Field of Schemes: A cavalcade of Baltimore projects, done and undone

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 12, 2003

It may sound crass, but development is pure and simple speculation. One can dress it up with high-minded jargon–“public-private partnership” or “urban renewal”–but the game remains a tangled, chancy knot of land deals and debt-fueling projects aided or underwritten by taxpayer dollars.

And so it’s been played in Baltimore since Colonial times, when Baltimore Town, Jones Town, and Fells Point were first laid out in the 1730s. As historian Sherry Olson writes at the beginning of her authoritative tome Baltimore, “the city itself was to be the great speculation,” with its growth driven from the start by the overlapping financial affairs of private and public interests.

Similarly, developers today commonly reduce their risks by relying on public money to build on scarce harbor-front land. This business-government alliance, then-Rouse Co. chief executive officer Mathias DeVito told City Paper back in 1995, “is a part of our culture here.”

Sometimes this development dance has worked, sometimes it hasn’t–and sometimes it turned out differently than intended, or was never done at all. The high-end residences of Mount Vernon Place, built in the 19th century, comprise what many say is the most beautiful urban space in the United States. The high-end condo complex Scarlett Place, on the other hand, looks as much like a Lego creation today as it did in the go-go 1980s, when it rose in the footprint of a closed President Street warehouse. The 6-year-old Columbus Center sits forlornly at the Inner Harbor, an unmitigated failure as a science-based tourist attraction. Next door, though, the brand-name draws at the Power Plant (Barnes and Noble, ESPN Zone, Hard Rock Café) have preserved a striking century-old relic. Harborview Towers along Key Highway broke ground 14 years ago and is only half-built, its lone high-rise bearing a cartoonish resemblance to a lighthouse, but the Howard Street Arts District, meant to revitalize the old west-side shopping district by nurturing the muses, was never built at all.

Successful or not, Baltimore’s drive to build and rebuild has been inexorable, even in the face of the Great Fire of 1904, the Great Depression and other financial disasters, the tenacious flight of jobs and residents to the suburbs, and the riots of 1968. Housing, highways, hotels, industry, office space, public transportation–it’s all gone up, in one way or another, shaped by geography (especially the city’s waterfront and watersheds) and the resolve and resources of the rich and powerful, be they in business or government. And thus we, for better or worse, have places to live, work, play, shop, and travel–places whose stories, sampled below, echo the strains and harmonies of Baltimore’s development.

The Fairfield Ecological Industrial Park 

When Baltimore was awarded a $100 million federal Empowerment Zone grant to boost jobs for poor residents in 1994, city leaders confidently called the proposed Fairfield Ecological Industrial Park the “crown jewel” of the plan. Located on a South Baltimore peninsula far from downtown, the industrial park–a polluting cluster of oil-tank farms, factories, and scrap yards–was to become an economic engine fueled by recycling and reuse; one plant’s waste would be another’s raw material. Residents of the city’s other two Empowerment Zones, one each in East and West Baltimore, were expected to fill the coming jobs, along with the handful of people still living in Fairfield, and businesses would claim tax benefits for hiring them.

Then, nothing really happened. There were planning symposiums, community meetings and strategy sessions–even enrollment in a federal program to make environmental permitting more flexible for businesses there. Much feel-good rhetoric was spun about the eco-industrial park. Then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke and luminaries from Washington used it in speeches as a model for the economy of the future. The city made ambitious promises for capital improvements–new roads, new storm drains, new curbs and lighting. In 1997, the state passed brownfields legislation to make it easier to redevelop abandoned and polluted industrial land, a step that ostensibly would help facilitate the eco-industrial park plan.

Other than the wholesale buyout by the city of the homes of the remaining 300 or so Fairfield residents in 1998, little change came about. In 1999, the eco-industrial park was withdrawn from the flexible-permitting program for inactivity and lack of interest. By 2000, the city was already quieting on the ecological part of the equation, though efforts to bring new business to the area continued. The city has spent about $5.5 million to date on road and drainage improvements in Fairfield. A granite-slab company was enticed with a $150,000 city loan to move there in 2000, the same year that the city forgave $300,000 in debt owed by the Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse development company, which has been trying since 1989 to revive a polluted portion of Fairfield called Port Liberty. In the end, though, the eco-park concept was abandoned, and Fairfield remains the same old petro-chemical industrial park that it’s been for decades.

The Middle Branch Waterfront 

In 1724, just six years before Baltimore Town was founded on the North Branch of the Patapsco River, landowners in the area approached the legislature with plans for a town at Spring Gardens, near where the Gwynns Falls empties into the Patapsco’s Middle Branch in what is now known as South Baltimore. Their efforts were blocked by John Moale, who owned the land and preferred to mine for iron there–which he did until he died in 1740–so a first settlement was chosen instead on the North Branch. Thus, if not for Moale’s self-interest, Middle Branch would be Baltimore’s Inner Harbor today. Instead, it’s Baltimore’s other, overlooked waterfront.

The Middle Branch was committed to industrial purposes during Baltimore’s formative years in the 19th century. The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.’s precursor in the 1850s chose Spring Gardens as the site for a gas-making plant, then later chose Westport, across the river, for a giant coal-fired power plant. The Carr Lowery Glass Co., which closed this year, first set up shop on the Middle Branch’s shores in 1889. Rubble from the 1904 fire was pushed into Middle Branch marshland, as was fill from city subway excavations in the 1970s.

The waterway’s other favorite use was recreation, as city dwellers at the turn of the 20th century chose places like Ferry Bar Park and the various rowing clubs dotting the shoreline as weekend destinations. They were always cheek-to-jowl with the smokestacks, but today the BRESCO trash incinerator is the only stack still belching.

Nascent signs of new investment have started to peek through the industrial detritus of Middle Branch. On the former Port Covington railroad yards sits a new Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club that opened in 2002, thanks in part to tax credits. Nearby, at the dilapidated city-owned marina next to the Hanover Street Bridge, a team of investors is planning extensive renovations, including a new restaurant and entertainment venue. The National Aquarium had been planning a $30 million Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation at a 7-acre city park on the west side of the Hanover Street Bridge, but it recently ran into cleanup problems.

Also poking up from the urban detritus–and the refuse and sewage coming into the Middle Branch from the Gwynns Falls and various storm drains–is an ecology of sorts. Herons, kingfishers, and even beavers frequent its shores and rotted piers, which themselves have become vegetated islands of habitat.

For the last quarter century, city planners and local architects have been calling for the Middle Branch to become the city’s “second waterfront” by creating access and amenities along its shores and promoting recreational uses like fishing, biking, and picnicking. As the city strives to solve its extensive leaky-sewer problems and also installs a debris collector to keep trash from entering Middle Branch in the first place, the degraded waterway may yet become a destination again–this time without the heavy industry.

Coldspring NewTown 

Back in 1970, when Abell Foundation President Robert Embry was the city’s housing commissioner, Moshe Safdie captured his imagination. The young Israeli-born Canadian architect had wowed the crowds at Montreal’s 1967 World Fair with Habitat, a complex of modular, mass-produced housing and retail space arranged as a self-contained community for urban markets. With residents fast abandoning Baltimore for the surrounding suburbs, Embry and other city leaders were willing to commit urban-renewal funds to try new things–even something along the lines of Habitat–in order to keep the city’s dwindling middle class. And try they did with Coldspring NewTown.

Located just south of Cylburn Arboretum between Greenspring Avenue and the Jones Falls, the project was initially designed to straddle Coldspring Lane on 370 acres and comprise 3,700 dwelling units for 12,000 people. Some were to live in “deck houses”–raised concrete, aluminum, and-stucco condominium complexes with parking beneath the homes and walkways and green space throughout–and many more in apartment buildings, including a top-entry high-rise to be built down the face of the old Woodberry Quarry. The price tag was $200 million, with $50 million coming from federal coffers. City voters approved a bond sale to insure condo buyers’ mortgages.

In 1977, the first phase was completed: 252 deck houses. They were snatched up by a mixed bag of professionals–including high-ranking city bureaucrats, architects, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and journalists. More public money was spent to lay the foundation for the project’s next phase–the NewTown part of the concept, with stores and community services–when Ronald Reagan became president and nearly turned off the spigot of federal funds that had fueled Baltimore’s urban-renewal gravy train during the 1970s. The project stalled, only a fraction completed.

Until the 1990s, when construction started on a different tack–a hundred or so suburban-style homes along Coldspring NewTown’s boundary with the Cylburn Arboretum–the isolated development was surrounded by vestiges of its failure. Mounds of earth had been moved, sewers and roads installed, foundation work laid down, but much of it was left eerily idle. Almost 900 people, however, now live in what had been uninhabited woodland. Their combined property taxes contribute approximately $500,000 per year to city coffers. That’s not much return for tens of millions of dollars in public investment–unless, of course, you’re one of the original condo buyers who scored unique urban homes for $30,000 to $60,000 with low-rate, bond-insured mortgages.

Inner Harbor East 

Three or four decades ago, Inner Harbor East–a 20-acre parcel around where the Jones Falls empties into the harbor, right next to Little Italy–was slated for a highway interchange. After that proposal crashed and burned, thanks to an epic political battle that spawned several careers (including that of now-U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski), a decade-long community planning process started to create a vision for the property.

What was ultimately agreed upon, in a plan made official in 1990–a cluster of upscale townhouses, a marina, offices, retail space, and an 18-story hotel–was “to balance all the interests of neighborhood life with the interests of commercial developers,” as then-Mayor Schmoke explained at the time. New buildings, all agreed, were to have low elevations and a street-level orientation, so as not to overshadow the rowhouses and restaurants of nearby Little Italy and Fells Point.

With a hard-fought plan in place, community activists rested easy. The city held up its end of the bargain, building roads and water lines and completing marina renovations, and then started to sweeten the deal for the property’s main owner–H&S; Bakery owner John Paterakis.

The favors started with $1.5 million in federal money, which was chipped in for a $9.2 million office and apartment complex where Sylvan Learning Systems is now based. Then the city subtracted first $1.7 million, then another $1 million, from Paterakis’ $4 million share of the costs for infrastructure (roads, water lines, marina renovations, etc.). Then, in 1995, the city gave Paterakis another $1.8 million in financial breaks, and deferred his $6.5 million obligation to purchase two city-owned parcels in the development area. But that was just for starters.

The real surprise at Inner Harbor East didn’t come until 1997. At that point, the city’s $150 million Convention Center expansion was completed, but the center needed about 1,000 more hotel rooms in order to support the expected growth in bookings. Two-thirds of the Convention Center’s cost had been covered by the state, so legislators all around Maryland were anxious to see it succeed.

To the surprise of many, Inner Harbor East–about a mile from the Convention Center–was chosen as the Convention Center headquarters hotel’s home in 1997 over two other closer sites. What’s more, Paterakis’ proposed hotel blew the Inner Harbor East plan out of the water–as initially approved, his hotel was to be a 48-story behemoth, costing nearly $150 million, with a third of the cost covered by public funds.

Ultimately, Paterakis’ Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel rose 32 stories–not quite twice the height spelled out in the 1990 urban-renewal plan–and vocal critics have tempered their complaints since its construction was completed in 2000. After all, with a significant public stake in the project, its success significantly impacts city coffers. And now it is joined by a proposal for a $130 million Four Seasons hotel and condo complex made up of two 20-story towers, also receiving healthy public subsidies. So much for Inner Harbor East having the scale and feel of the quaint neighborhoods surrounding it.

HOPE VI 

President Bill Clinton came and went, but Baltimore will bear the mark of $150 million his administration gave to the city’s public-housing program for years to come. The money came in the form of HOPE VI grants, and they were used to demolish and replace antiquated public-housing high-rises with mixed-income townhouse developments for homeowners and public-housing residents alike. Lafayette Courts, Hollander Ridge, Flag House, Murphy Homes, Lexington Terrace, Broadway Homes–for nearly 50 years, these were familiar addresses and home to thousands of Baltimore’s poor. Now they are all gone, some of them replaced with new housing–but for vastly fewer people, and less of them poor, than were living there before.

“When the towers come down, the tenants have to go somewhere, and what they do is fan out to nearby working-class neighborhoods, using federal housing vouchers to pay the rent,” according to an article in the October issue of Governing magazine. “Most of these are aging, fragile communities struggling to stave off dysfunction themselves. A large influx of welfare families brings increased crime and disorder and sometimes threatens a neighborhood’s very survival.” In Baltimore, a study released this year by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies found this effect to be the main problem with the HOPE VI program.

The critics aren’t saying the old high-rises–which Al Gore called “monuments of hopelessness”–were preferable. But they make the argument that big-money, big-impact moves like imploding high-rises and replacing them with mixed-income townhouses fails to address the complex root causes of poverty and all its ills. In fact, some call the program government-funded gentrification and complain that HOPE VI amounts to little more than a massive dereliction of duty for the nation’s giant public-housing system, which is supposed to support the poor. Residents lucky enough to obtain housing at the suburban-style complexes, though, find a lot to like–they’re new, clean, and generally safer than what they replaced.

The Public Rails 

Controversial highway plans to link interstates 70 and 95 near Fells Point, then build a bridge over Locust Point, fell through in the 1970s–but not before a portion of I-70 was constructed through a slice of West Baltimore neighborhoods. East-west traffic in Baltimore and those West Baltimore communities have struggled ever since. But part of the strain was meant to be relieved by rail-based public transportation, an idea that has never fully blossomed in Baltimore, despite its demonstrable boost to economic development in cities that have extensive systems.

Baltimore’s extensive trolley system had been phased out entirely by the early 1960s, thanks in part to the indirect efforts of General Motors to shut it down. The new generation of rails now consists of the 15-mile Baltimore Metro subway between Owings Mills and Johns Hopkins’ East Baltimore medical campus, and the 30-mile light-rail line between Hunt Valley and BWI Airport. Combined, the projects cost nearly $2 billion in public funds, with construction lasting two decades.

That price tag is nothing compared to a current proposal, announced earlier this year, to create a six-line, 109-mile, 122-station system for $12 billion over a period of 40 years. The extensive, expensive scheme, dubbed the Baltimore Regional Rail System, was cooked up by an advisory committee of the Mass Transit Administration and has the backing of heavy hitters like the Greater Baltimore Committee, a large and respected business group. But Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s administration is balking at its lofty ambitions, saying a rapid-bus plan may be a feasible alternative, given the tight state budget.

The chilly reception at the State House suggests Baltimore’s rail future, for now, has much more humble possibilities–such as a monorail to carry tourists around the Inner Harbor’s attractions. The idea has cropped up periodically over the last 25 years, most recently in the late 1990s, when then-Mayor Schmoke proposed a $210 million system that officials likened to the one at Disneyland. Others were reminded of the fictional Springfield, where the Simpsons, in a classic episode of the animated show, saw firsthand where monorails lead you–around and around in a runaway train sold to the public by a passing huckster. So, instead of rails for the Inner Harbor, the Greater Baltimore Committee is backing a $26-million electric tram system with dedicated lanes on existing roads. Either way, it sounds like tourists to Baltimore will have their public-transportation problems solved long before Baltimore as a whole does.

Burning Questions: Understaffed and Overworked, the Baltimore City Fire Department – Once Hailed as the Nation’s Best – Faces a Crisis Point

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By Michael Anft and Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 29, 1998

In April 1996, a South Baltimore rowhouse catches fire. Most of the fire engines and trucks stationed near the house in the 100 block of West Fort Avenue are fighting another blaze in Pigtown. The first unit to arrive at the scene, five minutes after the 911 call reaches Baltimore City Fire Department headquarters, comes from a station northeast of downtown, nearly three miles away. A 66-year-old resident, taking an afternoon nap, dies in the blaze, which occurs in an area where two firehouses had been shut down in recent years.

Nine months later, on an ice-cold January morning, a blaze breaks out near a kitchen stove used to heat a Reservoir Hill rowhouse. Four residents perish. Of the six units (four engines and two trucks) sent to 909 Chauncy Ave. that morning on the first alarm, only one would have been dispatched in the late 1980s. But since then, three nearby engine companies, a truck, and an aerial tower (combined pumper and ladder truck) company had been closed due to budget cuts. As a result, the alarm assignment is filled by more distant companies, some from two miles away. A spokesperson for the fire officers’ union calls the deaths “criminal.”

These are the two most tragic tales cited by firefighters when they explain the slow, painful dilution of the Baltimore City Fire Department (BCFD)–once considered by outside observers to be among the nation’s best–but they are hardly the only ones. Rank-and-file firefighters and their union leaders worry that the shrinking of the department has significantly slowed response times and put the public at risk. They claim the Schmoke administration has neglected BCFD’s needs, even as the Baltimore City Police Department’s budget has spiraled upward. “We’re the stepchild of the public-safety system,” says Rick Schluderberg, acting president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 734.

Most observers agree that under the leadership of Chief Herman Williams Jr., who was appointed in April 1992, BCFD has made strides in reducing fire deaths, improving minority hiring, and purchasing fire equipment. But the department’s annual budget since fiscal year 1993 has failed to keep up with inflation, despite increases in calls for fire-service and fire-company assistance. Calls for service, after a 185 percent increase over the past 18 years, dropped slightly in 1997, but city firefighters maintain that the force still is stretched to the limit.

Department officials point out that the reduction in fire-suppression staff by about 20 percent over the past decade mirrors a similar decline in the city’s population. “We don’t have the same fire-protection needs we had 10 years ago,” Williams says. “There’s a shift in the fire load. We have to decide where the right places are to put apparatus.”

But union leaders dispute the notion that a smaller population has reduced the need for services. “When people move out of town, they don’t take their houses with them,” Fire Officers Union Local 964 President Stephan Fugate says. Williams readily acknowledges that the city’s estimated 50,000 vacant homes are frequently targets of arson. And Fugate notes that even as the city’s resident population has dropped to about 700,000, the number of people here during the workday is nearly 1.5 million, “and it’s not going down.” Those still living here, firefighters contend, constitute a needier population than in the past–older, poorer, and more likely than their suburban neighbors to require an emergency vehicle to get to the hospital. (Baltimore leads the nation in medic-assistance runs by fire equipment, according to department officials.)

There are also Baltimore’s budget realities to contend with. Mayor Kurt Schmoke says BCFD’s downsizing “was done deliberately because the department was oversized.” When he assumed office in 1987, the police department needed more personnel and the fire department was overstaffed, he says–“It was not a question of me ignoring [the BCFD] or choosing one public-safety agency over the other.”

Schmoke acknowledges gaps in BCFD’s current performance: “Could the department use some improvement? The answer is yes.” But he maintains that, despite several successive years of budget trims, the fire department still “does serve the citizens well.”

“We’ve done the best with what we have,” says J. Hollis Albert III, a member of the city’s Board of Fire Commissioners (commonly known as the fire board). “We’ve done a great job of managing our budget.” But budget considerations make it impossible to maintain the staffing levels of a decade ago, fire officials say. “I have no control over the budget,” Williams says. “I have $95 million and I have to make it work.”

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Having to “make it work” has apparently taken its toll. According to a study commissioned by the fire board, it took, on average, 11/2 minutes for the first BCFD unit to arrive at the scene of a fire call in 1988. A 1996 response-time study by the two fire unions indicated the figure had doubled to three minutes. Battalion Chief Hector Torres, a BCFD spokesperson, now says the department is pleased with a recent study of its own showing that 85 percent of first-arriving units make it to a fire scene within five minutes.

Torres disputes that the purported drop in response times indicates “that we’ve lowered our standards.” He notes that the 1988 study “was based on a hypothetical model”–predicting response times based on such factors as geography and traffic patterns–whereas the BCFD study tracked actual response times.

Firefighters and union sources cite several key factors contributing to what they characterize as a shortfall in services:

· Staffing. The department now has 1,411 firefighters, down from 1,664 in 1990. As a result, the unions contend, the department shells out nearly $4 million a year in overtime. Union leaders fear the staff could shrink even further come October, when 595 firefighters are eligible to leave under the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), a program implemented in 1996 that offers police and fire personnel incentives to stay on the job beyond the standard 20 years. Williams estimates 100 to 125 of those firefighters will depart.

“We’re months away from disaster,” Fugate says. “It makes me think that cutting positions is the endgame for management.” If firefighters leave faster than the department can replace them, he warns, the result could be more fire-company closures because of a lack of new personnel to replace retirees. Schmoke agrees, saying, “If everybody who is eligible left, we are not ready to replace them.”

Since switching last year from a 14-week program at the Fire Academy to a four- to five-year apprenticeship program, BCFD has trained only 26 cadets. The apprentices earn $18,000 a year (compared to $25,000 for first-year firefighters) and they are qualified to drive ambulances and stand in for firefighters when necessary. Department officials say the program was instituted to encourage minority recruitment, but union leaders maintain it’s designed to cut labor costs while ostensibly maintaining higher staffing levels.

Williams scoffs at the notion of a looming firefighter shortage. He cites a “contingency plan”–which Schmoke says he expects to see shortly–for filling soon-to-be-vacant positions. Although the chief offers few details, he does note a proposal to shorten the training process for certified paramedics who wish to become firefighters, thus filling slots faster. He also will begin a new class of 25 apprentices on May 4, he says.

As for overtime, Williams does not blame personnel shortages, but a union-negotiated “first choice” vacation plan that he says mandates days off at an employee’s whim. Fugate says that’s not true. “It’s a management problem,” he says. Since each firefighter in a company is assigned a rotation number within that company, he says, “only certain guys can take vacation on certain days. It works out to about one-sixth of a shift [50 to 60 firefighters] eligible [for vacation] on any given day. The number of guys taking vacation is something the department can generally figure out, if it wanted to. If we weren’t understaffed, we wouldn’t need to spend so much on overtime.”

· Equipment availability. In 1995 and ’96, BCFD tried to keep overtime costs down by closing some firehouses during certain shifts. Such “rotation closures” became controversial when fires broke out near firehouses that were temporarily shut down. The department dropped the idea, but some firefighters now claim BCFD has continued a variation on the policy, shutting down up to four pieces of firefighting apparatus daily for “preventive maintenance” at its Key Highway repair yard, which is operated by the Department of Public Works. “We call it ‘pretend maintenance,'” says Fugate. “It’s done for the same reasons as the rotation closures–to hold down overtime. . . . It’s all a shell game.”

Torres says only one unit is shut down daily for maintenance. “There was a belief that we were using preventive maintenance so that we wouldn’t have to man all of our equipment,” he says. “That’s simply not true.” Previously, he adds, fire equipment was sent to Key Highway with a full staff, but “Chief Williams decided in 1995 or 1996 to [send] the firefighters to other stations where firefighters were needed.” Torres acknowledges that not every piece of equipment sent to the repair yard gets maintenance: “It’s not done sometimes [due to] the shop’s priorities.”

In addition, up to four pieces of firefighting equipment may be closed daily in the event of a “red medic alert,” during which firefighters assigned to those companies will man one of the BCFD’s four reserve ambulances in times of heavy ambulance demand. As a result, the department’s current stock of 62 engines and trucks–down from 90 in the 1970s and below the 66 to 70 pieces of equipment recommended for BCFD by a 1988 fire board–commissioned study–could dip as low as 57 on any given day.

· Ramshackle firehouses and low morale. Many firefighters point to peeling paint, asbestos, leaky roofs, inoperable heating systems, and broken floors at firehouses as evidence of city neglect. One says the dilapidated working conditions affect morale. “It’s a constant reminder that we’re on a sinking ship,” says the firefighter, who requested anonymity. (Because BCFD is a quasimilitary operation, many firefighters asked that their names be withheld for fear of disciplinary action.) The last new firehouse in the city, at Garrison Boulevard and Liberty Heights Avenue, was built in 1990, before Williams took over the department. The chief says that a 1995 city bond issue will result in a new station at Kirk Avenue and East 25th Street, and two other stations are in the works.

Williams bristles at suggestions that morale has any impact on fire service: “When the [fire gong] goes off–no matter all the complaining–they go out and do their jobs.”

Firefighters agree that morale questions have no place at the fire scene, but they say it does affect them. Fire-board member Delaphine Henson contends that better equipment and new uniforms have helped firefighters feel better about their jobs, but the rank and file say they’d prefer more substantive recognition. Most firefighters say that they never see Williams unless there is a big fire and news cameras are present, a reputation that has led to negative comparisons to Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier. “He’s our flash-bulb Frazier,” says Lt. David Bilenki, who has served 31 years and retires in June.

As an example of headquarters’ insensitivity leading to rank-and-file discouragement, Bilenki points to Williams’ awarding of citations to the Fire Prevention Bureau because of a decreasing number of fire deaths. Firefighters in the field felt slighted because it was largely they, not Prevention Bureau staffers, who went door to door throughout the city delivering smoke detectors. “That’s a morale builder for you,” Bilenki says sarcastically.

City Council member Lois Garey (D-1st District) believes morale problems make BCFD jobs less desirable for some who would once have considered a career in the department. “In the past,” she says, “we’ve seen second- and third-generation firefighters. I’m not sure we’ll see that for much longer.”

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At the heart of the matter, internal department critics say, is a lack of respect from City Hall. According to sources close to the situation, Schmoke ditched his three original appointees to the fire board in 1992 because they were too active in discussing budget matters, then sought a board–the current one–that would merely be “advisory.” In 1996, a City Charter amendment that Schmoke had pushed for years made the fire chief accountable to the mayor, not the board, which previously had the authority to fire the chief. Critics contend the changes created a cozy relationship among Williams, Schmoke, and the board, leaving no one from within the department to fight the administration over the budget. With such staunch BCFD defenders as Mary Pat Clarke, Joseph DiBlasi, and Tim Murphy leaving the City Council in recent years, Schmoke has faced little sparring over cuts in the fire budget.

Ironically, the one area in which the department has quantitatively improved may have contributed to its fiscal troubles. “Ten years ago, fire deaths were way up [59 in 1988, compared to 24 last year], and we were the big guys, budgetwise,” Bilenki says. “Now, crime captures all the headlines and the police are the big guys.”

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The current state of affairs is a far cry from the BCFD’s status for most of this century.

The department’s modern history began in the aftermath of the legendary Great Fire of 1904. The rebuilding of the city after the devastating blaze included liberal increases in firehouses and equipment. Much of downtown’s fire protection was then predicated on quick response by horse-drawn pumpers and ladder companies, which meant that firehouses were relatively close to one another–sometimes no more than three or four blocks apart.

In the years following World War II, the by-then-mechanized BCFD maintained its saturated downtown presence while extending outward to what once were suburbs and farms. Faced with aging housing stock, a surfeit of industry, and a growing population, the department began developing a top-flight national reputation for interior firefighting (as opposed to the “surround-and-drown” technique) and almost instantaneous response-times.

The city’s history and the BCFD’s efficiency made the department a political sacred cow. As firefighters doused multi-alarm fires during the riots of 1968 and suspicious blazes around the waterfront in the early 1970s, their stature with the public grew. (Fire-department lore, long rumored but never proven, has it that the waterfront fires were an example of what one firefighter calls “urban removal”–alleged torching of buildings in areas slated for urban renewal, to avoid high demolition costs.)

The department was in its glory years, with nearly 60 fire engines, 30 trucks, five hose companies, 11 battalions, and numerous support staff. Supplemented considerably by federal revenue-sharing funds (which made up about half the department’s budget in 1980 but dwindled until they were discontinued after fiscal year 1986), the department budget rarely fell victim to City Hall’s knife. In a 1987 Evening Sun survey measuring public feeling about city agencies, only BCFD was rated “very good” by the paper’s readers.

BCFD enjoyed a similar status in the national fire-services community. Firehouse magazine began holding its national expo in Baltimore annually–the better, expo literature touted, to see a world-class firefighting operation in action. A National League of Cities researcher told a fire-board member in 1988 that Baltimore owned, without question, the best department in the nation.

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By the end of Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s last term in the mid-1980s, however, talks of cutbacks had begun in earnest. A double house (in which both an engine and a truck reside) was closed amid controversy in Locust Point. Soon, many of the inner-city firehouses built shortly after the 1904 fire were closed or consolidated. City Hall, by then occupied by Schmoke, was met with only scattered resistance.

When Schmoke took office, he recalls, “I determined Baltimore had a bloated fire department. We were either number one or number two nationally in firefighters per capita. What I saw was a department in need of downsizing and improved efficiency.” The mayor’s plan to bring the department’s size down to what he deemed an appropriate level barely ruffled political feathers, much less the public’s, except in one instance when he attempted to close an engine company on Fort Avenue in South Baltimore.

“We’re the most fire-sensitive city in the country,” says David Glenn, president of the fire board from 1988 to 1992. “But even here not too many people get excited when a firehouse is closed–unless it’s in their neighborhood.”

Glenn’s tenure as board president was marked by concerns over a flat fire-suppression budget, firehouse closings, racial equality in hiring, and the institution of a BCFD drug policy. Glenn is proud of his board’s accomplishments, but he acknowledges that he and fellow commissioners Samuel Redd and Richard Jamison frequently ran afoul of Schmoke, who appointed them. “We did reasonable things,” Glenn says, “but there were times when the mayor was peeved at me. I was a little too activistic for him.”

Redd, a West Baltimore mortician, says the board used its City Charter-backed powers to the fullest extent: “We did everything from riding with the guys on the equipment to talking with the unions to hearing appeals from disciplined firefighters.”

According to Glenn, the tide turned for the board late in 1991, when a television reporter asked for his view of a proposed 20 percent reduction in BCFD funding. “I told him it would be catastrophic,” Glenn recalls. “The next day, Schmoke calls [then–fire Chief Peter J. O’Connor] and says, ‘What? Is [Glenn] trying to kill us?’ even though I was O’Connor’s superior.” In January 1992, Schmoke told Glenn he would not be appointed to the board for a second term.

Redd speculates that the 1988–92 board “may not have been asked back so that Herman Williams could be named chief. There was talk that [the board] could hire from within, or do a national search. The City Charter read that we had the power to hire and fire. I don’t know that Williams was high on our list.”

A newly formed board of Harry Peaker, Delaphine Henson (wife of Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III), and J. Hollis Albert III took over in February 1992, and Williams was appointed to the then-$98,000-per-year job in April. (The chief’s current salary is about $116,000, according to the city budget office.) “I made clear to them that they were an advisory board,” Schmoke says, “not a policy board.”

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Williams, father of TV talk-show host Montel Williams, is a former pump operator and battalion chief who had spent the previous 12 years as a supervisor in the city’s Department of Transportation. He says when he assumed the chief’s job he immediately started tackling the department’s image problems, buying new equipment and dress uniforms for firefighters so they wouldn’t looks so “ragtag.”

The newly reconstituted fire board played an entirely different role than that of its predecessors.

“The board is here to understand the department’s problems and see what can be done to alleviate them,” Peaker, the new board’s president, said at a meeting on April 16, 1992, the day Herman Williams was appointed chief. It was apparently not there to deal with fiscal issues–minutes of board meetings indicate that any regular or detailed discussion of the department’s budget problems ceased.

This is in marked contrast to the previous board, which, according to meeting minutes, would spend a good portion of its monthly gatherings heatedly discussing how to fight City Hall for more firefighting money or bemoaning the impending loss of department capacity wrought by budget cuts. During a Jan. 14, 1991 discussion of impending budget cuts, according to meeting minutes, Glenn “stated that the Board is suspending the policy that we are . . . charging the Chief with implementing the Mayor’s policy”–in effect declaring that the department would spend as required to ensure fire protection without regard to the official budget.

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With the advent of a new board so markedly quiet about budget matters came a new funding climate for BCFD. In Schmoke’s first five budgets after his election in 1987, the department’s budget kept pace with inflation. Starting with the fiscal year 1994 spending plan, however, the BCFD budget slipped behind the inflation rate, and the gap has increased ever since. During most of this period the overall city budget has not merely kept pace with inflation, but grown faster than inflation.

Meanwhile, Schmoke has padded the budget for the police department–the other, bigger side of the public-safety sector–with spending increases that outpace inflation. Similarly, police department ranks have increased by 6 percent since 1988 compared to a 20 percent cut in BCFD’s fire-suppression personnel (figure 2, page 18).

“Constituents scream out more about crime than anything else,” council member Sheila Dixon (D-4th District) says. Where firefighting capacity is concerned, she says, “the issue is always brought up that we do have more than we need because the city’s population is down.”

But data compiled by the firefighters’ unions indicate that despite the falling population, demand for BCFD services is on the rise. In 1980, when the city’s population was almost 787,000, the department’s fire-suppression units responded to 69,665 calls for service, according to the unions’ studies. In 1995, when the city’s population had fallen to barely more than 700,000, there were 101,968 such calls.

As noted by Fugate and others, three factors contribute to this phenomenon: the swollen daytime population; the growing number of aging, vacant homes in the city; and skyrocketing demand for emergency medical services. During busy times for city ambulances, fire equipment has to be dispatched to provide assistance until an ambulance can arrive. The incidence of such “medic assists” rose from zero in 1980 to nearly 39,000 in 1995.

Some council members maintain that even in the face of this demand, Williams has been less aggressive than his predecessor in fighting for budget dollars. “He’s not as vocal as O’Connor,” Dixon says. Garey agrees. “I would like to see the fire department advocate for itself more strongly,” she says. “They’re told, ‘We’re going to cut your budget,’ and that’s OK. The only furor is when the public becomes aware” of a shortage of fire service.

Council member Nicholas D’Adamo (D-1st District), however, asserts that the chief “will not be the puppet for the administration. At the beginning [the Schmoke administration] thought they might control him, but there’s no controlling Herman Williams.”

There is also a level of personal politics at work in the annual fire-department budget battle. Since Williams became chief, according to city-government sources, word around City Hall has been that he is out of favor with the mayor’s inner circle and thus has little impact on budget decisions.

The chief also has had political problems with City Council. Former council member Joan Carter Conway, now a state senator, recalls cutting off a 1995 council hearing on the BCFD budget after butting heads with Williams, whom she says refused to answer tough questions on the department’s fiscal management. Last year, the council cut $600,000 from the department budget in what D’Adamo characterized as “a signal that the council wanted to send Herman Williams” that the department wasn’t keeping council members abreast of plans in their districts. “We have to answer for what’s going on in our districts,” D’Adamo says, “and if we don’t know what’s happening it doesn’t look good.” He and Garey also assert that the council wanted to trim what it perceived as fat in BCFD’s administrative budget. “There are too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” Garey says.

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For many rank-and-filers, the budget drought of recent years can have life-or-death consequences. In the early 1990s, the fire department tried cutting back from four-man crews on engines to three to save on personnel costs, despite being fought by the Glenn-led fire board. After a lieutenant died of a heart attack after fighting a blaze on West Lombard Street, the department returned to four-man crews.

Bilenki contends–and some fire-safety groups agree–that keeping fire companies fully manned and response times short is more important now than ever. Today’s fires, they say, become more deadly more quickly, due largely to the use of oil-based plastics in the manufacture of furniture, rugs, drapes, and appliances.

“Fires burn much hotter more quickly than they did 10 years ago,” says Alan Caldwell, director of government affairs for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. The burning of those plastics also releases toxic gases that can kill people faster.

Caldwell sees a response time of four to six minutes as “good,” but Bilenki says these faster-burning fires make speed of the essence for responding units, particularly at night when the residents of a burning home are likely to be asleep. “You see houses fully involved [in fire] in about two minutes now,” he says. “It used to be five minutes.”

Just as important as the response time, Bilenki contends, is its force. “Three minutes is good, but you need an engine and a truck there at the same time–not just the engine from around the corner.” That’s why firefighters beef so much about station closings, he says. Without a truck ventilating a building and searching for people trapped inside, an engine company is almost powerless to enter a building for fear of a “backdraft,” or surge of fire. Conversely, a truck company can ventilate, but without an engine company to spray a fire with water, rescue is more difficult and firefighters more at risk.

The station closures have made meeting both response requirements difficult, Bilenki says, creating what he calls “holes” in fire service. One such hole may have been exposed in the Chauncy Avenue fire that claimed four lives. Engine companies on Druid Hill Avenue, Mount Royal Avenue, McCulloch and 21st Streets; a truck company on McMechen Street; and an aerial tower at North Avenue and Interstate 83–most of which would have responded on the first alarm to that blaze–had been shut down in the previous 11 years.

The first-alarm district for Bilenki’s Engine 8 company, stationed on Lafayette Avenue near Gilmor Street in West Baltimore, has at times included parts of Greenmount and North Avenues, nearly two miles away. “One night,” he says, “we were assigned on a first alarm in Hampden,” four miles to the northeast. “It took us almost 15 minutes to get there.”

Such concerns reflect some firefighters’ convictions that the department’s funding level will forever be tied to the numbers of fire deaths. In the absence of frequent fatalities, staff and equipment increases will remain a low priority for City Hall–a stance, some firefighters and department critics contend, that amounts to a game of Russian roulette.

“It’s going to take a major catastrophe or two in a short period of time,” David Glenn says, “to get people interested in the fire department again.”

The Doctor Is In: Schmoke Inches Toward His “Medicalization” Approach to Drug Reform

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By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 13, 1994

With two recent political and legislative breakthroughs for Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore is becoming a model city for drug reform. In March, a $2.3 million federally funded Substance Abuse Treatment and Education Program (STEP), or “drug court,” began diverting nonviolent drug criminals from prisons to treatment programs. And on April 5, the Maryland State legislature passed a bill exempting Baltimore City from certain drug-paraphernalia laws and approving funding for a needle-exchange program called the AIDS Prevention Pilot Program. In a reversal of his earlier stance, Governor William Donald Schaefer supported the bill and is expected to sign it. The success of these two initiatives is a major priority for Schmoke, who is out to prove that what he calls a “medicalization” approach is the best solution for our multiple woes of drugs, crime, and AIDS.

The drug court and the rest of Schmoke’s immediate drug-reform measures appear to enjoy wide support here in Baltimore City. The City Council is almost unanimously behind the mayor’s initiatives. Baltimore’s public-health and drug-treatment providers, who stand to gain funding and stature from the initiatives, also generally approve of them. The new police commissioner, Tom Frazier, says needle exchange, the drug court, and expanded treatment will make his job easier. And of course Baltimore’s heroin and cocaine addicts – who make up about six percent of the population, according to Bureau of the Census figures – are all for it.

In fact, one gets the impression that the mayor’s local drug-reform agenda has been falling into place with relative ease. People tend to see needle exchange, the drug court, and expanded treatment as almost clinical prescriptions for treating the symptoms of the drug crisis.

It is Schmoke’s national long-term drug policy, with its overtones of decriminalization, that has attracted strong and vocal opposition.

By now, everybody knows that Schmoke advocates some form of drug decriminalization. To a lot of people, that strategy sounds so radical on the surface that they aren’t very interested in the details. For example, Lieutenant Leander Nevin, president of the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, says the bottom line is that Schmoke “wants to legalize drugs and give away free needles,” and asks sarcastically, “It’s socialism, right?”

To Michael Gimbel, director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse, the details of decriminalization are insignificant compared to the impact of even talking about it. He sees a direct correlation between rising drug use in high schools and the whole debate over decriminalization, which Schmoke has persistently publicized for six years now.

“I think this whole discussion is more hurtful than helpful,” Gimbel says. “I have to deal with the kids today who believe in legalization only because the mayor or the rap group Cypress Hill said so. For the last ten years we have seen major decreases [in drug use] and changes of attitude. Now all of the sudden these kids are changing the way they looking at [legalization]. I have to deal with that, and I blame it on the legalization debate.”

Barring some undetected tectonic shift in public opinion over the last six years, Nevin and Gimbel are right in line with most Marylanders’ opinions of legalization. In 1988, The Evening Sun contracted a public-opinion research firm to survey a random sample of Marylanders over 18 years old to ask them whether they support drug legalization. The results were basically the same for Baltimore as for the whole state: less than 20 percent were for legalization, and more than 70 percent were opposed to it.

In spite of this opposition, Schmoke has high hopes for his long-term, national strategy, which he clearly does not want associated with the term legalization.

“My approach is not legalization, that is, the sale of drugs in the private market,” he told an audience of doctors and nurses at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in March. Rather, he proposes lifting a corner of the current blanket prohibition on illegal drugs by drawing addicts into the public-health system, where they could be maintained, if necessary, using drugs made available through a government market.

“The government, not private traffickers, would control the price, distribution, purity, and access to particular substances, which we already do with prescription drugs,” Schmoke told the audience. “This, mind you, would take most of the profit out of street-level drug trafficking, and it is the profits that drive crime. Addicts would be treated and, if necessary, maintained under medical auspices. In my view, street crime would go down, children would find it harder, not easier, to get their hands on drugs, and law-enforcement officials would concentrate on the highest echelons of drug-trafficking enterprises.”

Schmoke’s zeal for reform is coupled with a hardened distaste for drug prohibition.

“Drug prohibition is a policy that has now turned millions of addicts into criminals, spawned a huge international drug-trafficking enterprise, and brought unrelenting violence to many of our urban neighborhoods,” Schmoke said. “It was a flawed strategy when it began, and it is still a flawed strategy now.”

Legalization or not, the mayor’s approach is roundly dismissed by people who think any fiddling with drug prohibition would, as a sociobiologist might say, damage the antidrug “chromosomes” that have been grafted into society’s DNA sequence over the last few generations. One such person is Dr. Lee P. Brown, the director of President Clinton’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. In a statement on drug legalization last December, after U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders suggested that legalization would reduce crime, Brown commented that “[a]ny change in the current policy of prohibiting drug use would seriously impair antidrug education efforts, drug-free community programs, drug-free workplace programs, and the overall national effort to reduce the level of drug use and its consequences.”

Local opposition to Schmoke’s call to change national drug laws is every bit as pointed as the Washington establishment’s. Gimbel protests that decriminalization “is a real intellectual pipe dream, and it scares me because the mayor is very articulate in selling this program.” City Councilman Martin O’Malley, of the Third District, thinks it “just amounts to so much more intellectual bullshit.” Joyce Malepka, founder of the Silver Spring antidrug lobbying group called Maryland Voters for a Responsible Drug Policy, says, “There is no intellectual argument about legalizing drugs because anyone who is that short-sighted isn’t really experienced, and if that is the case, then there is certainly no business talking about it.”

One objection that Schmoke’s medicalization opponents make is that a prescription-based drug-treatment system for addicts would be ripe for abuse. Steve Dnitrian, vice president of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, in New York City, argues that legal drugs are already abused and a wider array of them would lead to greater use and abuse.

“Take a look at the drugs that are already regulated medically, such as Valium,” Dnitrian says, by way of illustration. “Are they abused? Heavily. Medicalization would be the same thing. You would just be adding a couple of more flavors to the vast array of products we have right now to alter reality. If you make available a product that is not readily available, it is going to get used. Even people who favor decriminalization acknowledge that drug use would go up dramatically.”

Still, Schmoke has so far managed to buck the antidecriminalization establishment and remain in office. How has he done it?

One explanation is that his drug-reform strategy is multi-faceted and comprehensive, so many who oppose him on decriminalization or needle exchange agree with many of his other drug-reform ideas. For instance, his crusade for drug treatment on demand and the creation of drug courts is lauded from all corners, including by Malepka and Gimbel, President Clinton, and the antidrug advertising venture Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

Schmoke hasn’t got this far by smart policymaking alone, however. Part of it was political drive: he is on the line with this medicalization talk, so he has been campaigning hard to prove his is right; if he can’t, he risks losing legitimacy with the public. Frank DeFillipo, a political columnist for The Evening Sun, says, “Schmoke has a lot to defend. He is going to have to go out and defend that issue in the mayoral race, and there are compelling arguments against what he is advocating.”

On the mayor’s side are a significant number of individual legislators, doctors, lawyers, judges, and religious leaders – powerful people with connections to organizations that can effect change. Schmoke feels that the average voter may also be coming around to agree that we need a new strategy against drugs, crime, and AIDS, and that medicalization should be given a sporting chance. Depending on how he plays this issue during the upcoming mayoral campaign, Schmoke may bet his future in political office on that perceived trend. He has been making every effort to swing the Zeitgeist around. Given the poll-pending strength of his supporters, he just might be able to do it.

“My sense is that the majority of Baltimoreans may disagree with my conclusion about the need for medicalization and decriminalization,” Schmoke acknowledges, “but that they agree that I should raise this issue and am glad that I didn’t change my mind. And the overwhelming majority of people believe that the current approach is not working, but they are not sure which way we should go.”

Schmoke hopes to make medicalization an asset at the polls by plugging the effectiveness of the needle-exchange program and the drug court, although he is not sure the results will be in by election time. To bolster his position, he says he will stump medicalization as effective in its own right but even better when combined with community development and community policing initiatives.

“All those things add up to positive impacts,” Schmoke says, “and that is what I’m hoping will happen in the communities.”

Schmoke is confident that all of his attention to detail will pay off politically, because he is well prepared to discuss and defend his proposals. In short, he has a plan, so the burden of proof is on the opposition to propose a better one.

“I think that if somebody is going to raise it as an issue in the election and be critical of my positions,” Schmoke challenges, “then they are going to have to have an alternative, a substantive alternative that will be attractive to the citizenry.”

Mary Pat Clarke, Schmoke’s challenger in next year’s mayoral race, does not plan on making medicalization an issue in the election.

“It is not a local issue,” Clarke points out. “It can’t be solved locally. The real issue is the here and the now and the livability of Baltimore City. If it is an issue in the mayoral race, it will be so only because [Schmoke] makes it one.” The bottom line to Clarke is that medicalization “is not something that we can do [on a local level], it is only something that we can talk about,” and too much talk means too little action. “You can’t use these discussions as an excuse to abandon the treatment programs that exist today,” Clarke argues.

She has particular misgivings about Schmoke’s new STEP, or drug court, program, which has already enrolled more than a dozen addicts and plans to divert 600 nonviolent drug criminals to treatment in its first year. Although she supports the initiative, Clarke fears that the city’s troubled drug-treatment system is ill equipped to handle the new program.

“To talk about a drug court without a rehabilitated and refunded treatment system,” Clarke asserts, “is just to create another level of logjam, frustrations, and problems. Expanded and improved treatment is an imperative before we create a drug court and an entire new system that would fall to pieces without the backup required.”

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Stuart O. Simms, however, points out that funding for the STEP program will cover drug treatment for participants. Also, by freeing up prison space and court dockets, Simms estimates that “in one year, the cost savings of such a program will be $1.8 million.” This money can help fund an expanded treatment system.

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The STEP program is modeled after the drug court in Miami, where only about one in 10 participants have been rearrested during the year following their treatment. To better the chances of the defendants’ success in beating the monkeys off their backs, the STEP program, in addition to drug treatment, provides job training, academic services, life-skills programs, job placement, and other support. It is a one-stop shop for getting your act together. All you have to do is get arrested.

Richard Farr, a cocaine addict, says people might do just that in order to get the treatment they need.

“There are a lot of people out there now who want to get into a drug program, but they can’t,” observes Farr, “so I guess you got to get caught to get into a program. It doesn’t seem right, but it sounds like that’s what you got to do.”

State’s Attorney Simms urges addicts tempted to take this route to “contact the Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems [the city’s treatment referral system] and try to see if they can get involved through the city health department. That is painstaking, that is slow, and I agree that the answer is insufficient.”

Mary Pat Clarke is more optimistic about the mayor’s AIDS Prevention Pilot Program. The $160,000 program is designed for 750 to 1,000 intravenous-drug-using participants, who will be able to exchange dirty needles for clean ones on a one-for-one basis. Another $250,000 has been dedicated for approximately 100 drug-treatment slots reserved for needle-exchange participants. Schmoke expects a needle-exchange program in Baltimore to have results similar to one in New Haven, Connecticut, where needle exchange is credited with a one-third decline in the rate of new HIV infections.

“From a public-health perspective, it is rational,” says Clarke. “Like most of us, I obviously have my concerns about the message it sends, but I think that the public-health issues are imperative. I hope that it will be successful in Baltimore City.”

Baltimore City police commissioner Tom Frazier agrees that “needle exchange is a good thing both in terms of human suffering and public-health costs.”

Clarke and Frazier are joined in support of needle exchange by many experts in the medical community. The Baltimore City Medical Society and the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland, the city and state medical societies, respectively, are both behind the measure as a way to control the spread of AIDS without increasing drug abuse. And Dr. Michael Fingerhood, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins and medical director of the Detox Inpatient Unit at Francis Scott Key Medical Center, says, “Most of the people in primary care who take care of people with HIV without a doubt are in favor of needle exchange.”

Dr. David Vlahov, associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, who has been studying the natural history HIV infection among about 600 HIV-infected IV-drug users in Baltimore since 1988, is a fervent supporter of needle exchange. Vlahov points out that there are 39 needle-exchange programs operating in the United States, that there have been numerous studies of needle exchange, including studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. General Accounting Office, and that the results are favorable.

“Looking across the date from a variety of different studies,” Vlahov said as he shared the Hopkins stage with Schmoke in March, “the results have been that needle-exchange programs do not encourage people to start drug use, they do not encourage current drug users to inject more frequently, they do not encourage former users to restart drug use, and they do not encourage needle sharing. So a lot of these concerns that people have had are thwarted by the data that have come forth from these studies.”

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The Governor’s Executive Advisory Council, which advises and reports to Governor Schaefer on public-policy issues, just plain disagrees. Last spring it submitted a “Presentation in Opposition to Needle and Syringe Exchange Programs” to the Governor’s Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission, the body responsible for helping to form and implement the governor’s drug-and-alcohol-abuse policies. The report concludes that the evidence on needle exchange is shaky, and “the real risk of doing real harm is too great.”

The council argues, based on what its chairman, Marshall Meyer, calls “a lot of data, research, study, and common sense,” that need-exchange programs are not safe. The list of risks include sending the wrong message about drug use, causing increased drug use and conversion to injection drugs, assisting criminal behavior, subverting drug-treatment efforts, and increasing the likelihood of “needle stick accidents.”

The council also questions whether needle exchange will work. Focusing just on needles, the report points out, overlooks the roles that other injection paraphernalia and that unsafe sex play in transmitting HIV.

“Facilitating drug use, through the provision of needles, is not likely to result in safe sexual behavior,” the report states, so it concludes that needle exchange may exacerbate the spread of sexually transmitted HIV. Finally, the council noted “that needle exchange programs are having very limited success in reaching, and even less success in keeping, the highest risk users.”

Some representatives in Baltimore’s City Council are concerned not only about mixed messages regarding condoning drug use, but also that the needle-exchange program won’t work. Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, of the Second District, feels that “the concept is okay, if addicts would turn the needles in and use clean needles, but I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think addicts are responsible enough to do that.”

Councilman Nick D’Adamo, of the First District, agrees: “Needle exchange is iffy to me, because if a drug user on the corner is going to shoot up, I don’t think he’ll be looking for a clean needle. I think he is going to use whatever is there at the time.”

Tony Whiting, an IV-drug addict living in a homeless shelter run by Street Voice, an advocacy group for addicts, thinks the council members are wrong on this score.

“People will use brand-new needles if they have them,” Whiting insists. “Even the ones who don’t care want to use brand-new needles because they are easy to use, they don’t clog, and it makes the whole process a whole lot easier. Any addict would rather have a brand-new set than something used any day.”

Fellow Street Smart denizen and drug addict Richard Farr basically agrees with Whiting.

“Not everybody will go to get a clean needle every time, but the majority of them would,” he predicts. “Maybe if there was a place where they could go to get clean needles, then a lot of [needle sharing] would be eliminated. Not all of it, but a lot of it would.”

Whether addicts will use the program is not the issue for some people; the issue is the extent to which the needle exchange amounts to legalization.

“It’s a bizarre thing to do,” Joyce Malepka says. She argues that “it’s Draconian to give someone who injects heroin needles to continue that process. We see it as a giant step toward legalization.”

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Mary Pat Clarke feels that for now, Schmoke’s visions may be delusions.

“If he can help to improve and enlarge the treatment system in Baltimore City, I would support that,” Clarke says, “but the council has been looking at the current programs and is beginning to meet with [drug treatment] providers and explore the gaps. The providers are out there, underfunded and struggling to survive and handle their caseload, and it is a system in crisis. They are overloaded, they are underfunded, and the city has failed to supply an adequate system of coordination to really assist.”

At least part of the problem is the miniscule amount of funding that comes from the city itself for drug treatment: the figure hovers around $150,000 per year, or about one percent of the total drug-treatment budget for Baltimore City. Because of this meager contribution, some people believe that Schmoke is merely canting when he calls for more treatment.

“He’s been talking like this for so many years,” Michael Gimbel says, “but how much money has he put in his budget to back up his word that he really believes in treatment? Baltimore City gets millions right now from the state for drug treatment, and the city puts virtually nothing in. Yet he wants to go to Annapolis and say, ‘My top priority is needle exchange.’ Why isn’t his top priority treatment for everybody? That is hypocrisy. That is politics, so I can’t respect that.”

Politics or not, if Schmoke manages to get 10,000 new federally funded treatment slots, it will be a coup for the beleaguered Baltimore treatment community.

According to “Baltimore’s Drug Problem,” published by the Abell Foundation, which has funded or carried out many studies about local issues for the city government, “drug treatment experts in Baltimore City suggest that the number of treatment slots needs to be increased, conservatively, by three-fold.” Since there are currently 5,300 treatment slots, Schmoke’s proposal would almost meet the target.

The mayor is seeking a meeting with Clinton Administration officials to discuss his drug-treatment proposal. In the meantime, alternative funding may be found from two other federal sources: Clinton’s crime bill, if passed by Congress, will provide more money for drug treatment, and U.S. Attorney Janet Reno has created a new block-grant program that can be used for either policing or drug treatment.

“Both of those together don’t make up ten thousand [treatment slots],” Schmoke says, “but they would allow us to almost double the number of slot that we have now.”

Despite Schmoke’s optimism, the operable word when it comes to expanded federal funding for drug treatment in Baltimore City is if. And if Schmoke doesn’t produce the proposed treatment slots, then Baltimore’s addicts will continue queuing up on the treatment waiting list and continue to rob, steal, smoke, and shoot up until they can get effective treatment for their disease. According to “Baltimore’s Drug Problem,” on any given day there are about 730 addicts on the treatment waiting list, and only one out of 10 Baltimore substances abusers who want help can get it.

Since 1988, when Schmoke opened a national debate over drug decriminalization, he has done his fair share of talking about providing the help addicts need. Now he has started to take steps to do something about it. He is determined to prove that his medicine works, and if he stays in office another term, Baltimore is destined to be the testing ground.

Schmoke, casting himself as the good doctor, has donned the white lab coat and drawn up the syringe, and Baltimore, gravely ill from the combined effects of drugs, crime, and AIDS, is rolling up its sleeve to take the dose. But will the good doctor find a vein?

 

Stronger Than Strong: In a Showdown Over Landfill Problems, Public Works Director Prevails Over Mayor’s Friend

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By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 6, 1995

The November dismissal of Ken Strong as the city’s top garbageman is a tale of alleged government mismanagement, mixed political loyalties, and the frailty of personal friendship in the upper reaches of power. This personnel move, carried out by Department of Public Works (DPW) director George Balog with the approval of Strong’s childhood friend, Mayor Kurt Schmoke, provides a telling glimpse into the netherworld of city politics.

Balog’s official explanation for removing Strong as head of the Bureau of Solid Waste (BSW) was that he needed someone with a more technical background and greater field-operations experience. Strong, who has been widely praised for his innovation and efficiency during his one and a half years as BSW head, believes instead that his demise has more to do with his recent questioning of DPW’s handling of problems at the Quarantine Road Sanitary Landfill. Strong also asserts that “Balog wanted to get rid of me long before” the landfill dispute, perhaps because the DPW director wanted “to protect himself from my finding out how he operates.”

Surrounding these conflicting interpretations of the event is a larger conflict about what happens in mayoral politics when personal loyalty is pitted against professional power. Strong and Schmoke have been friend since both joined the Lancers boys’ club as teenagers.

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Strong has coordinated volunteers for all of Schmoke’s campaigns and served in the state’s attorney’s office and on the Planning Commission before moving to BSW. Most recently, he mobilized BSW forces to clean the city during an election year, an accomplishment recognized by mayoral spokesperson Clinton Coleman in the days following Strong’s dismissal. “I would say that having a cleaner city certainly helps [the mayor with re-election]. And we are in fact a cleaner city,” Coleman said.

George Balog is the director of the city’s largest department, overseeing some 6,000 city workers and hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts. As a member of the Board of Estimates, he has one of five votes in approving the way the city spends most of its money. His power and influence in city matters – and his ability to attract contributions to fund re-election campaigns – are vital cogs in Schmoke’s political machine. Thus, when Balog decided it was time to move Strong out of BSW, the mayor quickly conceded, despite the merits of Strong’s record and his concerns about the landfill. Strong, for his part, is considering a lawsuit charging that his firing violated the state’s whistleblower statute.

On November 16, prompted by a reporter’s questions about a possible link between Strong’s dismissal and alleged problems at the landfill, Balog convened a press briefing in his conference room. During the two and a half hours that followed, Balog made his case. On hand to aid in the effort were DPW staff attorney Deborah Skupien, several other department officials, DPW spokesperson Vanessa Pyatt, and a consultant expert in landfill design.

At issue is the landfill leachate pond, where contaminated water that has percolated through the 25-acre clay-lined landfill is collected before being pumped into tankers and shipped to Patapsco River Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The pond, which is lined with clay and asphalt, has been out of commission since July 1994, when a 13-ton front-end loader was used to help remove sediment that had built up on the pond bed since its construction in 1984. According to DPW memos, the weight of the loader cracked the pond and created a need for extensive repairs. In August 1995, repairs were finally completed by a contractor, L.F. Mahoney. Strong, BSW engineers, and state officials have since expressed concerns about the repairs and DPW’s oversight of the contractor’s work.

The crux of Balog’s argument, though, is that Strong, far from having legitimate concerns about repairs to the landfill leachate pond, is himself to blame for the problems there. In Balog’s eyes, Strong, by virtue of being BSW head at the time, is not only responsible for the 1994 cracking of the pond bed but also for failing to bring the pond back into service immediately after the August 1995 repairs. Balog says that failure will cost the city $41,000. Mahoney’s bid for repairing the pond was $23,030.

In Strong’s opinion, Mahoney “treated our leachate pond like a pothole”; he believes payment to the contractor should be withheld until the repairs are done properly. In addition, Strong and others are concerned about unrepaired damage to the flume, through which leachate empties into the pond. The flume has been plugged for more than a year as the pond has awaited repairs, but warm, odorous liquid has been leaking from cracks and holes surrounding it.

As for Balog’s steadfast contention that the contractor’s work was good, Strong says, “I don’t believe he’s interested in the truth of what’s happening [at the leachate pond]. I believe he’s interested in protecting himself and his staff and his contractors” from being held responsible for the pond’s problems.

“It doesn’t seem to me that he is working assertively to solve the problem,” Strong continues. “He is working very aggressively to assign blame.”

In late October, Strong brought his concerns about the pond to Edward Dexter, chief of field operations for the Maryland Department of the Environment’s sold-waste program. On November 7, Dexter submitted a formal letter to DPW requesting detailed information to document that the repairs were adequate. As of December 5, he was still awaiting a response.

Early in the morning on Sunday, November 18, after word of the problems at the leachate pond had started to spread throughout city government, City Council members Martin O’Malley (D-3rd District) and John Cain (D-1st District) led a fact-finding mission to the landfill. Joining the legislators were two environmental activists, Terry Harris of the Sierra Club and Dan Jerrems of the Baltimore Recycling Coaltion and the Baltimore Parks Coalition. The legislators inspected the pond, concentrating on the damage around the flume, and declared their intent to scrutinize the matter, further, possibly through a formal council investigation.

Schmoke’s position on the issue of the leachate pond has evolved somewhat. On November 19, he said, “I accept Mr. Balog’s explanation, pointing out that “I’ve seen memoranda back and forth about it and I think Mr. Balog has adequately described the problem and is dealing with it.” Ten days later, he reserved judgment: “Without having firsthand experience or being an expert on environmental matters, for me to reach a conclusion based on the memoranda themselves is certainly difficult, so I have asked the law department to look into the matter and provide me with their analysis of it.” Leslie Winner, a contracts specialist in the city solicitor’s office, has been assigned the case.

Balog maintains that he did not remove Strong as BSW head as a result of his adamant stance and crusade of memos about the pond repairs. Rather, Balog credits Schmoke with the inspiration for moving Strong out of the position.

“I met with the mayor and the mayor, in this term, he wants to emphasize doing things,” Balog says. “He said, ‘We’ve been doing planning and all, and I want all the emphasis to be put on doing things.’ So I have Ken Strong at solid waste. His background is in English and he’s like an environmentalist. He’s been involved in communities and stuff like that. … And I look around my department, I got a guy named Leonard Addison. He’s been with the department 25 years. A civil engineer, terrific field man … so that’s when I said to the mayor, ‘Look, I got somebody that I think’s really good and I think we should give him a chance of being a focal point with the hottest bureau and see what he can do.’ And that’s how it happened.”

Schmoke says he doesn’t recall such a conversation with Balog, but says he approves of Strong’s dismissal. On November 20, Strong met with Schmoke to discuss the situation, which both say has been a strain on their 31-year friendship.

“It has been a difficult experience,” Schmoke says. “It’s somewhat awkward anyway to be in an employer-employee relationship with somebody that you’ve been friends with for quite a long time.” The mayor adds that the episode hasn’t “irreparably damaged” his friendship with Strong “becauswe we’ve had some very frank conversations about this situation, and he understands that I have supported a lot of the work that he has done.”

Schmoke, who points out that Strong declined an offer of a civil-service position at DPW, has agreed to be a reference for Strong as he looks for new employment. “I identify [Strong] as a person with a real concern for community,” Schmoke remarks. “He’s a person that things that what happens in neighborhoods in this city is very important, that we ought to pay attention to people’s concerns neighborhood by neighborhood. He looks at both the big picture and the small blocks and has a great deal of concern about both.”

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Schmoke’s high regard for Strong, along with Strong’s publicly recognized record of service for the mayor, has led many observers to wonder why the mayor would so easily defer to Balog in moving Strong out of city government. O’Malley, for one, sees the situation as “one big power struggle.” Cain sees it as “city politics in microcosm, a metaphor of the way things really are.” Both believe Strong’s dismissal got the nod from the mayor because Balog has a significant edge over Strong in terms of raw power in city government.

Although Strong mobilizes get-out-the-vote forces for Schmoke – a valuable contribution to the reelection process – his role was not powerful enough to help him prevail in a showdown with Balog, a critical rainmaker during the campaign season. O’Malley suggests further that Strong, whose support among community leaders is well known, presented a direct threat to Balog’s authority. “Maybe Ken was the heir apparent, moving up to be DPW director,” the council member contends.

There are no indication that Strong was in line to replace Balog as DPW director. Balog says he has never felt threatened by Strong’s special relationship with the mayor and long history of community involvement.

Records of campaign contributions show that DPW contractors and empoyees gave large amounts to the Schmoke reelection drive. Thirteen DPW contractors who were mentioned by Balog in interviews about the leachate pond or who made bids to repair the pond collectively have given $42,965 to the Schmoke campaign committee since July 1994. (According to the integrated financial report of the city, these 13 contractors got more than $16 million worth of business from the city in the first 11 months of the 1995 fiscal year.) A group of 24 DPW employees and five of their family members, identified in the campaign records by matching their names with the city telephone directory, has given $9,150 since August 1994. These amounts are just a small part of the total DPW-related fund-raising picture, which includes a large community of contractors and a potential giving pool of about 6,000 employees.

“I seriously doubt that these contractors contribute to incumbent mayors because of their political philosophy,” O’Malley contends. “They contribute because they receive contracts, and no person in city government has greater knowledge of that process than Mr. Balog.”

Asked about his role as a major impetus for political giving, Balog says, “I never asked anybody to give any money, if that is what you are asking. I’ll take a lie-detector test on that.”

Strong was extremely surprised by the large amount Schmoke raised from the 13 contractors related to the leachate pond. But he makes no specific allegations of Balog pressuring contractors and employees to give to the Schmoke campaign, noting, “It’s more by rumor and reputation that [Balog] brings money into the campaign.”

While Strong says he is dismayed by the role money plays in politics generally – “The outcomes of it are pretty well documented,” he says – he contends that the overarching theme of Balog’s leadership is not his role as a political fund-raiser, but “the ways in which he is working to maintain his own power rather than serving the interests of the city.” By way of illustration, Strong says he was “infuriated” when, during the inauguration of the Clean Sweep program (which targets specific areas of the city for regularly scheduled, intensive cleanups), Balog made a casual reference to a “Dirty Dozen” of the city most in need of the program. The Dirty Dozen idea was not a preplanned part of the press conference, so Strong says “we had to create that on the spot.” Strong, who had been heavily involved in planning Clean Sweep, concluded that Balog “was jealous of this program, so in the last minute he comes up with this oddball aspect, the Dirty Dozen, which was what the paper ended up writing about.”

Confirming reports from DPW staff who did not want to be quoted for this story, Strong says Balot’s ongoing reorganization of the department has many managers on edge, worried about their job security as successive waves of changes come down the chain of command. Balog states he’s been reorganizing the department for “several years,” while Schmoke says he’s satisfied that, in so doing, Balog’s building a better DPW.

But one manager says, “I don’t know why there’s all these changes being made. My hope is that it is to improve the department, but I’m not so sure that’s the case – not so sure at all.” Strong, who on December 3 attended a surprise birthday party held for him by many of his former DPW underlings, says he came away from the gathering feeling that “people seem to be under growing pressure back at the department,” in part because “every time you turn around there’s another reorganization.”

Strong recalls a moment early in his DPW career that to him defines the culture that Balog is breeding at the department. Balog denies the conversation ever took place, but Strong insists that it occurred during one of his first meetings with the director, in 1991. Strong had just made the jump from the state’s attorney’s office to DPW. “[Balog] said, ‘One of the problems with people like you who come over from the state’s attorney’s office is that you think in terms of right and wrong. We don’t do that here. We just get things done.’ To me,” Strong concludes, “that just explains a lot about how he operates the department.”

Strong is consulting with an attorney to assess his chances of proving in court that he was dismissed in retribution for his stance on the pond-repair problems; in the meantime, he vows to press on in publicizing his concerns about the landfill. At the December 6 Board of Estimates meeting, for example, he plans to protest the proposed approval of the $41,000 expenditure to complete the pond repairs. And he says he will cooperate fully with the proposed City Council review of the situation.

“I think this story provides some important lessons to be learned about how government operates and how it should operate,” Strong says. “I will support whatever will open it up to some deeper analysis.”

 

Reversal of Fortune: Two Years Ago, Martin O’Malley Was Lawrence Bell’s Political Sidekick. This Year, O’Malley Broke With Bell, Challenged Him for Mayor – and Won the Nomination. What Really Happened Between the Two That Led to Bell’s Downfall?

By Van Smith

Published in Baltimore magazine, Nov. 1999

It’s a June day in 1995, and Batman and Robin are doing what they do best: grandstanding.

As anti-administration members of a pro-administration City Council, Lawrence Bell III (a.k.a. Batman) and Martin O’Malley (a.k.a. Robin) have few weapons in their political arsenal. So when the duo has a bone to pick with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, they call a press conference. Today, they’re in front of City Hall, decrying Schmoke’s racially tinged re-election campaign.

“We’re disturbed about the escalating racial and religious tensions that plague our city,” proclaims Bell, a slim black man who swims in his too-large suit. “What good is victory if what you’ve won is destroyed in the process?” At 33, Bell’s looks belie his experience: He has represented the largely black and poor Fourth District for eight years, and he’s running for City Council president.

Now it’s O’Malley’s turn. “One of the things people say to me often s that they like the way Lawrence and I work together,” the lanky white man muses. “That is where the future of this city lies.” O’Malley is finishing his first four years representing Northeast Baltimore’s racially integrated, middle-class Third District; he’s running for re-election.

The bond that earned these two men their nicknames does seem extraordinary, given the race-tinged minefield that is Baltimore politics. No wonder the duo’s other joint tags are “Salt’n’Pepa” and “Miami Vice.”

O’Malley plays clear second fiddle to Bell at this event. But some believe that it is he, not Bell, who is driving the Batmobile.

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Today, “Batman and Robin” is no more. On June 22 of this year, O’Malley drove the final nail in the team’s coffin by announcing that he would run for mayor against his long-time ally.

One brutal primary campaign later, O’Malley is the Democratic nominee, a near sure thing to win in this Democratic town. And Bell – once the front-runner – is a distant third-place finisher, packing up his things to move out of City Hall.

In the aftermath of O’Malley’s victory, some questions remain. What really happened to the Bell/O’Malley team? How did their years-long friendship erode into political and personal rancor? And how did O’Malley rise so fast while Bell fell so hard?

Lawrence A. Bell is a career politician. The son of a prominent dentist and a public-school teacher, Bell grew up at a coveted address – Auchentoroly Terrace, a tree-lined stretch of beautiful porchfront rowhouses near Druid Hill Park. He went to the University of Maryland, College Park, majoring in government and politics and becoming the president of the Black Student Union. When Bell was elected to the City Council in 1987, he was 25, the youngest member ever. Bell was proud to follow in the footsteps of his mother’s first cousin, Kweisi Mfume, who had been Fourth District councilman before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986.

The 1987 elections also ushered Kurt Schmoke into the mayor’s office. Schmoke’s victory was seen as the end of the William Donald Schaefer machine, which for 14 years had overseen a nationally recognized downtown revival. Schmoke cast himself as the anti-Schaefer, promising to bring prosperity to neighborhoods untouched by the waterfront renaissance.

But instead, many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods underwent shocking deterioration. A crisis in the city’s public schools combined with a national crack-cocaine epidemic to overwhelm the administration’s attempts at revival. By the early 1990s, the annual murder rate had topped 300. The city’s police commissioner, Edward V. Woods, refused to acknowledge the role of vicious New York-based drug dealers in the bloodletting. Faith in law enforcement plummeted.

During Schmoke’s 1991 re-election campaign against former state’s attorney William Swisher, the mayor’s effectiveness was questioned, but there were few Democratic voices of open opposition. Schmoke was re-elected. But on the City Council, the stage was set for an organized anti-Schmoke faction.

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Martin O’Malley first took his seat in the City Council in 1992, supplanting Bell as its youngest member. Then 29, O’Malley was steeped in politics. His suburban Montgomery County upbringing, education at Catholic University, and experience as an assistant state’s attorney for Baltimore City had been peppered with political involvement. He had worked on Gary Hart’s presidential bids in 1984 and 1988 and on Barbara Mikulski’s 1986 election to the U.S. Senate. And O’Malley himself nearly denied state Senator John Pica Jr. re-elction in 1990; Pica won by only a few dozen votes. Even O’Malley’s 1990 marriage to Catherine Curran, the daughter of Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, strengthened his political connections.

O’Malley found Bell harder to get to know than some of his other new colleagues on the council. But he saw that Bell was a courageous legislator, never ducking a rough vote. Plus, Bell was black, and in a majority black city, a white politician needs all the black friends he can get.

To Bell, who was entering his second term, O’Malley was a political comrade. He was only one year younger than Bell and shared Bell’s taste for grandstanding. O’Malley also had friends in high places. Each saw a political opportunity in the other.

O’Malley got the alliance going by helping Bell gain the chairmanship of the council’s public-safety subcommittee, giving Bell a bully pulpit from which to denounce Commissioner Woods.

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It’s January, 1993, and Bell is ready to issue a public ultimatum to Woods. O’Malley and councilman Anthony Ambridge are on board.

The three meet at City Hall to discuss how to proceed. Ambridge, who is white, says the city’s racial realities dictate how it must go: “This should be put by you, Lawrence, rather than us, because of the politics.” If the white councilmen take the lead in denouncing a black mayor’s black police chief, it might look racially motivated.

So Bell pulls the event together solo and gives the men 10 minutes’ notice. When O’Malley gets the call, he drops what he’s doing and runs to City Hall.

Bell calls for Woods’ resignation if he fails to reduce the violent crime rate within six months. Then he protests “the near-total silence emanating from the leadership of our city” when it comes to crime. O’Malley chimes in: “I’d just like to see a little progress,” he declares.

The announcement makes headlines in The Sun for two days running. And when the six months are up, Bell and O’Malley are in the newspaper again. Woods resigns shortly thereafter.

Score one for the dynamic duo.

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After the Eddie Woods victory, Bell and O’Malley applied themselves to opposing the mayor. Together, they fought tax increases and pushed for tax cuts. They scrutinized police spending, tried to attract talent to the police commissioner’s post by increasing its salary, criticized the private management of public schools, helped to push through a curfew for juveniles, and decried the housing department’s awarding of no-bid repair contracts. In spring of 1995, council president Mary Pat Clarke reactivated the dormant Legislative Investigations Committee and made O’Malley its chair.

When campaign season 1995 rolled around, O’Malley again helped Bell, who was running for City Council President against fellow City Councilmembers Carl Stokes, Vera Hall, and Joe DiBlasi. Bell’s West Side base would support him, but he needed significant backing in other parts of the city.

He found it in the Third District, where O’Malley was running for re-election on a ticket with first-time council candidates Joan Carter Conway and Robert Curran, the uncle of O’Malley’s wife. Their ticket oversaw the Third District’s effort to get Bell elected. Of the city’s six districts, Bell led in only two: his own and O’Malley’s. In a crowded field, that was the margin he needed.

So it was no surprise when the new City Council president treated O’Malley well, handing him the chairmanships of the Taxation and Finance and Legislative Investigations committees. These two key assignments gave O’Malley the watchdog role he relished. Using the platform Bell gave him, O’Malley was able to broaden his reputation as a reform-minded, populist outsider.

Bell also treated O’Malley’s Northeast Baltimore neighbors well: First District Councilwoman Lois Garey became head of the Land Use Committee, while First District Councilman Nick D’Adamo was named chair of the Budget Committee.

Within Schmoke’s inner circle, this preferential treatment made it look like O’Malley was controlling Bell. At one point, Daniel P. Henson III, Schmoke’s housing commissioner – and no friend of the dynamic duo – tried to warn Bell to watch his back.

“Don’t be so sure everybody who says they’re your friend is your friend,” Henson told Bell outside City Hall.

“What do you mean?” the president asked.

“O’Malley – he’s running your show,” Henson said.

“No,” Bell responded, “I’m calling the shots.”

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But if Schmoke’s friends worried about O’Malley’s influence on the new president, they weren’t above trying for some of that influence themselves. The city’s political rainmakers started making overtures. Baker-developer John Paterakis, a strong and dependable financial backer of Schmoke, bought a table at the Congressional Black Caucus’s Annapolis gala in the fall of 1995. In an augur of things to come, Bell sat at Paterakis’ table.

On Paterakis’ agenda was how to capitalize on his land holdings at Inner Harbor East, along the waterfront next to Little Italy. (Baltimore magazine’s offices are located in one of these properties.) A 50-story hotel at Inner Harbor East – though nearly a mile away from the newly expanded Convention Center – could help meet a growing demand for hotel rooms and also generate tremendous revenue for Paterakis. But such a large building was out of keeping with the community-developed plan for the area. Also, opponents of gambling feared that the hotel would one day be turned into a casino. To construct the building, Paterakis would need support from the mayor, approval from the Board of Estimates of which Bell was chair, and legislation from the Bell-led City Council.

Bell, meanwhile, had been left with a campaign debt of $111,000, so he kept his fundraising machine in gear. And Paterakis’ pro-hotel crowd ponied up. Between February 1996 and November 1997, more than $16,000 was contributed to the fund by Paterakis companies, members of the hotel-development team, or known supporters of Paterakis’s project.

“I’m in the big leagues now,” Bell told City Paper at the time. The donations, he said, represented his desire to garner support not only from his grass-roots base, but also from heavy-hitters.

The legislative battle was enormously controversial. The Sun played the hotel as a sweetheart deal for a privileged few. And while Little Italy residents were generally in favor of Paterakis’ project, Southeast Baltimore community leaders were adamantly opposed to it.

Ultimately, Bell and virtually all of the council, O’Malley included, approved the hotel project, though its height was reduced along the way to 31 stories. While it cannot be said that Bell sold his votes, the cash infusion into his coffers did signal the start of an inexorable process: his wooing by (and of) the city’s political moneybags.

Through all of this, Batman and Robin battled on. They opened 1996 with an attempt to derail the reconfirmation of Henson as housing chief, moved to stop Schmoke’s attempt to raise taxes, then devised a way the city could save money by offering workers retirement incentives. Bell sent O’Malley’s Legislative Investigations Committee to New York to study the city’s strict, “zero-tolerance” style of policing.

By 1997, O’Malley and then Bell turned on Commissioner Woods’ replacement, Thomas Frazier, and called for his dismissal over racial discrimination on the force.

Still, Bell seemed to be softening his stance against the mayor. “Bell, Schmoke Forge ‘Refreshing’ Relationship,” read a Sun headline from September of 1996. Many saw this as a detente – an agreement between superpowers to leave well enough alone.

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It’s spring of 1998. As usual, the council is faced with a budget proposal that cuts funding for city programs. The council cannot increase the mayor’s budget, but it can save programs by making cuts elsewhere. Ordinarily, the president takes the initiative, pushing individual amendments.

This time around, though, O’Malley suspects Bell isn’t with the program. It looks as if Bell has made a deal not to embarrass the mayor. O’Malley feels unsure about Bell, not knowing until the roll is called which way he will vote.

From Bell’s perspective, it feels like any other budget battle, with the president taking his share of the heat. The difference, if there is one, is that Bell has grown more presidential, compromising with the pro-Schmoke majority in order to gain ground. He isn’t just a councilman any longer; he is responsible for the work of the whole council. Lawrence thinks his friend Martin understands this.

The last day of the council session, after the final budget votes, O’Malley stays late in his city council office. Then he trundles under the City Hall dome.

He sees Bell walking his way. “Well, I think we did the best we could,” Bell says.

“No, Lawrence, I think I did the best I could,” O’Malley replies.

Bells seems incredulous. “What does that mean?” he asks.

“I really don’t f—in’ know,” O’Malley says before walking away. “Why don’t you take the summer and think about it?”

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During the summer of 1998, Bell’s list of backers started to look more like Schmoke’s. A prime example was attorney Claude Edward Hitchcock, who tried to protect the housing department during the no-bid repair scandal and later became executive director of the Empower Baltimore Management Corporation, which administers a $100 million federal project.

In 1998, Hitchcock lobbied for two main clients: Phipps Construction Contractors, which wanted permission to use a Northeast Baltimore site for a rubble-crushing operation, and Baltimore Entertainment Center, which wanted bars on The Block on East Baltimore Street to be allowed to serve liquor past 2 a.m. Hitchcock and these clients began donating to the Bell campaign fund that summer.

Another name to appear on Bell campaign finance reports then was Gia Blatterman, a Little Italy power broker who has long been a staunch supporter and energetic fundraiser for Schmoke. As word spread of Hitchcock’s and Blatterman’s donations, some O’Malley allies got nervous.

“It just appeared that he was surrounding himself with individuals that some of us believe weren’t in the best interests of the city – and/or Lawrence,” recalls Third District councilman Robert Curran. “And it just seemed that Lawrence was much, much less accessible to Martin.”

O’Malley agrees. In fact, he says Bell flat-out told him he’d been advised to distance himself from his old partner. “[Bell] said African-American opinion leaders would say to him things like, ‘You can’t appear to be controlled by people like Martin O’Malley and [former Bell aide] Jody Landers and Mary Pat Clarke,” he recalls. O’Malley remembers understanding this, telling himself, “He’s doing what he needs to do.”

Bell doesn’t remember it that way; in fact, he seems amazed at the suggestion. “He’s making that up,” says Bell. “Nobody ever said that.” As for his shutting O’Malley out, Bell says “it was always an open-door policy. He could call me at home whenever he wanted.”

Adds Bell’s brother Marshall, who worked on the campaign: “Martin wanted to think he could control Lawrence Bell in the presidency. Martin has a certain arrogance about him, a kind of paternalistic feel: ‘Sure, you’re my brother on the one hand, but I’m smarter than you, so do what I say.'”

 

Meanwhile, people close to O’Malley began to lose faith in Bell. “I broke camp probably July or August of last year,” recalls O’Malley’s old running mate Joan Carter Conway, who was appointed to the state Senate in 1997. “I knew something wasn’t right.” Conway warned O’Malley in the fall: “He’s gone, Martin, he’s sold out.”

With Bell seeming destined for a shot at the mayor’s office, O’Malley had his eye on the City Council presidency. He wanted to run on a ticket with Bell and suggested to Conway that the three of them sit down to work out their differences. But their meetings in November and December did not go well.

As O’Malley recalls it, “[Bell] said, ‘No, I don’t want you running for council president. Maybe some sort of public-safety liaison person.’ And I thought it was very strange that all of a sudden he wants me to take over some sort of middle-management duties.”

Bell recalls the meetings very differently. He never denied O’Malley a spot on his ticket, Bell says, because O’Malley never asked for one: “On many occasions, he was asked what he wanted, and he never would say.”

According to Marshall Bell, it would have been foolish for Bell to join forces with O’Malley so early, especially with city councilwoman Sheila Dixon contemplating a run for president of Bell’s West Side home base. Marshall says his brother told O’Malley, “Whatever you want, Martin, but as far as an endorsement goes, it would be political suicide.”

 

Then, Bell was buffeted by major changes in the political landscape. Schmoke announced in December that he would not run for re-election. Shortly afterward, Bell’s former colleague Carl Stokes entered the race, as did crusader A. Robert Kaufmann. Bell’s cousin Kweisi Mfume, rumored to be considering a run, announced that he would remain as head of the national NAACP. Almost immediately, important politicians began pleading with Mfume to reconsider. And it seemed like Mfume was doing so.

The impact of the “draft Mfume” effort on Bell was huge, says Mary Pat Clarke, who knows both men well: “This is a hero to Lawrence Bell, and a member of the family. And instead of helping Lawrence Bell, it turns out that he may run for the job du jour. That was the wound that would not heal for Lawrence Bell. He was never the same after that.”

Bell got caught up in legislative wrangling over whether to amend the city charter to allow an Mfume candidacy. (The NAACP chief had not lived within city limits for the required year.) Bell took heat first for failing to introduce the amendment and then for introducing it.

As Mfume mulled, Bell reeled, and his reputation for independence frayed. Word spread that Bell’s father was fielding political advice from his longtime friend Larry Gibson, an advisor to Schmoke, and that Bell himself was spotted at lunch with housing commissioner Henson, another Schmoke intimate. A look at Bell’s campaign-finance reports shows evidence that Schmoke’s Department of Public Works director George Balog, who made his name as a rainmaker by steering DPW contractor donations to political candidates, was actively raising funds on Bell’s behalf.

In March, before either man had announced his candidacy, O’Malley organized a fundraiser for himself at the Fraternal Order of Police headquarters in Hampden. As FOP president Gary McLhinney understood it, O’Malley was planning to run for city council president on a ticket with Bell and incumbent City Comptroller Joan Pratt.

But Bell’s personal relations with O’Malley continued to cool. O’Malley suspected that the Schmoke crowd was supporting Bell on the condition that he ditch his old friend.

The issue of Bell’s closeness to a Schmoke ally came to a head in April. The Phipps rubble-crusher proposal had been winding through the council process for more than a year. Expected to be a noisy and dusty enterprise in a residential area, the proposal angered environmentalists an Northeast Baltimore community groups – both important constituencies for O’Malley and his colleagues in the First and Third districts. On the other side was Phipps, a black-owned firm seeking to operate a business on its own land. In the end, the council split on the matter, and Bell cast the deciding vote. He voted in favor of Phipps – a stinging blow to some of his long-term allies.

“[Bell] was trying to be too much to too many people,” says city real-estate officer Anthony Ambridge, who supported Bell in the mayor’s race. “He called it the ‘big tent theory.’ He was trying to bring everybody into the tent. And by doing that he was excluding some of his closest friends.”

City Councilwoman Lois Garey describes her disappointment more pointedly: “[Bell] kicked every friend he had in the head.”

Marshall Bell says that his brother’s Phipps vote involved issues broader than the wishes of O’Malley and his neighbors. That it came to be seen as a breaking point between Bell and O’Malley reveals the assumptions behind the friendship, he adds: “These kind of people, if you don’t agree with them 100 percent of the time, they start saying you sold out.”

 

The day after Bell’s tie-breaking vote, Bell and O’Malley sit down to lunch at Chiapparelli’s Restaurant in Little Italy with the FOP’s McLhinney and Marshall Bell. Lawrence Bell is just about to announce his candidacy, and McLhinney has brokered a summit, hoping to mend the breach between them.

It’s the first time in about a year that McLhinney has seen to two men in a room together, and he senses major problems between them. Nevertheless, he lays out the case for a Bell-O’Malley-Pratt ticket. Then, he turns to Bell. “What do you think, Lawrence?” he asks.

“I don’t want to make any commitment until after the filing deadline,” Bell responds.

O’Malley goes on the offensive, asking Bell to explain his ties to Schmoke’s “old warhorses.” “How you win also dictates how you are able to govern,” he says, “and if you win this way, you won’t be able to govern.”

Bell gets defensive, asking why he’s not getting more support from O’Malley’s allies. Then he cuts to the chase. “What are you going to do?” Bell asks.

“Well, my sense is that you are dropping like a rock,” O’Malley says.

Marshall Bell chimes in: “See, there you go again, you’re always negative.”

Lawrence Bell agrees, saying O’Malley’s negativity is what cooled the friendship.

“I’ve always told you the truth, whether you wanted to hear it or not,” O’Malley retorts. “If you were my friend, you’d always tell me the truth.”

“It was how you said it,” Bell says. “I don’t need my friends being negative. All this stuff puts me under a lot of pressure.”

“Well, what do you think it will be like when you’re mayor?” O’Malley asks.

“I don’t need a lecture from you about what it’s going to be like to be mayor,” Bell shoots back.

At the end of the lunch, Bell asks O’Malley what office he’s planning to seek.

O’Malley says he doesn’t know. He’ll do a poll to see if he has a chance of winning the mayor’s race. If he can win, he’ll run; otherwise, he’ll run for City Council president if the polls show a win is possible. “And if I can’t win either of those things, then I’m going to get out altogether,” O’Malley says. “And I’ll let you know.”

 

In late May, cousin Kweisi finally announced that he definitely would not run. The Annapolis powers who had pursued him immediately switched their attentions to former city Police Commissioner Bishop Robinson. And a score of other candidates joined the Democratic race.

Meantime, O’Malley’s poll showed him at 7 percent in a mayor’s race, compared to Bell’s 36 and Stokes’s 27. It also indicated that most of Stokes’s supporters could also support Bell and vice versa. O’Malley concluded that voters weren’t committed to either one of them, meaning he could cut into their bases. O’Malley announced his candidacy in late June.

Even without an O’Malley candidacy to contend with, though, Bell’s campaign was in crisis. Powerful friends could fill his coffers, but they could not dictate how he ran his race. In the first three months of 1999, the Bell campaign took in nearly $200,000 and spent more than $130,000, paying out half that amount to five costly advisers: Marshall Bell, Tammy Hawley, Julius Henson, and fundraisers Lona Rhoades-Ba and James Cauley, who was on loan from O’Malley. Another $10,000 was spent on debt from his 1995 campaign.

O’Malley, by comparison, raised $45,000 and spent $35,000 from late March through late June. During these months of campaign-building, O’Malley had no paid advisors except for his long-time fundraiser Cauley, who received $4,096.

Matters other than money hurt Bell. His campaign was marked by missteps, such as the candidate’s propensity to arrive late to forums or not show up at all; his workers’ attempt to disrupt a rally at which Mfume’s Annapolis suitors endorsed O’Malley; and his workers’ copying racist flyers attributed to white supremacists. Every time Bell was embarrassed in the media – for example, by reports that he left his wrecked Mustang at the body shop until it was repossessed and that he failed to pay his Belvedere condo fees – he would disappear from the campaign trail. He seemed to take each setback to heart rather than letting it go.

When Bell did appear, he made race an issue in a way his opponents did not, explicitly offering himself as a role model for young African Americans. More than once, Bell attacked O’Malley for refusing the censure Baltimore-based Crown Central Petroleum, which had been accused of racist practices in Texas. (O’Malley’s response was that Crown had not been invited to defend itself.)

As if to symbolize how far he had traveled from his partnership with O’Malley, Bell spent election day with Marion Barry, the disgraced and redeemed former mayor of Washington, D.C.

 

In the end, O’Malley won 53 percent of the vote to Bell’s 17 percent. Carl Stokes came in second, with 28 percent of the vote.

If it’s true, as O’Malley said, that how you win also dictates how you govern, then an O’Malley administration would be marked by efficient fundraising and spending, a motivated and diverse cadre of workers, a focus on a few key issues, backing from state leaders, and support from an energized public.

But these aren’t the only factors that propelled O’Malley to victory.

Though he ran on the campaign pledge “for change and reform,” O’Malley’s campaign also relied on old warhorses, and his horses were even older than Bell’s. Some of O’Malley’s key change agents hail from the days of once-mayor, now state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, whose endorsement also brought many Schaefer cronies into the O’Malley camp. Even the head of O’Malley’s transition team, Downtown Partnership’s Laurie Schwartz, began her career as one of Schaefer’s best and brightest.

Another old-fashioned factor in O’Malley’s win may have been the use of “walk-around money” – money paid to get “volunteers” to electioneer near polling places. It is against state law to pay workers on election day, and O’Malley denies that anyone was paid to electioneer for him on that day. Nevertheless, polling places throughout the city seemed to have multiple O’Malley workers for every Stokes or Bell worker, and word on the street was that they were being paid. One O’Malley poll worker said he received $35 to stand on the corner wearing an O’Malley T-shirt and handing out literature. Another worker, who said he had not been paid, said he’d heard that other were receiving $35 to $60 for their efforts, depending on the neighborhood. Whoever funds such payments funds them directly, without reporting them, so if O’Malley’s campaign did benefit from such largesse, persons unknown did him a big favor.

But if O’Malley needed old-time backers to win the primary, he also needed Bell. Without the high-profile alliance of Salt’n’Pepa, O’Malley might have been just another white Northeast Baltimore politician, not one of a new, race-blind generation of leaders. After his partnership with Bell crumbled, O’Malley used its rubble as the launching pad for his own ambitious campaign.

This month, O’Malley faces Republican underdog David Tufaro, a millionaire developer with strong credentials as a community builder. Unless Tufaro pulls off an upset immeasurably more stunning than O’Malley’s primary victory, Baltimore can look forward to Mayor O’Malley.

But can O’Malley govern independently? Is he more resistant than he thinks Bell was to the siren song of the city’s moneyed players?

When these questions are put to him, O’Malley’s answer is nearly identical to one of Bell’s stock campaign lines: “All I can say is, look at my record,” he says. “Look at what I’ve done on the council; look at my politics.”

The High Life: Ex-Con Has High-Powered Help in Opening Nightclub

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 3, 1996

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Kenneth Antonio Jackson, Jr., aka “Kenny Bird,” is out to become a leader in minority enterprise in the downtown entertainment market. By opening a big new nightclub, he and his supporters – including state Senator Larry Young and City Council President Lawrence Bell – hope to make “the region’s neighborhood” more inviting to the city’s prominent black middle class.

On December 22, Jackson’s lawyer, former Circuit Court judge and city solicitor George Russell of the law firm Piper and Marbury, received word that the liquor board had approved a liquor license and floor plans for the Sons of Italy building at 410 West Fayette Street, where Jackson has started renovations to open a jazz club/restaurant called the Royal Café. Jackson envisions the club as an upscale venue for national acts such as Lou Rawls and Aretha Franklin, which will attract middle-class and wealthy blacks over 30 years old.

Jackson’s initial plan for the large three-story building was to house a high-end/multistage strip club. Land records show KAJ Enterprises, a company owned by Jackson’s mother, Rosalie Jackson, purchased the building in April 1995 for $250,000 from the Sons of Italy, a fraternal order. (Jackson manages his mother’s strip club, the Eldorado Lounge, at 322 West Baltimore Street.) But when word of his plan circulated among the neighborhood’s main institutions – Lexington Market, the University of Maryland, and the Downtown Partnership – the resulting outcry led him to change his proposal to something more palatable: a reputable jazz and supper club. At a September 28th liquor-board hearing about the proposal, Russell explained that “at first [Jackson] was thinking about adult entertainment; that is gone. … This is going to be legitimate. … Even I would go there.”

The focus of the hearing was concerns that the Royal Café will exacerbate existing security problems in the neighborhood, which on weekend nights already attracts as many as 2,000 rowdy young adults cruising the streets until the wee hours. Shootings, stabbings, and many arrests have occurred in the area over the past year or so. But Russell suggested that the resistance to this new club is really due to the fact that the owners and operators are black. “It is time for people … downtown to be willing to embrace others different from them, others whose culture may be different from them, to demonstrate to the community that we can get along here.”

Young also testified on Jackson’s behalf at the hearing, saying that the venture is a positive example of minority entrepreneurship. “When it comes to downtown business,” Young declared, “blacks to not have a fair share. And I’m here to say that minorities who come up with the right qualifications, follow the laws, and [do] all that they should do should be given the opportunity to participate. And this is an entrepreneur that I strongly support.”

Unaddressed at the hearing, though, were the issues of Jackson’s criminal past and the financing of his new venture.

Jackson’s rap sheet extends back to 1974, when at age 16 he was charged with murder and acquitted by a jury. In 1977 he was again charged with murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a 10-year suspended sentence with five years’ probation. From then until the end of 1984, Jackson faced 47 other criminal charges in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County, New York, and Falls Church, Virginia, involving narcotics, handguns, murder, theft, bribery, and harboring a fugitive. These included charges stemming from allegations that Jackson was involved in a drug war for control of the Lafayette Courts public-housing project, but those charges were dismissed in 1982, according to a 1989 Sun article.

Federal-court affidavits in 1985 named Jackson as a lieutenant in the drug ring headed by Melvin D. “Little Melvin” Williams, who was sentenced that year to 34 years in prison. Also in 1985, Jackson pleaded guilty to narcotics and handgun-possession charges and accepted a five-year suspended sentence and five years’ probation. When he violated probation by leaving the state without permission – he and two companions were pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike with $91,000 and a large amount of lidocaine, which is used to dilute cocaine, in their car – Circuit Court Judge Elsbethe Bothe gave him two years’ incarceration. Jackson appealed the case in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which overturned the probation-violation conviction in September 1988.

In June 1988, Jackson was again pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike, this time with nearly $700,000 in cash in the trunk of his car. He was charged with attempting to bribe his arresting officer with $200,000 and received probation before judgement. In April 1989, Jackson and two other Baltimore men were arrested by federal agents and charged with the 1984 murder in New York of cocaine wholesaler Felix Gonzalez. At the time of his arrest, federal agents also raided the Eldorado Lounge. He was acquitted of the murder charge by a New York State Supreme Court jury in May 1991.

Since returning the Baltimore after his acquittal in New York, Jackson has avoided new charges while making friends in high places. In last year’s elections, for instance, the Eldorado Lounge or Jackson himself gave $1,000 to the Schmoke re-election campaign and $3,500 to Bell’s successful bid for City Council president. When Jackson was seeking liquor-board approval for his new club, Bell submitted a letter to the board expressing his familiarity with Jackson and his support for Jackson’s venture. Both Young and Bell say they did not know of Jackson’s criminal past until asked about it by a reporter.

George Russell would not comment for this article, but Jackson says of his criminal history, “I’m trying hard to put my past in the past.” As indication of his efforts to do so, Jackson points out several public-service awards he has received in recent years, including a 1994 Mayor’s Citation from Kurt Schmoke and a 1990 Congressional Achievement Award from Kweisi Mfume. He is active in the newly formed political-action committee, A Piece of JUICE, which works to get African American men involved in the political process.

Shortly before the April 1995 purchase of the Sons of Italy building, however, Jackson and the building both figured in an undercover FBI investigation into the drug-money-laundering operations of businessman Gregory Scroggins and attorney Zell Margolis, who were convicted in December 1995. First assistant United States attorney Gary Jordan, who prosecuted the case, says that in March 1995, Scroggins introduced Jackson to Edward Dickson, a man he though was a drug dealer but was actually an undercover FBI agent. The purpose was to convince Jackson to let Dickson in on the purchase as a “silent partner,” Jordan says. FBI transcripts of wiretapped conversations in the case document Scroggins’ opinion of Jackson, a childhood friend, as very wealthy, highly intelligent, and “the nicest guy in the world, but he’s a killer and he has killed.”

As for the nightclub’s financing, land records indicate that KAJ Enterprises obtained a $200,000 mortgage from Maryland Permanent Bank and Trust of Owings Mills to finance the $250,000 purchase of the Sons of Italy building. The mortgage calls for monthly payments of more than $2,300.

Meanwhile, court records indicate that Jackson’s employment at the Eldorado Lounge paid $325 a week in 1988, although he says he now makes substantially more than that. Since Jackson is a convicted felon, he cannot apply for a liquor license; Mary Collins, who refused interview requests, applied instead. She is a guidance counselor for Baltimore City Public Schools.

Regarding the financing for the new club, Jackson explains that all expenses not covered by the $200,000 mortgage so far have been covered by revenue from the Eldorado Lounge. The extensive renovations to the Sons of Italy building ultimately will require a sizable bank loan, he says, adding that the Eldorado Lounge has applied for a $500,000 loan from Nationsbank.

Asked why the liquor board did not inquire during the September 28th hearing about the club’s financing or whether Collins has the money to fund such a major investment, liquor-board executive secretary Aaron Stansbury explained that the board simply chose not to. He also stated that it is “obviously illegal” for a straw person to hold a liquor license on behalf of the actual owner of the club, but his understanding is that Collins is the club owner, while KAJ Enterprises is merely the landlord; Stansbury says that it is legal for a landlord to fund the building renovations on the club’s behalf. “It is presumed by the board that [the money for the club] comes from Mary Collins,” Stansbury said. Of Jackson’s criminal background, Stansbury said the board was not aware of it “to the extent that [Jackson] couldn’t manage the club.”

The Nose

By The Nose

Published in City Paper, June 29, 1994

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Baltimore Confidential

It wasn’t so long ago that the Nose was unemployed and had time to waste on weekdays. A favorite afternoon activity, after reconnaissance missions by bicycle through Baltimore’s lesser-traveled neighborhoods, was dropping by the Second Chance Shop, which occasionally operates out of the basement of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, to check out the dusty wares.

The Nose felt quite lucky to find a $2 ramshackle bar set with a light on top that read “Whisky Bar” and felt marginally literary for having purchased a 50-cent copy of a time-worn classic: Washington Confidential, by the wonderfully sleazy pseudojournalists Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer.

The cover jacket touts Lait and Mortimer as “famous newspapermen” who print “the whole truth as they saw it.” The Nose found this sales job quite appealing, and, surprised to find a chapter entitled “Baltimore Confidential,” eagerly turned to see what the poop in Baltimore was in 1951, when Lait and Mortimer got the lowdown on our Mobtown.

Having some knowledge of Baltimore’s corrupt past, the Nose was not surprised to learn that ours was “a perfect boss-run burg” where “most citizens are openly on the side of the law-breakers” and “the concepts of liberty and non-interference play into the hands of the hoodlums and the harpies.” Even better, “any and all forms of vice are tolerated and protected.” Finally, “there’s a price to pay for everything, and it’s not much.” This was a town the Nose, with our yen for jobbery, intrigue, and excess, could learn to love. No wonder Baltimoreans drip nostalgia like sweat off a whore’s back in August.

Lait and Mortimer made much of the sex shops, gambling houses, and dirty politics that made the Block/City Hall area “one of the most vicious and lawless areas in the world.” These were the days of Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., a Democrat who was cozy with the kingmaking Mafia but also headed the U.S. Attorney General’s Continuing Conference on Crime and Corruption. Councilman Jack Pollack, at that time a kingmaker in his own right, was a former bootlegger and had once been arrested, but not indicted, on murder charges.

The Nose’s job would be so much more entertaining if strait-laced Mayor Schmoke had such nebulous connections, or if council members had such colorful pasts. Too bad our legislators have since brought corruption aboveboard, where it is regulated and obscured by campaign-finance laws and scrutinized by the public according to sunshine laws. But the Nose expects there is still plenty of viciousness and lawlessness in and around Holliday Street.

Nasty Noise in the Council

Viciousness, indeed. The Nose recently smelled burning flesh in the City Council chambers, where a bill to kill the two-year incinerator moratorium and approve a replacement incinerator on Pulaski Highway singed a few council members’ fingers. In the midst of the legislative posturing over the issue, innuendo regarding council member Wilbur “Bill” Cunningham, whose health-and-environment committee was to hear the bill, was aired.

Anti-incinerator council member Perry Sfikas suggested that Cunningham, who is an employee of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, had a conflict of interest over the issue because incinerator owner Willard Hackerman is a major Hopkins donor with a healthy measure of pull at the university.

Once Cunningham – known for his feistiness – caught wind of the accusation, he cornered Sfikas, moments before the gavel came down to start the June 6 council meeting, and bared his prominent incisors. “You piece of shit,” Cunningham seethed. “That was a low, fucking, shitty thing to do.”

Sfikas bore the insult silently, perhaps because he was at the time afflicted with a painful-looking virus that pocked his gums and mouth with open sores, a situation that left the usually logorrheic legislator with the ability only to make guttural noises that barely resembled speech. Sympathetic but always ready for a good story, the Nose felt privileged to be privy to such a display of legislative personality.

One in a Million at the Million Man March

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 25, 1995

As a white guy, Im pretty much at the top of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s shit list. The Nation of Islam leader may hurl venom at Jews, Arabs, Catholics, gays, and any other group that his twisted, manipulative take on history and reality tells him to excoriate, but a large supply of his vast reservoir of hate is reserved for Caucasian men.

Knowing exactly where I stand in Farrakhan’s separatist vision – that is, sequestered from my African American friends and neighbors – I decided to attend the Million Man March to get a sense of the future of black-white relations. I do, after all, live happily in an integrated neighborhood of a majority-black city where race is constantly an issue. If my welcome is wearing thin, I’d prefer to find out earlier than later.

Being uninvited and considered part of the problem, I expected hostility. To my pleasant surprise, I was welcomed over the course of the day by hundreds of African American men, who politely acknowledged my presence even as they listened to blame-filled speeches that fingered me, a white male, for much of their plight. I was called “brother,” and clasped hands in an overwhelmingly positive spirit with black men in Farrakhan T-shirts. I quickly realized that, in the atmosphere of the march, race relations were much more complex and promising than the hype had led me to believe.

Race, it seems to me, is not a simple black-and-white issue, though many choose to see it that way. Its nuances are dizzying. As I tried to piece it together, I quickly grew to resent the words of Dan Berger, which I had read on the op-ed pages of The Sun that morning: “If you do not accept the leadership of Minister Farrakhan and Reverend [Benjamin] Chavis, you are not marching in Washington today. If you are, you did.” I now realize that Farrakhan’s leadership is a sideshow to the real strides toward multiethnic health that March participants took with great enthusiasm.

As I wandered the Mall, I listened to speeches and prayers, delivered by Nation of Islam ministers and Christian preachers, that reminded me repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that my European American forefathers were slave traders, or slave owners, and that they conspired – often with ruthless energy over a period of centuries – to enrich themselves at the expense of the inhabitants of much of the African continent. Strong cases were made, even without indulging the minister’s bizarre fantasies, that this white racist legacy against African American males continues in more subtle forms today.

Even without the reminders, I am fully conscious of my forefathers’ sins and those of today’s white-male establishment. And I know that they are not far removed, either in time or space, from my own experience. I will never forget Mining the Museum, an exhibit created by Fred Wilson at the Maryland Historical Society that included a Klansman’s hood found in a Towson attic in the late 1950s and a fugitive slave notice from a farm on Falls Road in Brooklandville (owned today by the same family, the Johnsons, who were listed on the notice) which included a description of how the runaway had been marked for identification purposes by mutilation.

I grew up in that same area, just north of the city. Cold, hard, violent racism is an unavoidable part of my heritage. Occasional conversations with some of my childhood friends never fail to remind me of its living, breathing effect; many of them cultivate a racist mentality even as they say they aren’t racists. They often try to tone it down in my presence, but their educated voices still resonate with destructive words and thoughts. I tolerate their company at these times with grim defiance and open discomfort; nonetheless, they are my friends, and I still like them.

A visit to almost any corner bar in the southern or eastern reaches of this city, where many of the city’s whites reside, is likely to reveal an innate animosity towards African Americans that, in a feat of logical gymnastics, is felt to be justified by the ongoing crisis of black-on-black drug violence. Overlooked is the obvious fact that the government’s drug war targets poor, urban black males even as white suburbanites feed the trade and traffic with little fear of arrest or prosecution. When I pass by a drug corner, the excitement among the black dealers is feverish: a white face means a quick sale without the haggle. Somehow the white role in black-on-black drug violence is lost on most whites.

Many whites in Baltimore, despite living under a legal system that matured to embrace civil rights generations ago, are still in infancy when it comes to race relations. As further evidence, one only needs to remember the Democratic primary for city council president. Joe DiBlasi captured many white voters’ imaginations by overtly seeking to exploit the potential split in the city’s black vote among three African-American candidates. As he sought citywide office, he rarely if ever campaigned in black communities.

Even as the city’s white community complained rightly and bitterly about Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s race-based campaign, hardly a white voice was raised against DiBlasi for the same tactic. To me, this mass hypocrisy is every bit as great as that of Schmoke and his campaign manager, Larry Gibson. It seems to me that the city’s black political leadership and much of its white minority population are on the same racist page: they are just reading different books. Both call for retribution. One side tries to undermine black leadership because those on that side feel ignored; the other proudly proclaims that the shoe is now on the other foot. The situation make productive communication all but impossible.

And the situation with Farrakhan doesn’t help matters. He is a racist, plain and simple, and he is emerging as the dominant voice – if not the acknowledged leader – of African American males. At the march, I witnessed hundreds of thousands raise their fists and make a vow: “We accept Louis Farrakhan as our leader across the world.” Needless to say, that spectacle worries me profoundly.

But I know I can live with the hostility that Farrakhan wants to spread. He’s taken the fore as a highly visible and controversial black leader, so I have little choice but to deal with it. The trick – as in any confrontational situation – is not to take it personally, to deflect any blows, and not to hit back. Most of all, love your brother anyway. Eventually, he backs down, the hatchet is buried, and everyone gets along famously. At last that’s how it is supposed to go.

The hostility-deflection method takes patience and practiced level-headedness, but it works in most situations, as any martial-arts instructor worth his or her salt can tell you. I have gotten rather practiced at it, as I face black-to-white hostility on nearly a daily basis on the streets of Baltimore (constant eye-fucking, the occasional “yo, white bitch,” and periodic attempts to run me down on the street). In fact, I had to deploy it almost immediately upon returning to Baltimore from the march.

As I crossed West Franklin Street heading north on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (of all places), I found myself confronted with a baseball-bat-wielding youth, maybe 10 years old, backed up by four other kids. They came running across MLK from the Lexington Terrace projects, itching to kick my ass.

Unable to avoid them, I stopped my bike, stood up, faced the kid as he prepared to bash me with the bat, and said sternly with my arms crossed, “So you’re going to knock me around, huh?” He balked, smiled sheepishly, and then one of his accomplices shouted, “He’s a cop! Look, he’s packin’ a gun!”

That was their out. As they ran east on Franklin, I shouted after them, “You wouldn’t have pulled that shit if you had gone to the march today!” The last kid looked back and smiled knowingly.

I had disarmed them psychically, and each of us left undamaged and with something positive to think about. It occurred to me the march participants had managed the same thing with me earlier that day: I had gone expecting my presence to cause some level of hostility and confrontation, but I found only peace and brotherhood.

My hope is that Minister Louis Farrakhan, as he makes his rounds as a confrontational black leader, will find the same reception that I found at the march. If his hostility is met with hostility, I’m afraid we’re headed for a highly destructive showdown. If it is deflected with respectful defiance laced with genuine benevolence, maybe there’s hope, and blacks, whites, and everyone else can stop talking about blame and retribution and actually start building a common, mutually beneficial future. To rephrase the popular T-shirt, “It’s a people thing – we got to understand.”

Harm City

By Van Smith

Published as a “Postmark: Baltimore” column in New York Press, 1998

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Back in August 1996, when I moved into the house I recently purchased, my next-door neighbors appeared to be a problem. A bullethole still marred a windowframe of their rented house, left there after a Sunday afternoon shootout on the street a few months earlier. They kept seven chows in the basement; you could hear the inbred curs barking in the dark, day and night. About a dozen people used the house as a temporary crash pad on a rotating basis – younger guys, mostly, with shiny Acuras and eye-fucking attitudes. The landlord lived in New York City and apparently was waiting for the bank to foreclose on the property so he wouldn’t have to be responsible for the shady scene going down on his property.

Within weeks of moving in, I noted a connection between my next-door neighbors and the barbershop around the corner. Fresh Cuttz, it was called. Open all night, its barber chairs were always full and lots of traffic moved through its doors. Late at night, flashy cars with out-of-state license plates were often double-parked before its entrance. Directly in front of the shop was a payphone, a well-placed utility for the high-volume retail drug trade spreading a half block in either direction. I regularly saw many of the guys who lived next door to me hanging in or around Fresh Cuttz.

I was curious, so I asked around. Although many neighborhood people said they had complained to the police about drug dealing they believed was originating from Fresh Cuttz, no one had any information about cops ever having busted the joint. The police, for their part, said three separate investigations had reached the same conclusions: Fresh Cuttz was a place where drug dealers went to get their haircuts, end of story. This made the neighborhood people laugh cynically. Some were of the honest opinion that police were connected to the drug dealing there.

Around this time, an FBI agent who works the press in Baltimore started warming up to me. He would call regularly, friendly as can be, probably in an attempt to get information about the things I look into as an investigative reporter. I never gave him anything that hadn’t already been printed, but he would call me anyway to chat about local politics. When he started offering personal information about himself – where he lives, where he went to high school – I figured he was extending a measure of trust. Not wanting to be needlessly paranoid in dealing with a federal agent, I returned this gesture by telling him the location of my new abode.

“That would be right around the corner from Fresh Cuttz, right?” the FBI guy asked. I was amazed that he would be aware of the place. After plugging him for more information, I learned that Fresh Cuttz caused a blip on the radar screen of a federal investigation of convicted money-launderer Gregory Scroggins. Court records show that Scroggins drove an undercover FBI agent posing a DC drug dealer looking to hide money in Baltimore real estate straight from the Downtown Athletic Club to Fresh Cuttz. Just as he was pulling up to the barbershop, ostensibly to meet with a potential co-investor, Scroggins noticed the suited white men tailing him in an unmarked car, so he took off. The operation failed, but my FBI guy, who was in charge of the investigation, was convinced Fresh Cuttz was somehow connected to the potential co-investor, who name was Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson.

I got quite a rush from this information. Earlier that year, I had written about Jackson. I reported that he was a strip-club manager who, along with his mother, was trying to get a liquor license for a major new downtown nightclub apparently by using a surrogate applicant and the interventions of controversial state Sen. Larry Young. Jackson himself, an ex-con who says his violent days as a leading figure in Baltimore’s west-side drug trade are over, was not legally permitted to hold a liquor license, so he was attempting the next best thing: using a high school guidance counselor with a clean record as the licensee. The scandal exposed not only Jackson’s past crimes and current shenanigans with the liquor board, but also his shoulder-rubbing with some of Baltimore’s most powerful political leaders. If the folks living next to me were associated with Jackson – as it now seemed they were – I had good reason to be paranoid.

After the article ran, my publisher got a letter from New York attorney Robert Simels, who not only counsels jailed New York gangster Henry Hyde, but also my new-found nemesis, Kenny Jackson. On Jackson’s behalf, Simels was threatening to sue me and my employer, Baltimore’s City Paper, for libel. He never followed through, but I was very impressed that Jackson would have such an expensive attorney pen such a piss-poor letter to my publisher. I would have expected the threat to come from Jackson’s esteemed local attorney, Piper & Marbury’s George Russell, a former judge, city solicitor and president of the Maryland Bar Association. Jackson seemed to be saying, “See, I can afford the costliest – just like Henry Hyde.”

Jackson can afford more than expensive attorneys. He has given thousands to the campaign coffers of the city’s three top political leaders: Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, City Council President Lawrence Bell (who got $3500 from Jackson, his largest contributor) and Comptroller Joan Pratt. He bankrolled a political action committee, called A Piece of J.U.I.C.E. (Justice, Unity, Integrity, Choice, Equality), which was formed to give people on the streets of Baltimore – many of whom can’t vote because they, like Jackson, have felony convictions – a voice in the political process. J.U.I.C.E. spends thousands among the city and state politicians.

Perhaps the contributions explain Jackson’s extraordinary access. At a birthday party for a politician’s mother last fall, Jackson was the only person there – other than the mother – who wasn’t either an elected official or an elected official’s employee or spouse, according to a person who was at the celebration. A plaque from former U.S. representative and now NAACP President Kweisi Mfume hangs over Jackson’s desk in his backroom office at his strip club, the Eldorado Gentlemen’s Club.

The existence of Kenny Jackson explains a lot about Baltimore’s political culture. He has everyone who knows him convinced that he’s just a businessman, an ex-con trying to redeem himself by making legal money in the entertainment business. And maybe that’s all he is. But then there’s the matter of Scroggins (who, by the way, is widely said to be the father of Mayor Schmoke’s adopted son), caught on a wiretap calling Jackson “the nicest guy in the world, but he’s a killer and he has killed.” (Jackson was once convicted of manslaughter, and later beat a murder charge in New York.) Meanwhile, Jackson is making cash overtures to the city’s political elite. And the elite is not shying away from him by any means.

“Mr. Jackson is a businessman, that’s all I have to say,” City Council President Bell told me after the scandal erupted.

The lingering question after hearing such a statement is, Which business is he in, entertainment or drugs? Even if Jackson no longer controls a sizeable chunk of the Baltimore drug trade, as law-enforcement officials speaking background insist he does, he has this very sinister history involving large sums of cash, guns and white powder. It seems that in Baltimore it is okay for politicians to be associated with people like Kenny Jackson. No one gets outraged about it; rather, folks generally seem fascinated by the details without having any sense that something is fundamentally amiss. Perhaps this numbness has been learned after living with generations of corrupt leaders. After all, this is the state that produced such stalwarts of integrity as Spiro Agnew and still displays his bust in the state Capitol.

If you run the numbers on the size of the local drug trade, you begin to understand why Baltimoreans might tend to write off their leaders as corrupt. The city health department says there are 50,000 daily users of heroin or cocaine in Baltimore city – a conservative estimate, I’d say. Let’s assume each of them spends $50 per day to support his habit – also a conservative estimate. And this goes on 365 days a year. That’s 50,000 times 50 times 365, or $912.5 million a year. Money is power, politicians love power, so people tend to presume some of this money must somehow be getting into some politicians’ pockets. The easiest way for average citizens to deal with this possibility is to accept it and go on with their lives. Who’s going to shut down a $912 million-a-year industry? An outraged citizenry? No way, especially since so much of the citizenry creates the demand that fuels that industry.

On Jan. 3, 1997, Fresh Cuttz made the news. James Smith, III, a three-year-old sitting in a barber chair to get his birthday haircut, was killed in the crossfire of a shootout inside the barbershop. The police investigation concluded that the violence was over stolen shirts. Smith’s death caused a widespread spasm of hand-wringing in a city that consistently rates in the top 10, per capita, for murders. Media coverage of the murder stressed the tragedy not only of Smith’s death, but of the barbershop owner’s victimization; these were legitimate businesspeople, the media reported, who had the misfortune of having senseless violence visit their innocent premises. Following the murder, Fresh Cuttz shut down, and so did the drug market in my neighborhood.

The guys next door with the chows, they moved out a few months before the Smith murder; the house is now owned by a bank and is vacant. Kenny Jackson is laying low at the Eldorado, where his butt-slapping variety show is shot on video for the city’s public-access cable channel. His buddy Larry Young – the state senator who tried to help Jackson negotiate the liquor board – was just expelled from the state Senate in early January for breaking ethics laws by using his public office for fun and profit. Schmoke, Bell and Pratt are all still in power, trying their level best – but to no good effect – to turn “Harm City” back into “Charm City.”

For my part, I own a fully functional, three-story, historic storefront row house with an oversized backyard located within 10 blocks of the city center for $34,500. I don’t think that kind of money would buy a parking space in Manhattan.