Sometimes a political event takes place that doesn’t make any sense. No, I’m not talking about the federal government shutdown, which, upon reflection, is perfectly understandable. The gridlocked politicians in Washington simply reflect the gridlocked nation that elected them.
The American people are badly polarized between two very different world views with little room for compromise or direction. How do you explain a nation that elects Barack Obama president in 2008, repudiates him by electing a Republican Congress two years later, and then elects Obama again in 2012?
But the inexplicable event I’m talking about is Gov. Martin O’Malley picking a nasty, gratuitous fight with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, one of his closest political allies.
O’Malley is publicly criticizing the mayor for Baltimore’s spike in homicides. “I believe it has to do with the fact that enforcement levels and police response have fallen to 13-year lows,” he said.
If Baltimore police made more arrests, said O’Malley, there’d be fewer murders. In 1999, O’Malley ran for mayor as a crime fighter and, once elected, adopted a zero-tolerance policy that led to an era of mass arrests peaking at 100,000 (more than 20 percent of the adult population) during several years of O’Malley’s term.
Folks, mostly blacks, were arrested for minor offenses or on their way to church, weddings or work (20 percent of the arrests were dropped as baseless.) And many young Baltimoreans ended up with harmful, unwarranted arrest records. Appalled at the civil rights infringements, the ACLU and the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the city that resulted in an $870,000 settlement.
Nevertheless, O’Malley credits his zero tolerance policy with reducing crime and is critical of Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s targeted enforcement against gangs and guns. Under Rawlings-Blake, arrests have fallen more than half.
But this is a fight that O’Malley can’t possibly win on either the merits or on the politics.
Despite O’Malley’s election promise to reduce them to 175 per year, homicides actually increased during his term from 253 (in 2003) to 276 (the year he left office). After that, homicides receded to a 30-year low of 197 in 2011.
Amazingly, O’Malley, four years removed from being mayor, tried grabbing credit for the 2011 downturn. Pointing to his past mass arrests as a contributing factor, he said, “I’m not going to quibble with God over the timing (of the downturn).” Now however, with Baltimore’s homicides headed to 221, O’Malley is shifting from credit-taking to blame-placing.
At first, Mayor Rawlings-Blake tried politely deflecting the assault. “While I appreciate Governor O’Malley’s concern about crime in Baltimore, it’s simply inaccurate to suggest more arrests lead to less crime,” she said.
But instead of relenting, O’Malley doubled down with a Baltimore Sun op-ed piece calling for more arrests “despite the protest of the ideologues of the left.” Strange rhetoric from the guy who repealed Maryland’s death penalty.
Finally, fed up with O’Malley’s attacks, Mayor Rawlings-Blake lowered the boom: “There is an anxiety that is building in some of our communities that we’re going back to a time when communities felt like their kids were under siege.” Message translation: “Martin, if you keep this up I’m going to make it into a race issue that you will forever regret.”
What’s so astonishing is O’Malley’s willingness to shatter such a long-standing political alliance. When O’Malley first ran for mayor in 1999 against two black candidates, it was Del. Pete Rawlings, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s dad, who issued the crucial endorsement making O’Malley acceptable to black voters.
In return, O’Malley’s younger brother, Peter O’Malley, ran Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s mayoral campaign and, thereafter, served as her chief of staff.
And not only is Martin O’Malley annoying the mayor, he’s making life miserable for his protege and wannabe successor, Anthony Brown, who’s being forced into a no-win choice between the governor and the mayor.
Martin O’Malley isn’t stupid. Ambitious, narcissistic, yes. But dumb, no. So why is he waging this pointless battle over Baltimore murder rates? Well, maybe he’s speaking to a national audience and maybe Baltimore is merely a stage and homicides are merely the script.
After all, the presidential campaign isn’t going well. Despite those countless Sunday TV talk shows and visits to other states, O’Malley isn’t even registering in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls.
So maybe Martin O’Malley is trying to reinvent himself, temper his death penalty repeal, Black Guerilla Family image with some tough-on-crime, mass arrests rhetoric.
And maybe Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is serving as O’Malley’s Sister Soulja, the 1990s angry black hip-hop hate merchant whom presidential candidate Bill Clinton put into her place to appease white voters who feared Clinton was too liberal.
After Sister Soulja’s inflammatory remark, “If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?,” Clinton made a calculated public attack on Soulja and on Jessie Jackson for including her in his Rainbow Coalition. According to Wikipedia, “Clinton’s well-known repudiation of her (Soulja’s ) comments led to what is now known in politics as a Sister Soulja moment.”
So, maybe O’Malley is reshaping his image by orchestrating a Sister Soulja moment, or more accurately, a Sister Stephanie moment. Hey, it worked for Clinton in 1992; maybe it will work for O’Malley in 2016.
Blair Lee is chairman of the board of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in the Business Gazette. His past columns are available at www.gazette.net/blairlee. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.