Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took over leadership of Baltimore at a difficult time. She became the chief executive after Sheila Dixon's scandal-induced ouster from City Hall, just before a major snowstorm and in the midst of a deep budget crisis. She has been tested by a terrible friendly fire killing and scandals in the police department, and by cheating at the fire academy and in student standardized tests. She has dealt with an earthquake and a hurricane, and through it all she has remained steady, calm and focused.
Her opponents in the mayor's race charge that she has failed to display a compelling vision for how to move Baltimore beyond the crisis mode it seems perpetually to be in, and they have a valid point. Too often, Ms. Rawlings-Blake gives the impression that she is working to manage the city's decline rather than to spark its rebirth. The mayor faces five challengers, three of whom are strong candidates with a wealth of ideas for changing the way business is done in this city. Many of their proposals are compelling.
However, Ms. Rawlings-Blake earns our endorsement. Though we do have concerns about the boldness of her thinking, we cannot overlook the competence she has displayed in running the city. She has shown a willingness to make necessary but unpopular decisions and an ability to carry them through. Those are qualities that none of her opponents can match, and without them, their dreams for a new Baltimore will remain just that.
Ms. Rawlings-Blake has only been in the mayor's office for 19 months, but she has had ample opportunity to show her skills and quality as a leader. The first priority was to restore trust in City Hall after Ms. Dixon's forced resignation, and Ms. Rawlings-Blake quickly introduced legislation to revamp the city's Ethics Board and to reduce the mayor's control of the body. She also revamped Baltimore's Office of the Inspector General, which has been strikingly active in finding cases of public corruption, waste and inefficiency in recent months. To her credit, Ms. Rawlings-Blake has not sought to put a lid on these findings, even during election season, and has instead lauded the effort. She also acted decisively when The Sun reported that Baltimore police were classifying an exceptionally large percentage of rape complaints as unfounded, and the department has taken concrete steps to change its practices as a result.
The mayor also faced a profound budget challenge upon taking office, a shortfall of $121 million. Making matters worse, the city was on the hook for an additional $65 million in payments for its police and fire pensions unless the system was reformed. Ms. Rawlings-Blake responded with a package of spending cuts, revenue increases and pension reforms that all sparked strong opposition. But they were, on balance, the best of the bad options the city faced. They did not rely on an increase in the property tax, and they didn't take police off the streets, but they did put Baltimore on a more sustainable path. The process of getting City Council approval for her plans wasn't pretty, but the mayor managed it skillfully and successfully.
Ms. Rawlings-Blake also has unmatched connections in Annapolis, thanks to her strong relationship with Gov. Martin O'Malley and the legacy of her father, the late Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings. That has proved invaluable. She was able to successfully push for some of the tougher gun laws that city mayors have long made a priority (though more remains to be done), and she helped to reverse some of the funding cuts Baltimore was due to face under Mr. O'Malley's budget proposal this year. Given the continued fiscal uncertainty at the state level, the ability to be an effective advocate for Baltimore in Annapolis will only become more important.
Finally, it is difficult to deny her point that Baltimore, though profoundly challenged, is in key ways headed in the right direction. Murders are at their lowest rate since the 1980s. School test scores, despite a setback this year, are still far above the levels where they were a decade ago, and the list of city schools that are just as good if not better than their suburban counterparts continues to grow. The census still showed a population loss during the last decade, but it was the smallest Baltimore has seen in recent decades, and recent growth in school enrollment offers hope that the trend will soon reverse. And, for what it's worth, the Baltimore Grand Prix, which Ms. Rawlings-Blake championed in the face of strong public skepticism, was a major success.
But what about her opponents? Two of them — Wilton Wilson, a nurse and political newcomer, and Circuit Court Clerk Frank Conaway — do not present viable alternatives to Ms. Rawlings-Blake, but three other contenders in the Democratic primary do. Former City Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, state Sen. Catherine Pugh and former Baltimore planning director Otis Rolley have all mounted strong campaigns and have the stature and ability to serve as mayor. However, none of them has made a convincing case that he or she would be better than Ms. Rawlings-Blake.
Mr. Landers, who most recently was vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, has unmatched knowledge about two issues that are critical to the city: property taxes and vacant houses. Ms. Rawlings-Blake has sought to portray talk of a significant cut to Baltimore's property tax as reckless and irresponsible, but Mr. Landers presents a compelling and realistic plan for reversing the perverse incentives for the owners of vacant houses to let them lapse into disrepair, and the disincentives for owner-occupants of homes to improve their property. He would follow a model that works: the system in Washington, D.C., where occupied and vacant or blighted properties are charged different rates. There, the property tax rate for occupied homes is less than half of what it is in Baltimore. Mr. Landers also displays a comprehensive understanding of why the city has had such difficulty in getting vacant homes into the hands of new owners and proposes the creation of a land bank, which has been effective in other cities.
If the job was "mayor of real estate," Mr. Landers would be your man. But despite his obvious love for the city and dedication to its improvement, his knowledge, passion and vision do not extend sufficiently to all of the other areas in which a mayor needs to lead.
Ms. Pugh cut her political teeth under former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, and it shows. She has a zeal for getting the private sector involved in public affairs that is very Schaefer-esque, and her resume reflects a bit of his "do-it-now" enthusiasm. She started the Fish out of Water public art campaign with $100,000 in private funds and raised $1 million for city schools. She was a founder of the Baltimore Marathon, which is now a mainstay of city life. She is the co-founder of the Baltimore Design School, a fashion, graphic arts and architecture-focused high school, and helped arrange a creative public-private financing plan to provide it with a new building. In Annapolis, she has been an energetic and effective legislator.
However, her enthusiasm and vision have not translated into concrete plans for how she would carry out her ideas as mayor. She has made the most ambitious goal for property tax reduction — a 50 percent cut within four years — and has offered the least specifics about how to achieve it, only a vague promise to grow the tax base. She wants to turn renters into homeowners and get the city's thousands of annual college graduates to stay in town, but she doesn't say how. We need vision and specifics.
Of the challengers, Mr. Rolley comes closest on that score. He has a master's degree in urban planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and offers a holistic understanding of what ails the city. Although he has been lampooned for one of his more far-fetched ideas (a tax on bullets as part of a public safety strategy), he has released the most detailed and comprehensive set of policy proposals of any candidate. He emphasizes the need for a neighborhood-based redevelopment strategy and understands the interrelation of crime, schools, taxes and quality of life in determining the city's viability.
The thesis of his campaign — that Baltimore needs to change the way it's doing things if it is ever to stop stumbling from one crisis to the next — is appealing. But Mr. Rolley exhibits a degree of political naivete about how difficult it would be to put his ideas into action. His perspective as someone outside of the political establishment is refreshing, but he lacks the experience and connections he would need to get the establishment to accept the change he champions.
The best choice
It would be wonderful to meld the top four contenders into one supermayor — someone with Ms. Rawlings-Blake's steady leadership, Mr. Landers' expertise, Ms. Pugh's can-do spirit and Mr. Rolley's wide-ranging vision. But no such candidate exists, and it is much easier to imagine Ms. Rawlings-Blake, who is still growing into her new role, adopting some of the bolder thinking of her challengers than it is to expect her challengers to suddenly match her managerial ability or political acumen. Among the choices we have, Ms. Rawlings-Blake is clearly the best and deserves a full four-year term.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun