He comes from one of Baltimore's most storied political families, and as part of that proud dynasty Baltimore City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. watched in frustration as the city's leadership was pushed to the sidelines by a state government ready to assume more control over Baltimore's school system.
He set out, he says, to engineer a backup plan to solve the school system's financial troubles. He ended up trumping the state and positioning himself as a central figure in the fiscal drama.
"This was just supposed to be a plan B," Mitchell said yesterday, about the idea to get the school system through June with a $42 million city loan, rather than a state loan that came with many strings.
As the legislature in Annapolis prepared Monday to take up a bill that would provide a state bailout, Mitchell began lobbying his council colleagues to support his plan, which he said could be offered if the state proposal disintegrated.
The plan, he said, was hatched during a phone conversation Saturday with Mayor Martin O'Malley and took nearly everyone involved in the debate by surprise. It pleased many Baltimoreans, who feared a state takeover of the local schools.
"I applaud him for taking the step, it was a very bold move," said Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTA's. "Finally, someone seized some initiative to take control of this situation."
A council member since 1995, Mitchell is well regarded by his colleagues and is one of the members closest to O'Malley.
His grandfather, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., was a Washington lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The courthouse in downtown Baltimore is named after him.
His uncle is Clarence M. Mitchell III, a former state senator, and his great-uncle, Parren Mitchell, was a pioneering African-American member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland.
With the mayor quietly supporting him from Annapolis on Monday, he floated his idea past council members during a luncheon Monday.
Later, Mitchell, five other council members and city solicitor Thurman Zollicoffer met in councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector's office to discuss the plan with O'Malley, who was on the phone from Annapolis.
"There was some arguing going on, some people were not satisfied and were concerned about the city's bond rating," Mitchell said.
About 45 minutes into that meeting, finance director Peggy Watson joined the group to answer questions about how the bond rating might be affected. That, he said, eased the tension in the room.
On Monday evening the council voted 16-1 in favor of Mitchell's amendment, authorizing a $42 million loan.
Word of the council vote spread quickly, stunning state lawmakers who promptly decided against introducing the school bill.
"It did surprise me because I thought that they would at least have the debate" in Annapolis, said Mitchell, adding that the plan is only a short-term fix.
"It doesn't solve the long-term problems," he said. "We really need to look at serious school reform for this school system with everything on the table up for change. We need to look at teacher's pay, charter schools, everything."
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