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Before tweets, Baltimore’s relationship with Trump administration included appeals for help, moments of defiance

The Rev. Donte L. Hickman, Sr., pastor of Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore, speaks from the podium as President Donald Trump and officials gathered in the Roosevelt Room of the White House listen in December 2018.
The Rev. Donte L. Hickman, Sr., pastor of Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore, speaks from the podium as President Donald Trump and officials gathered in the Roosevelt Room of the White House listen in December 2018. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

In her inauguration speech, Mayor Catherine Pugh said she had already drafted a letter to President Donald Trump that set forth ways he could help the city. A few days later, the first thing the newly elected members of the Baltimore City Council did was formally condemn him.

Those two acts in December 2016 established twin tracks that the relationship between heavily Democratic Baltimore and the new Republican administration followed ever since. Appeals for help and investment have been paired with defiant opposition.

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Baltimore has sued the Trump administration and won in a case over funds for sex education, paid for lawyers to help residents caught in immigration roundups and rushed to finalize a civil rights decree over abuses by the police department that the Justice Department wanted to back out of.

At the same time, officials and community leaders have also sought to persuade Trump to help the city and have enthusiastically sought ways to ensure the city benefits from the Opportunity Zone tax break backed by his administration.

The attention was all but unrequited by the president himself. Then this weekend, Trump lashed out at Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Democratic stalwart who represents large portions of the city. Trump called Baltimore “rodent infested” and a “mess.”

Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who sponsored the resolution condemning the president, said it was clear to him during the 2016 election who Trump was and what he represented.

“He’s a disgusting individual and I was right to put forth a resolution in opposition to him and it was right then," Dorsey said. "It’s right now. And it will be right after this news cycle when we’re still wondering how to change the structurally racist fabric and structures of our city that have nothing to do with Donald Trump.”

But on Monday, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young used an appearance on CNN to renew his call for the president to help the city.

“If you want to help us, help us,” Young said. “Don’t talk about it. Send the resources that we need to rebuild America. He’s talking about he wants to ‘Make America Great Again’? Put the money in the cities that need it the most.”

Young, when he served as City Council president, had previously traveled to Washington in 2017 to meet a senior adviser to the president and delivered a similar message.

“My mouth and my mind was racing,” Young said then. “You don’t get the opportunity to talk to senior staff in the White House, not like that.”

The federal government has delivered on some of city leaders’ priorities since Trump took office in early 2017.

Pugh said in her letter to Trump — which she handed to him when he came to Baltimore for the annual Army-Navy football game — that she wanted help with the Port Covington development, water infrastructure and the Howard Street train tunnel. In some fashion, all three have been addressed by the federal government in the years since. The city has also received $30 million to overhaul an old public housing project and was included in a Justice Department crime-fighting initiative.

Yet, many of the ways the federal government has aided the city come with an asterisk.

Port Covington shouldn’t have qualified for a tax-break program designed to encourage investment in poor neighborhoods, but because the Department of the Treasury used flawed maps it got included. A Department of Transportation grant for the train tunnel, awarded last week, is only about half what the city was hoping for. And a low-interest loan of $200 million to help pay for upgrades at a wastewater treatment plant covers only a fraction of infrastructure work that federal authorities have demanded the city undertake.

At other moments, the city has confronted the Trump administration directly.

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In the months between Trump’s election and his inauguration in January 2017, the city and the Justice Department rushed to finalize a decree that would require the city’s police department to undertake civil rights reforms. When Jeff Sessions took over as U.S. attorney general, the federal government tried to back out of the decree and the city’s lawyers argued to keep it in force. A federal judge ruled in favor of the city.

Baltimore has taken the administration to court on five other occasions, challenging changes to health care policies and immigration rules that the city says harms residents. The city won a case alleging the federal health department was illegally yanking funds for a teen pregnancy program. The city has also joined about a dozen other cases as a friend of the court.

Suzanne Sangree, the attorney who heads the city’s affirmative litigation team, which seeks ways to file public interest lawsuits, said she looks for rule changes that could harm the city and then looks for ways to fight them in court — often by arguing that the federal government hadn’t followed the law when it developed new rules.

“Often the way the Trump administration operates, they don’t seem to care that much about the rule of law," she said. "It’s blatantly illegal what they’ve done.”

The city and the Trump administration have also clashed over immigration. When immigration raids that Trump previewed on Twitter were expected in Baltimore this month, officials reminded immigrant communities that the city paid for lawyers to represent people facing deportation and the police department issued a policy prohibiting officers from collaborating with immigration authorities.

“We are not going to be cooperating with ICE on any level,” the mayor said at an event announcing the policy.

But a dispute with the Justice Department over immigration enforcement at the city jail, which is actually controlled by the state, initially led to Baltimore being frozen out of a federal crime-fighting program, even as the city became the deadliest in the nation. The Justice Department ultimately picked Baltimore to join a second group of cities selected for the program.

It is the Opportunity Zone program where city leaders have seen the most potential to benefit from the Trump administration. The program was created by Congress as part of the 2017 tax cuts but has been enthusiastically supported by the White House.

Pugh held events to promote the zones saying in January that she hoped they would bring "revitalization of these long under-invested communities.”

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Trump planned to come to Baltimore late last year to promote the program at the invitation of the Rev. Donte Hickman. The visit was canceled but Hickman visited the White House and Trump praised his work as he launched a new council to coordinate federal agencies’ efforts to promote the zones.

“This council will support communities like East Baltimore, where Pastor Donte Hickman is helping lead a groundbreaking project in the newly designated opportunity zone,” Trump said. “He’s been an incredible leader.”

Hickman, who leads the Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, said Monday that he was invited back to the White House but was unable to attend. Still, he said his invitation to the president to come to Baltimore still stood.

“The real issue is how do we turn the argument into something constructive and have an appropriation of federal dollars to turn around a city that’s closest to the capital’s borders as a model,” Hickman said. “We need more of his influence beyond the insults.”

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