Baltimore City Paper

Conflicts of Interest

For the first time in decades, City Paper was not invited to the V.I.P. Artscape kickoff party. In fact, Bill Gilmore, the head of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, personally turned Jennifer Marsh, our general manager, away from the door at the UB law school, despite a decades-long relationship and two BOPA-related CP covers in a row, focusing on the Sondheim Prize and Artscape respectively. 

I normally wouldn’t give a shit—it’s dangerous for reporters and editors to crave access to free food, drinks, and powerful people—but I was on a mission. This might be my chance to talk with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake about art. It has been something of an obsession.

So, when the Artscape staff turned me away, I insisted. “See, the thing is, I have to write a story about this party, and I either have to write about the party or about how a bunch of assholes didn’t let me in.”
“You can call me an ‘asshole,’” said the gatekeeper. 

“I know, but I’m not interested in that. I’d be more interested in calling Tracy [Baskerville, the communications director at BOPA] an asshole.” 

“Hold on,” she said and got on the phone. A few moments later, she came over with an armband. “I’m doing Tracy a favor,” she said. I feel bad, because when I left, this employee said she got in trouble—BOPA people, forgive her, I really was being a bully. It’s not her fault and she served democracy. 

I spent the first part of the hour I was there talking with Neil Feather, who won the $25,000 Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize. We joked about how he was one of the rich people now. But, soon I saw my opportunity.  “I need to go talk to the mayor,” I said. 

I got another drink and walked towards the mayor, who was wearing a spectacular kind-of leopard skin dress. She started to pass by. I stuck out my hand and reintroduced myself as Baynard Woods from City Paper.
“I really want to talk to you about art,” I told her. 
“Why would I talk to you after all the horrible things City Paper has written about me,” she said, displaying real emotion as her eyes narrowed and her lips went taut around her teeth. She was actually angry. 
She said my story about Station North (“Can Station North Save the City,” Feature, July 3, 2013) which described her as uncomfortable at the opening of the Chicken Box, was “projecting your prejudices on me.” 
She then referred to “whoever wrote that other damn story” about her shunning CP at Single Carrot ("Mayor disses CP at Single Carrot grand opening," Conflicts of Interest, Jan, 29, 2014).
I confessed that was me, too. 
She shook her head, as if disgusted. Again she said I was projecting my subjective state onto her. She used the word prejudice more than once. 
I felt bad that I had that grim, uncontrollable grin that unaccountably sweeps across the face of a scolded fifth-grader, but I couldn’t help it. I was really taking her seriously and yet I was about to laugh. 
Photographers came and interrupted us. Simultaneously, we would turn and put on our best smiles. Then back to the battle. 
She said I would not want to see any of my readers treated the way we treated her. I responded that they weren’t in positions of power. I told her that it is my job to be suspicious of things politicians say and of their motives. But, I said, my view of her stance on art is really evolving. After her defense of the widely unpopular Powers mural, I now think that she may believe in art more than I do. I think that it is good for what used to be called the soul, whereas, I have come to think, she really believes it can transform the city. I want to hear about that. 
“Of course I like art, I went to goddamn Oberlin,” she said. 

I was blown away. She sounded like William Donald Schaefer. I had always thought of SRB as cold, but now she was on fire, showing a real political spark. The woman standing in front of me with both pain and fury in her eyes was not a technocrat. She grew up in politics and knew it was smarter to avoid me, but she engaged anyway. She was a real human and, in that moment, a leader.  I loved her. 

A couple times during what turned out to be a 10-minute conversation, handlers seemed to come by to check on her. She never acknowledged their imploring eyes and continued to lay into me. When I told her she could set our readers straight, if I had mischaracterized her, she said: “I don’t need to tell your readers, I’m telling you.” 
I wasn’t writing this down or recording, so I am only using quotes of which I am certain (nothing was agreed to be off the record). When I insisted that I did not want to do a takedown piece, but to have a serious conversation about the role of art in cities, she said, with a beautifully haughty and dismissive smile: “I’ll get around to it.” It was stunningly cool. 
As she started to walk off she said, “Don’t let the lip gloss fool you.” 
I said that it was her position, not her lip gloss, that elicited a bit of suspicion. She patted my arm and walked off.

Strangely enough, a very similar thing happened at roughly the same time, but on a much bigger scale, as David Simon and Governor Martin O’Malley happened to be on the same Acela and, according to Simon’s blog, The Audacity of Despair, the governor said, “Come on, Dave . . . we’re getting to be old men at this point. Sit, talk.”  

Rawlings-Blake and I are neither as old nor as successful and we are still in the midst of the day-to-day grind of Baltimore City, and yet, something real transpired between us. 
As I stood on the balcony at the top of the building looking out at the city and the throngs stretching out at Artscape below us, I was still sort of swooning over the mayor’s spirit. She was responsible for everything happening down below us, and yet she was angry at me. 

I still disagree with her often (I really want to ask about her views on the semilegal DIY spaces, which seem to me to be crucial to the development of any scene that will help the city in the ways she thinks art might), but as I went down the elevator and walked out into the Artscape crowd, to make my way over to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, I was happy. It is good to be reminded that your mayor is a human. And if I was ever wrong about you, Madame Mayor, I apologize. 

I now think you are an honorable adversary and hope to meet you often on that field of battle that has always existed between the political class and the fourth estate.