BUILD wants to take candidates to next step


On a hot, humid evening in May 1987, Kurt Schmoke met with some 800 representatives of Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development at Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Pimlico. There, Mr. Schmoke -- who was making his first bid for mayor of Baltimore against incumbent Clarence H. Du Burns -- assured the coalition of church and community organizations that "your vision is my vision."

BUILD had asked the candidates to commit to what the group called its Municipal Agenda: creating 1,000 new homes for low- to moderate-income families each year; reducing public school class sizes and increasing teacher's salaries; and supporting the Nehemiah project -- an ambitious plan to renovate or build homes in the impoverished Sandtown-Winchester section of West Baltimore, using a combination of church, public and private funds.

But while the challenger embraced the agenda heart and soul, Mayor Burns scoffed at what he saw as a grandiose and impractical program. Eventually, the incumbent promised to support BUILD's ideas "in principle." Mr. Burns lost the election.

So now Mayor Schmoke is nearing the end of his second term in office. He faces a potentially stiff challenge from Council President Mary Pat Clarke. And, depending upon who you talk to and where you go, Baltimore either is a city in deep crisis or a fairly nice place to live. Mayor Schmoke either gets the credit or takes the blame, depending on the perspective of the speaker.

This election illustrates a dilemma faced by voters in urban areas across the country. Big cities everywhere face many of the same problems: unemployment, crime, drug abuse, declining performance in schools, and a growing population of disconnected, disaffected young people. Families with the financial means are fleeing to the suburbs. Businesses are abandoning the proverbial ship. Meanwhile, cities have become increasingly isolated politically, hampering efforts to fashion long-term solutions.

The question before voters here and elsewhere is how much of those problems should be blamed on the person in charge. After all, the issues are national in scope; the bitter fruit of decades of neglect on the municipal, state, and federal levels. Yet, don't voters have to have some way of holding City Hall accountable?

BUILD's Municipal Agenda was an attempt to put the mayor on record so that he could be held accountable. So, I asked the former president of the organization how the mayor performed. Her verdict was that Mr. Schmoke had at least tried to keep his pledge.

"Mayor Schmoke was the first candidate to embrace the agenda and he held himself accountable to the public around that agenda," says Carol Reckling, now a BUILD organizer. "And he )) delivered. He either accomplished what he set out to accomplish or made a good faith effort to do so."

Under the Schmoke administration, home ownership has increased and public schools have made modest gains. Baltimore is hailed as one of the best-run cities in the country. The city work force is far more diverse today than under previous mayors. The city has increased the proportion of business it does with minority-owned firms.

Yet, many people continue to feel paralyzed by the fear of crime. Members of the middle class continue to flee. And, truth be told, Baltimore does not seem like a better place to live. It doesn't feel like a town on the move. Has the mayor done all he could do? Would a new mayor do better?

"We don't plan to dwell on who did what, who didn't do what," Ms. Reckling told me yesterday. "BUILD's approach will be to move the city on to the next stage. This summer, BUILD will be actively promoting our new agenda -- our Agenda for Families and Neighborhood Investment."

Essentially, BUILD plans to put candidates on record once again, this time around an agenda that focuses on the creation of jobs that pay a "living wage," the expansion of drug treatment and rehabilitation programs, and the creation of a $10 million Child First Authority that would enhance education and recreation programs for children.

It sounds to me like an agenda that addresses the concerns of many citizens here. It will be interesting to see how the challenger and the incumbent address the agenda.

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