Baltimore's City Council member were sworn in by new Mayor Catherine Pugh Thursday morning at the War Memorial. (Video by Barbara Haddock Taylor)
In a year when American politics hit rock-bottom — only 30 percent of voters in a recent Pew Research Center poll gave President-elect Donald J. Trump an A or B grade for the way he conducted himself during the campaign — it might seem odd to look to politics for bright spots.
With eyes so jaundiced, it might be impossible to see anything bright in the field.
But I take what I can get, and what I get, at least in Baltimore, on the cusp of a new year, is considerable promise in the City Council, with eight new members and returning veterans worthy of respect. Everyone who lives in the region and who cares about the future of the city should take note: We might have had another lousy year of violence, but we had a promising one for political leadership. When it came to the quality of candidates for City Council, many good ones stepped forward. In some districts, the fields were crowded, and excellent candidates lost their elections.
Last winter and spring, I gave myself the task of interviewing, for the Roughly Speaking podcast, any council candidate willing to sit for a recorded conversation in the weeks before the April primary. By the end of the project, I had interviewed 50 candidates and, to my surprise, only a small number — maybe five of them — seemed wholly unqualified or just too, uh, eccentric. The vast majority were good to excellent prospects, and I would have been pleased to vote for many of them.
I covered my first City Council meeting in 1976. There were some good members — men and women who provided steady constituent service and who, when necessary, could smartly tackle citywide issues. But too many saw their roles exclusively as troubleshooters, the person you called to get a pothole patched or a block-party permit issued. There was also a lot of what we used to call Afghanistanism (code for "indulging the obscure"), with verbose members prone to malaprop speechifying about topics far afield: the spread of communism in Central America, oil production in the Middle East. (Moved to orate on Reagan-era defense spending, one councilman stood to say, "Preparedness is the best detergent against aggression.")
Most of the council members understood that, under Baltimore's charter, the city had a strong mayoral form of government, and they used that as an excuse to do as little as possible. That has changed in recent years, as the council became more active — and more willing to challenge the mayor.
But the council really needed fresh brains and blood, and if there's anything promising about Baltimore going into 2017, it's a new City Council to go with a new mayor. Voters put considerable talent and enthusiasm into the city's legislature. I had never encountered such a good crop of young candidates — smart and informed, educated, already experienced in community action, conversant in some of the most complex issues facing the city, and willing to take on constituent service.
As I listened to the candidates explain why they were running for office, I detected something that often seems in short supply in Baltimore: urgency. If you've been here for as long as I have, or longer — if you were born here and made a life here — you've grown accustomed to the chaos and dysfunction: the ups and downs of the crime fight, the long epoch of drug addiction, homeless men walking into the daylight after a night in a shelter, panhandlers on downtown streets. It's all as familiar as it is unacceptable.
And there are the other issues, big and costly ones: the education of children who arrive at school with extraordinary needs related to poverty; the serious health gap between Baltimore's wealthiest and its poorest citizens; the long rows of vacant houses; the old infrastructure that keeps cracking and leaking.
All of this has been part of the city's general narrative for a few decades now, and many of these conditions fueled the Freddie Gray explosion of April 2015. So, one year later, these young, smart and enthusiastic Baltimoreans stepped forward to run for City Council. They see the city's great potential from the neighborhood level, and they find the city's festering problems unacceptable. I sense healthy impatience in just about all of them.
Baltimore dances with urban greatness; it waltzes right up to various tipping points all the time: new residents, new businesses, new buildings, an enticing waterfront and some of the best housing values on the East Coast. But it all gets overshadowed by the big problems. So, at best, we run in place.
And that's not good enough. I got that message from the City Council candidates, both the winners and the losers. And it's a great thing to hear and see: idealism matched with pragmatism, men and women with a sense of place as well as a sense of urgency. I say thank you for stepping up, and good luck. We'll be watching.