Laslo Boyd: What's next for Baltimore?

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In the wake of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s announcement last week that she will not run for re-election, the big question is what will be different as the result of her decision.

That Baltimore will have a new mayor probably isn’t the big news.  There was a pretty good chance that was going to happen anyway given the deluge of criticism that has rained down on Rawlings-Blake ever since the death of Freddie Grey and the riots that followed.  In fact, given the increase in murders in the City even before the spike this summer and the faltering response by her Administration, she might have had a tough race no matter what.

As I’ve written in the past, I have not been a big fan of the Mayor’s leadership.  She lacks the ability to inspire, to provide persuasive reassurance to the public in times of crisis, or to project a vision for the City’s future.  By all accounts, Rawlings-Blake has managed some difficult issues with skill, including getting a handle on the City’s budget, but she has fallen short in too many other areas.

There’s no mistaking the fact that being Mayor of a City like Baltimore is a tough job with numerous problems and no easy or short-term solutions.  If the City’s dramatic rise in murders is troublesome, it is a problem faced by many other major urban centers.  If there are not enough good jobs and too many people living in long-term poverty, Baltimore is certainly not alone in facing that twin dilemma.  If after years of new starts and promises, the school system is still failing far too many students, that also is a familiar story.

Add to all those problems the thunderbolt that hit the City’s national reputation in the aftermath of Freddie Grey’s death.  There are a lot of substantive issues to deal with, but there is also a massive public relations reclamation project that requires urgent and immediate attention.  Given Rawlings-Blake’s inarticulate and often defensive efforts in this area, it’s unlikely that the City’s image will improve much in the remaining 15 months of her tenure.

One can hope, however, that her stated determination to focus on governing rather than campaigning in her remaining time in office will have some positive results.  The most problematic issue may be figuring out how to build a constructive relationship between the City’s Police Department and the communities they serve.

Whether you believe former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts' claim that the police have “taken a knee” since the riots, that is, backed off active policing, there is no question that the murder rate has soared during that time.  At the same time, cracking down on crime will have to include restraint and sensitivity in dealing with the residents of Baltimore’s neighborhoods.  

The Justice Department is already looking at the patterns of conduct by City Police.  The continued examples—after a while, you can’t keep calling them isolated incidents—of police excess suggest a culture in too many cities and departments that has been ignored or even accepted.  The video of an undercover officer tackling James Blake in New York City last week doesn’t need to be typical to be of concern.

Can Rawlings-Blake start changing that culture and at the same time valuing and respecting the important contribution that police make to the safety of the community?  If she accomplished that and nothing else, her tenure would be regarded as a success.  But it’s far from certain that she can succeed in this effort.

How about making progress in attracting jobs and business to the City?  Here, it would make a real difference if the State were an active and energetic partner, but there’s still no evidence of that.  Rawlings-Blake’s very public feud with Governor Larry Hogan may have been an obstacle, but here’s a chance for both of them to rise above petty disputes and work for the betterment of the residents of Baltimore.  Can either of them do that?

I frankly doubt that there is anything the Mayor can do in the next 15 months to impact public education in Baltimore.  Hogan would probably like her to become a convert to charter schools, but there’s no evidence that lots more charters would have a dramatic impact anyway. 

All of these issues, regardless of any progress that Rawlings-Blake makes on them in the remainder of her term, will be there waiting for the next mayor.  At this point, there seem to be three major candidates and a number of minor ones.  There’s lots of speculation that there will soon be additions to the field, which seems a likely outcome in the wake of her withdrawal.

This may be counterintuitive, but I think the candidate most hurt by her decision to step aside is Sheila Dixon.  With Rawlings-Blake in the race, there was lots to distract voters from Dixon’s ethical failures while she was in office.  Those are likely to draw targeted attention from her opponents, as well they should.   Dixon, in betraying the public trust in a tawdry fashion, doesn’t deserve to have another shot at the job.

We really don’t know enough about what kind of candidate either Catherine Pugh or Carl Stokes will be.  That they have each lost in a previous attempt doesn’t mean much.  They, and any other candidates who get into the race, will have the opportunity to explain how they would deal with the serious challenges facing Baltimore without arguing endlessly about Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s errors during the Freddie Grey affair. 

As a result, there’s a chance that a real election could break out.  That might be the best possible thing to happen for Baltimore in a long time.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.