Gov. Larry Hogan has an opportunity to not only reverse the fortunes of Baltimore, but to give the entire metropolitan area a boost while charting a new course for the Republican Party — right through the heart of a city that represents all that's wrong with racial separatism, neglected social problems and partisan politics.
Over the last 40 years, as political power shifted to the suburbs, Republicans had little to do with cities. They courted a suburban base and believed they had nothing to gain politically from helping cities. During the Reagan era, federal aid to Baltimore was significantly slashed, the city lost thousands of residents to the suburbs and poverty became even more concentrated within the inner city. Also, the war on drugs commenced and filled Maryland prisons.
Partisan politics, racial politics — whatever you call it, it offered nothing for the common good. That stuff has no place in a 21st-century society facing so many persistent and complex challenges.
Hogan is in a position to do something remarkable and sustainable in post-riot Baltimore. He's Nixon in China. He's the suburban Republican businessman who, after just four months as Maryland governor, finds himself at a moment fraught with possibilities for a city he says he loves.
He should form an alliance with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — and the Democratic mayor should jump at the offer — that would be a model of bipartisan cooperation for the rest of the country.
Hogan believes Baltimore should be the economic engine driving the regional economy. It's good that he recognizes that.
What happens — and doesn't happen — in Baltimore has a ripple effect through the metropolitan area. David Rusk, the urban scholar and former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., told us that 20 years ago, warning that leaving high concentrations of poor people in inner-city neighborhoods would invite disaster for the region. "Baltimore Unbound," Rusk's disturbing but prescriptive book, declared that the city had reached a point of no return in social and economic decline.
Government and business leaders, he said, had to recognize that Baltimore could not continue as "poorhouse for the region's minority poor." Suburbanites might believe they are isolated from conditions in Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods, but Rusk argued convincingly that the whole region would suffer if its central city did not reverse its downward spiral.
Rusk had a great idea — a "Municipality of Metropolitan Baltimore" to carry out a region-wide "fair share" housing plan to dissolve the high concentration on poverty in Baltimore neighborhoods.
I don't expect Hogan to embrace that idea, but he should at least read "Baltimore Unbound" as he goes about building support for the city.
He's in a unique position. He has the ear of business leaders and suburban constituencies who need to understand — if they don't already — that Baltimore's problems can no longer be allowed to fester. We have too much poverty, too much crime, too many kids who don't finish high school, too many citizens who fear their own police.
"This is clearly a historic opportunity to serve the people in a character-defining sense," says Herb Smith, longtime Maryland political observer.
David Salkever, professor in public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is skeptical that a Republican governor would do what's necessary to turn the city around.
"My sense is that important public investments are required, and I wonder if such investments can be high on his list of priorities," Salkever said. "I hope so, but have not seen any concrete evidence of that yet. His focus thus far has been mainly on cutting revenues."
No doubt, what I'd like to see Hogan do — what a lot of people would like to see him do — won't be found in any Republican playbook. That's why teaming with the mayor and business leaders for a bipartisan, public-private effort to help a city that only gave him 30,000 votes last November would make Hogan a hero to a lot of people who are tired of partisanship and failure.
Michael Reisch, professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, says Hogan should not expect help from Congress. The state should come up with its own plan to help Baltimore.
"The initiative has to be multifaceted, comprehensive, well-funded and long-term," says Reisch. "It cannot be regarded as a quick fix. It should involve state and local government, the private sector, and the nonprofit sector — foundations, churches. It also must have full participation of the communities being targeted at all stages of the process."
By that, he means the neighborhoods Hogan visited during the recent state of emergency — Penn North and Sandtown-Winchester, for instance.
The top priorities, Reisch said, should be jobs at living wages, affordable housing, and fully funded K-12 education.
We're at a big moment in Maryland and Baltimore history. The Republican governor and the Democratic mayor have a grand opportunity to reverse the city's decline and raise the quality of life for thousands of people throughout the region for years to come.
Please, do it.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.