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?

 

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.”