Politics of Race and Reality


History was made in Baltimore's primary election last week. Come November, African Americans will hold all of the municipal government's top elected offices for the first time and the City Council will have an unprecedented black majority.

The gradual political empowerment of Baltimore's African Americans is a major development in a city that will celebrate the bicentennial of its incorporation in just two years. But while political power is real, it becomes merely symbolic and hollow without economic means to implement programs and policies.

The hard reality in Baltimore is that the city is increasingly dependent on handouts from both Annapolis and Washington. Such grants have become meager since Ronald Reagan initiated federal restructuring in the 1980s; federal aid is certain to drop even more under a Republican-controlled Congress focusing on deficit reduction.

It's great that Mayor Schmoke has "a friend in the White House and a friend in the State House," as he keeps reminding Baltimoreans. In the world of Newt Gingrich, that unfortunately is not enough. A chief executive no longer controls the purse strings, not even the president. Legislators do.

There is little Mayor Schmoke or the new City Council can do about this situation in Washington. But there is a lot they can do in Annapolis -- and in Maryland's 23 counties.

During the past eight years, Mayor Schmoke and the council have not built bridges aggressively enough, even though alliances of mutual interest are possible with county legislators. Such coalitions will become pivotal in the next four years. More action by the city is direly needed in Annapolis.

Regionally, Mr. Schmoke should take advantage of the good relationship he has developed with C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, the Baltimore county executive and a fellow Democrat. A little-noticed symbol of this relationship occurred on the Fourth of July, when Mr. Schmoke served as co-grand marshal in the annual Towson parade. No other Baltimore City mayor has ever done that in a county which until recently often took anti-city stands.

The challenge of Mr. Schmoke and the City Council is to extend this new acceptance to a cooperation with the Baltimore County Council and to the county's legislators in Annapolis, some of whom, as a result of redistricting, now also represent city constituencies.

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