on the squabbles and catfights between them: Gov. Ehrlich tells Mayor O'Malley that unless slots are approved for the Pimlico racetrack, the city can expect to see "draconian" cuts to education and no chance to meet Thornton Commission recommendations. O'Malley, in return, calls Ehrlich "petty" and suggests he spend more energy "learning how to govern." Ehrlich steals O'Malley's police commissioner, Edward Norris, to head the Maryland State Police; Ehrlich tries to install a new welfare director for Baltimore city, and O'Malley sues to block the appointment.
From the beginning of Ehrlich's tenure as governor, he and O'Malley have been at each other's throats, and as the year has progressed, the tenor of their disagreements has become more adversarial. Ehrlich told WBAL-TV in early December that the alleged feud between the two has been blown out of proportion and that they disagree on only one issue--the Department of Social Services appointment--but who is clueless enough to believe that?
The escalating arguments are serious political posturing: It's widely believed that over the past year the O'Malley-Ehrlich drama has been but a dress rehearsal for what's to come if (when) O'Malley announces intentions to steal Ehrlich's throne in 2006. O'Malley has yet to confirm or deny his intentions to challenge the Republican governor, but if he does, it's bound to be a fascinating race: Ehrlich has the benefit of incumbency, but O'Malley is with the right party. Ehrlich may have been the first Republican to be elected governor in 30 years, but O'Malley is poised to be the next superstar launched by the Democrats. In an overwhelmingly Democratic state like Maryland, he's got a pretty good shot at taking the gubernatorial seat back for his party--no matter how many zingers and curve balls Ehrlich throws his way.
Public-Housing Segregation Trial It's fitting that, on the eve of next year's 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which banned racial segregation in public schools, Baltimore finds itself the subject of an epic trial that plumbs the history of the oh-so-obvious segregation in Mobtown's public housing. Thompson v. HUD, a federal civil-rights case filed in 1995, was fought this month in Baltimore's federal courthouse, pitting public-housing residents against the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city of Baltimore. The litigation has become a data-generating machine, dredging up primary sources from as far back as 60 years ago to describe the foundations of ongoing segregation that the plaintiffs allege is being purposefully pursued right up to the present day.
The case is literally making history in the sense that its documents comprise an unprecedented archive, analyzed and testified to by renowned historians and social scientists, about the failed public policy of a central social issue--where people can live in Baltimore. The educational value of the collected documents and academic studies is incalculable, but more than one trial observer has noted that they should be donated to the Enoch Pratt Free Library so the public can use it for years to come. But Thompson v. HUD is also history-making in the sense that the outcome (a verdict is due in January) may end up forcing future integration all around the greater Baltimore region, offering poor center-city blacks many more chances to move to mostly white suburbs. If that happens, public-housing de-segregation may make next year's Top 10 list.
Computer Voting A year ago--indeed, 10 or 15 years ago--the only people making a hue and cry about the inherent frailties of computer voting were a handful of geeky academics obsessed with computer security. Something happened in the aftermath of the November 2002 elections, though, when computer terminals recorded more votes than ever before. The public suddenly began to understand what these experts had been saying all along: that without an independent paper record of each voter's choices, computer-voting systems are shockingly vulnerable to undetected insider manipulation of election results.
The watershed event for this revelation was not City Paper's early coverage of the controversy ("Future Vote," Dec. 12, 2002), but a scathing report by a team of previously obscure computer analysts at Johns Hopkins and Rice universities that uncovered scads of design flaws in the computer-voting package that Maryland had just purchased from Diebold Election Systems. Critical press coverage has surged across the globe ever since, as has official reaction--to the point that both Congress and the Maryland General Assembly are set to consider legislation requiring election systems to produce voter-verified audit trails. This story, which went from a virtually unnoticed worry confined to academia to a top-priority policy issue in the space of a few short months, has legs like few others.
Baltimore's Primary Election This year's local primary election felt like something out of the Twilight Zone. First off, no one knew we would even have an election until this summer--a state legislative snafu forced the primary, and the weird timing unintentionally made some 16-year-olds eligible to vote and created an elections schedule wherein the primary and the general elections would be held 14 months apart.
The entire point of the election was to enforce Question P, a voter-referendum-approved initiative that restructured and reduced the size of the City Council. The point was to bring more accountability to council members and introduce new blood to the governmental body, which has almost never seen an incumbent lose his or her seat to a challenger. But when the election finally occurred, and people waited anxiously to find out who would hold onto their much-coveted council seats and who would get the boot, no incumbents lost. Rather, the few Baltimoreans who bothered to go to the polls voted for the very same politicians that Question P promised to oust.
The Weather Back in the 1970s, climate experts were predicting an ice age. Then, during the sweltering summer of 1988, talk of global warming was all the rage. Since then, the preferred jargon has become the catch-all phrase, "climate change."
No matter how you label it, though, climate change essentially means a long-term change in the weather--and in the Baltimore area, 2003 was a history-making year as far as weather and climate were concerned.
First, there was the Presidents' Day snowstorm in January, during which Baltimore experienced its largest recorded snowfall ever of more than 28 inches. That was followed a few days later by a 2.5-inch rainstorm that combined with snowmelt to cause widespread flooding and roof collapses. Then, in September, there was Tropical Storm Isabel, which only dropped a little more than three inches of rain but brought with it a storm surge of more than eight feet, flooding and severely damaging or destroying homes and businesses in vast areas of the region.
But the real news is yet to come: 2003 is likely to be Baltimore's wettest year ever, easily on target to beat the 62 inches of precipitation that fell in 1889--the longtime record-holder. And to think that last year at this time drought was all the worry.
Police This hasn't exactly been a banner year for the Baltimore City Police Department. In fact, it's been downright embarrassing. In January 2003, former Commissioner Ed Norris took over the Maryland State Police, and the city was left holding the bill for his huge severance package. And his replacement, Commissioner Kevin Clark, almost a year on the job, hasn't exactly made lots of friends in the department--or the city. Shake-ups in the command staff have left morale on the force disastrously low, and Clark's attempts to put New York City policing tactics into effect in Baltimore (such as issuing civil citations for low-level crimes and establishing a nightlife task force to monitor bars and clubs) have met with heavy criticism.
The department's crime-reporting methods came under scrutiny when it was revealed earlier this month that the department underreported the number of rapes in 2002 by 15 percent. And the promised decrease in homicides hasn't materialized--in fact, as of press time, the city's homicide total was 252, exceeding 2002's total of 245.
The police also felt some pain after Tropical Storm Isabel blew through the region--the floodwaters from the storm left much of the department's evidence room underwater. Ouch.
Despite having had such a difficult year, the department does have one thing to be thankful for: that Norris left for the state police before he could bring further shame on the department with his recent indictment for misusing public funds for private gain.
Public Corruption The year started off portentously when the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, Thomas Dibiagio, told the press in January that "we have laid the foundation to pursue significant public corruption in Maryland." With the benefit of 11 more months of hindsight, it's clear that Dibiagio was not speaking idly. Since then, his office has:
That's a busy year by anyone's count, though the hard part--trying to prove guilt--is yet to come.
Corporate Malefactors All things considered, Maryland's corporate citizenry is downright upright compared to the likes of Enron and WorldCom and other toppling giants who lied and cheated their way to the top on the backs of investors. But the Free State in 2003 had its own freewheelin' scoundrel in the limelight: CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, Maryland's largest health insurer, suffered stout accusations from the Maryland Insurance Administration that the behemoth nonprofit and its executives lied, mismanaged, and tried to profiteer from this year's abandoned attempt to sell itself off to a California insurer. The insurance administration's reports touched off an ongoing federal criminal investigation.
More subtle are the rumblings of concern in the local mutual-fund industry. Legg Mason Wood Walker announced in November that it faced a proposed federal fine of $2.3 million for overcharging mutual-fund customers, adding that it also had been subpoenaed by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who is probing the industry for improper practices. Meanwhile, litigation and state investigations in Maryland and South Carolina, sparked by allegations of a former Legg Mason broker who says the company barred him from advising clients to sell off technology stocks before the bubble burst in 2000, have raised a few eyebrows despite Legg's protests of innocence. To make matters worse, Legg Mason lost a $20 million court judgment in October, when a market-analysis newsletter convinced a federal jury that the firm had been illegally distributing unauthorized copies of the subscription-based publication.
Baltimore's other major player in the mutual-fund industry, T. Rowe Price, has kept its nose clean this year, though it disclosed in the fall that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's industrywide investigation into improper trading has knocked on its doors. The SEC's inquest has spread far and wide, so T. Rowe's contacts from law enforcement are easily dismissed at this point as pro forma. But an announcement in November--that T.Rowe's chief financial officer, Cristina Wasiak, had been relieved of her duties without explanation and assigned to "special projects"--had tongues wagging among industry players.
Is there trouble brewing at T. Rowe? So far, there's been nothing more to suggest so publicly. But, with CareFirst and Legg Mason in the headlines, and the national context of chickens repeatedly coming home to roost for corporate villains, people are bound to suspect the worst.
Transportation It may not be the sexiest story of 2003, but it's probably the one that most directly affects the day-to-day lives of many Baltimoreans. On July 1, the Maryland Transit Authority raised its light rail, subway, and bus fares from $1.35 to $1.60--an 18.5 percent increase that puts Baltimore behind only New York and Atlanta for the honor of most expensive bus ride in the nation. (Not that Baltimore's unreliable, confusing, and frustratingly sparse public transportation system seems worthy of comparison to either city.) And while prices went up, services were reduced, so Marylanders now pay more for less. Several bus lines were cut over the summer, leaving many MTA riders stranded with no way to get to their jobs. And while Baltimore City transportation sputtered and struggled just to get through the year, Gov. Robert Ehrlich approved a hefty $1.7 million proposal to fund the Intercounty Connector Highway, a commuter roadway that will be constructed between Gaithersburg and Laurel. It's nice to know that wealthy Washington suburbanites will spend a little less time sitting in traffic while more Baltimoreans are left standing out in the cold.
Nanotechnology The last "next big thing" to fuel a spasm of boosterism for city and state economic development was information technology--the germ of the idea behind Baltimore's so-called "Digital Harbor," which has since expanded to include just about anything with "tech" in its name. There wasn't much of an info-tech presence in the region to begin with, so when the tech-driven stock market collapsed starting in 2000 there wasn't much to lose.
This time, though, what's been called "the tiny revolution" is taking over the national research agenda, and economic forecasters are auguring a near future in which nanotechnology--applied research into molecular and atomic functions that promise to improve materials, electronics, and medicine--rakes in $1 trillion per year by 2015. And this latest thing just so happens to dovetail nicely with Maryland's longstanding status as an important home to biotechnology, medicine, the defense industry, and federal research.
Maryland is consistently in the top three states to receive federal research dollars, thanks in part to the presence of 57 federal laboratories. Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, defense-industry giants Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman, and the biotech companies along the I-270 corridor in Montgomery County add a disproportionate number of eggheads to the state's population, so Maryland boasts a leading brain trust in science, engineering, and medicine. In Baltimore, two biotech parks--one anchored by Hopkins on the east side, the other by the University of Maryland on the west--are soon to be built, intending to house companies that bridge the chasm between academic and government labs and the marketplace.
While numerous regions across the country hope to exploit the nanotech potential, ours may be better prepared to compete for the coming dollars. The initial push from the federal government--$3.7 billion for research--was approved by President Bush in November. Meanwhile, the state's economic-development officials this year began actively organizing efforts to identify and grow Maryland's nanotech sector. No wonder Maryland in 2003 ranked as the sixth-hottest spot in the nation for nanotech. This distinction, according to Small Times, an industry magazine, was due to "a balanced cluster of new and existing businesses, world-class research, investment capital, and a supportive government." It may all end up being smoke and mirrors, but 2003 was the year when Maryland suddenly woke up to its own readiness to join in a tiny revolution.
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