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A mind to be mayor: Q&A with Otis Rolley III

Thanks, Andy Babin/TEDxMidAtlantic

Otis Rolley III isn't a former councilman like Jody Landers. He doesn't sport the election-season street cred of Carl Stokes. And he doesn't have a family tree rooted in Baltimore politics like Frank Conaway.

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But don't count out the 36-year old, former Chief of Staff for Sheila Dixon. He wants Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's job. And he's willing to take on a crowded field of contenders to get it. What the MIT-educated Rolley lacks in name recognition and campaign dough, he hopes to make up for in new ideas and unwavering tenacity.

In a political landscape that seems short on charisma and brains, Rolley's an intriguing character. At 29 he was America's youngest director of planning for a large city, overseeing the drafting of Baltimore's first master plan in decades. Despite his success, Rolley admits he's an underdog. But social media has offered him the perfect venue to bark. His campaign maintains a steady presence on popular sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. His Twitter stream is peppered with 140-character swipes at the Rawlings-Blake administration, questioning everything from the city's loss of federal lead paint abatement dollars to the economic viability of the Grand Prix. He's even testing out unproven online channels, taking questions on community-driven Q&A upstart Quora.

To have a legitimate shot at City Hall, though, Rolley must transcend the medium and offer a message that stirs the passions of Baltimoreans now and on election day. In an interview with Bthesite, he offers a glimpse at his master plan for the city - and then some.

Let's start with the obvious? Why a run for mayor? Why now?

I was inspired to run for mayor because of my personal experiences and education. The people of Baltimore. And the potential of Baltimore. I grew up in the inner city. I learned a tremendous amount about myself and the world from the diversity and density, the challenges and opportunities that city life afforded me. My educational experience, particularly the opportunity to learn politics, public policy, and urban planning also has inspired me to want more out of my city and to take what I've learned and apply it to my home to make it a better place.

The people of Baltimore are salt of the earth, hard working individuals. You can't serve in this city as I have and not be inspired by these individuals and families. They have invested, worked hard, and stayed when others have left. I want more for them, and they deserve more.

Finally, I was inspired to run for Baltimore's highest office because of the potential of Baltimore. I believe that it is untapped. I believe that we have phenomenal resources and assets that we neither recognize nor utilize for the betterment our city. There are few things sadder in life than untapped potential and unrealized promise. Baltimore has the potential to be a world-class city, and I wanted to help us realize our fullest potential.

I believe that we are at a tipping point. I believe that we can go in the right direction and be a city ten years from now that people look at as a model of urban renaissance, efficiency, economic revitalization, and open, transparent, and efficient government. Or we can continue to wallow in managed mediocrity and think that okay is okay. It is not. Not for Baltimore.

You've got a distinguished background, with list of accomplishments - even before turning 30. What contributed to it?

What contributed to my success early on was my faith, mentors who invested in me and my success, and my inability to accept what could not be done. They said we couldn't open a one-stop development permitting shop. They said we could not complete a comprehensive citywide master plan. There was a lot of "you can't do that here" throughout my career, and with every success, I proved them wrong.

How might the experience shape your approach to leading the city?

My experience standing up against the status quo will definitely shape my approach to leading the city. I won't allow small thinking and a limited view prevent us from solving Baltimore's challenges.

What's wrong with Baltimore, and how will you fix it? And more importantly, what are the current leaders doing wrong?

They are being led by the tyranny of the urgent. They chase the latest development project, idea or gimmick. They try to resolve this year's deficit without thinking about the long-term solution. They are not making decisions based on what is in the long-term best interest of the people and neighborhoods of this city. There are many areas I could discuss, but there are two key initiatives.

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Neighborhood Development. We need to reduce the real estate tax rate to provide a greater incentive for private capital to invest in our neighborhoods. The vacancy problem of Baltimore will never be resolved by public funds alone. Just as has been proven by the successful development that has occurred in several of Baltimore's downtown and waterfront neighborhoods, development happens when tax rates are reduced or rebated. We need to bring that same thinking to our other neighborhoods. The $150,000 developer, known as a homeowner needs the tax relief that we have been giving to the $150 million developer. Both are crucial to the city's long-term health and viability.

And economic development. I will prioritize small and start up businesses in our city. Through a combination of loans, grants, training and support, we will make Baltimore one of the most attractive cities in the nation to start a new business. We'll also do this through tax relief. A reduction in our personal property tax that affects business big and small...would also change the economic culture of our city to one that is inviting to business. With over 85% of all jobs being created by small and start up business, we would have the opportunity to create jobs in Baltimore in a way that we haven't in decades.

Your career trajectory has drawn comparisons to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. You both have impressive academic credentials and have enjoyed a great deal of professional success at an early age. But his turn as mayor has been characterized as a mixed bag: A brilliant mind that didn't necessarily translate into progress for the city, particularly when it came to key indicators like crime statistics. Where may he have fallen short, and how can you translate your philosophies into measurable progress for Baltimore?

I am honored to be compared to a Rhodes Scholar like Mayor Schmoke, particularly since my first job with the city was in his administration. But we are very different. I don't believe it's an apples to apples comparison. While, yes, I had the benefit of being educated at MIT, I also got a degree from the school of hard knocks growing up in the inner city in a working class neighborhood and attending an under performing public high school. My reality was not a middle-class mecca: it was rough.

I've been working since I was 13 years old because I had to. Furthermore, our career paths before running for Mayor are very different. I have spent my entire public sector career in Baltimore serving in the executive branch of municipal government preparing budgets, managing personnel, and moving projects and plans from concept to implementation. In each of my appointed positions I got more responsibility, because in each preceding position I performed beyond the job description and achieved substantial success.

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Though I do not have an electoral history, I have a successful work history, not of urban philosophical theory, but of real work, helping real people. I want to continue that measurable progress as mayor.

Speaking of mixed bags, the potential list of mayoral candidates is growing, with everyone from Jody Landers and Scott Donahoo to Carl Stokes and Frank Conaway considering a run. What differentiates you from the pack?

The differences are many. I'm not a politician. I don't think okay is okay. I have a vision for where I want to see Baltimore - and it's nothing less than a world-class status. I am the only candidate who's directed the development of neighborhood, community, and a citywide comprehensive plan. I have the most direct executive municipal management experience. I am the only candidate who has been trained in city planning. Most importantly, I am not a part of the old political guard that wants to maintain the status quo.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has amassed quite a war chest. How do you plan to overcome the differences in financial support? Would you consider yourself an underdog in this race?

Yes, I am the underdog in this race. I do not expect to, nor do I need to raise as much money as the incumbent. I need to meet my targets so that we have the financial resources to implement our battle plan effectively. If we meet those targets, and we are on track to do so, we will win.

There have been whispers that Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration has privately lobbied you to skip the run for mayor and instead take a shot at the City Council President's seat. What's your response to this?

One of her staff members and several of her supporters have lobbied me not to run and to pursue the City Council President seat instead. My response has been I am running for mayor of Baltimore.

City schools have experienced modest gains over the last decade. What do you think has been the biggest contributor to that success? What do you think will need to happen to build on that? What's your opinion of the job Dr. Alonso's administration has been doing?

The biggest contributor to the success has been a willingness on the part of city schools to innovate, partner and prioritize. The innovation has shown itself in our approach to educating the kids through a variety of school choices. Partnering in a real way with the state, the federal government, and philanthropic organizations to address the needs of the students. I've also been impressed with the prioritization of funding and authority shifting from North Avenue to the individual schools. We are merely on the tenth mile of a marathon, but we are making progress.

I've been pleased with Dr. Alonso's performance to date. The key to longevity and systemic change will be his ability to hire and retain exemplary principals for our schools and "Alonsos" throughout the different administrative departments at North Ave.

You were a key member of Sheila Dixon's administration. From an insider's point of view, what's your take on the circumstances that led to her resignation?

I believe Mayor Dixon was a strong mayor. She worked really hard and demanded that everyone around her work hard. She understood that you cannot be a great mayor if you try to lead from City Hall alone. She understood that her success as a mayor was dependent on her ability to know and genuinely care about the neighborhoods and the people in them. I believe the circumstances that led to her resignation were unfortunate and avoidable. She knew that her greatest strength was her ability to operate as a servant leader and when she got distracted by the trappings of the office and failed to operate in that way, she fell.

Some have been critical of Commissioner Bealefeld, even as crime stats across the board have shown improvement. What's your opinion of his administration's performance? Would you retain him as commissioner if you were in office?

Commissioner Bealefeld has the third hardest job in the City, with Mayor and City Schools CEO being #1 and #2. We are at 30-year lows in our crime rate. The commissioner, his leadership team, and the entire police force deserve credit and praise for that fact. Where there has been and continues to be room for attention and improvement is in the areas of police-community relations, officer screening, selection and hiring practices, and ongoing officer training. I believe that Commissioner Bealefeld could work well in a Rolley Administration.

With city property taxes double what residents in surrounding counties pay, what does your administration intend to do about it? How might it be accomplished without simply robbing Peter to pay Paul?

A well-planned tax reduction over the course of eight to ten years could be done. If done properly, while simultaneously maximizing efficiency in our government service delivery, you can stop the yearly deficit dance we do as a city. Maximizing efficiency in government means looking how to deliver high-level services at minimum cost to the citizens. Looking for duplication of services, over-staffing, and a lack of systems - and taking corrective actions. Including a revamped CitiStat that provides efficiency audits for all city agencies.

With another year of budgetary shortfalls looming, what kind of alternative revenue streams would you recommend to help fill the gap?

I would fill the gap by reducing and prioritizing our spending. Seeking to replace legacy systems with more efficient ones. Beyond that, and most importantly, the only sustainable revenue stream is that which would be created by increased population and job growth.

One of the best ways to stimulate job growth and increase the city's population is by making reductions in our real estate property tax and our personal property tax rates. Our real estate property tax is $2.268 per $100. Baltimore City homeowners pay twice that of any other jurisdiction in the state. Our personal property tax, the tax that businesses pay on practically everything not nailed down in a business is $5.62 per $100. Businesses in Baltimore are paying nearly 3 times the personal property tax of any other jurisdiction.

We will continue to have yearly deficits until we deal with our structural deficit, and the best way to resolve that issue and to meet the needs of our citizenry is to create a climate conducive to personal and business investment. We can do that by reducing our city's tax burden.

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You've had a history of activism – most notably at Rutgers where you were a vocal leader in a protest over racially incendiary comments by the University president. Do you see a racial divide in Baltimore? If so, what do you believe fuels it? And what would you do to help assuage it as mayor?

Yes there is a racial divide in Baltimore, and it is fueled by poverty, the miseducation of our children, and lack of communication. What I would do to assuage it would be to work to create jobs and opportunities by putting into place a sustainable equitable economic development strategy that matches our assets and resources with the needs of the market. I would also work to continue to improve our schools – traditional public and charter public – so that our children have greater opportunity to see the world beyond their block or neighborhood. Finally, I would work to foster more cross neighborhood/cross community dialogue to begin to fade the boundary lines between neighborhoods in Baltimore.

Have you narrowed down a list of people who would fill out your administration's key posts if you're elected? Who are your considering?

I'm not putting the cart before the horse. The first task at hand is to win the election. The two things that I can assure you are the following: I will not need a transition or a transition team; and I will hire the best and brightest who understand that it a privilege and an honor to serve the people of Baltimore.

Besides Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who do you see as your biggest competitor in the mayoral race?

My biggest competitor is apathy. Many of our city's citizens don't believe that we can do better. We have been convinced that the current political leadership and climate is the best we can do. That's why we have low voter turn out and poor levels of civic engagement. I am running against a system and a political history that has failed to put the people of Baltimore and the neighborhoods of Baltimore first. I have to convince Baltimore that we can do better and that we deserve to be a world-class city.

Would you ever buy a car from Scott Donahoo?

Sure. I'm in the market for a minivan.

What's your take on the Hon Controversy?

No one can own "Hon". It's like someone from Brooklyn, NY trademarking "forgetaboutit"

Who would you rather have beers with at Pickles Pub: Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti or Orioles owner Peter Angelos?

Peter Angelos because I have some questions for him about his past Baltimore political experiences and his vision for the Orioles?

]Every interview needs a Favorites List. So, where's your favorite place to:

Take the wife for date night: Ruth's Chris

Watch the Ravens game: Home

Get a crabcake: Faidley's at Lexington Market

Talk politics off the record: my barbershop

Watch the July 4th fireworks: The Marriott Waterfront

Grab a beer: Teavolve

Hide from staffers: No where to run, no where to hide.

Shop for the perfect suit: Giano Marco Menswear

Find the CD Best Buy doesn't carry: iTunes

And finally: Schmoke had "The City That Reads." O'Malley had "Believe" (and "The Greatest City in America"). What would your tagline for Baltimore be?

I'd hate to pick yet another tagline. Enough with the catchy phrases already, but if forced in a corner it would simply be "Baltimore!"

M.M. McDermott likes to talk: mcdermott@jhu.edu or @mmmcdermott.

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