The most poignant language brought thus far into the campaign for mayor of Baltimore comes from Carl Stokes, the former city councilman and school board member, who declared the other day that he is running because "I want to say, I'm not living like this anymore."
The words arrive as a revelation: After a dozen years, somebody is finally saying the city doesn't have to exist in its current shadow culture. There are other cities, all over America, where the drug dealers aren't so prosperous that they buy up real estate and rule over it like feudal lords, the public schools actually prepare kids for productive lives and the streets of neighborhoods aren't clotted with trash.
As the campaign grinds into second gear, it becomes clear it will be a referendum on the previous 12 years, during which much ground was lost, with the city's worst neighborhoods getting more dangerous and drugged; with the schools turning out another generation of illiterates; with thousands of vacant houses pockmarking the landscape; with accused murderers skipping free because the court system is too chaotic to try their cases on time; and with some in City Hall who have willfully divided us for their own political profit.
Thus, Stokes' words, largely unheard over the past decade, arrive as an unanticipated shot in the arm: We don't have to live like this. The question is: Is Stokes the one for the job? Is he bankable enough to win, and tough enough if he does?
He's heard both questions before. He's lost a couple of races, and knows some big-money people have lined up behind City Council President Lawrence Bell's mayoral run. That's a recurring problem for Stokes. When he lost the race for council president four years ago, he says, he ran out of money with three weeks to go. Even now, he's got to pay off $2,400 from the last race before he can officially file. There are deep-pocket folks who like him but question his electability.
"Damn," Stokes blurted out the other day, when he heard this argument.
He was eating breakfast at Jimmy's in Fells Point, with owner Nick Filipidis and a couple of other guys, one of whom, backing Lawrence Bell, brought up the race 12 years ago between Kurt L. Schmoke and Clarence Du Burns. An early Sun poll showed Schmoke with a commanding lead. All Burns' campaign money immediately dried up.
"Here it is again," Stokes said angrily. "You're doing the same thing, lining up early and scaring all the money away. What's the rush?"
"Because right now," Stokes was told, "he looks like the winner."
If that's not discouraging enough for Stokes - and it is - there are some who question his toughness. If he wants to keep the peace, he can't make the tough decisions. He's heard this before.
At Jimmy's, Filipidis tells him, "We need somebody tough at City Hall." He mentions politicians "who come in here all the time to get a feel for what's going on, and they get indigestion from what they hear."
"Of course they do," Stokes says. "People feel this way all over town, but there's no outrage at City Hall. The city's being run on an on-call basis. The mayor's surrounded himself with incompetent people who should take customer service lessons from Nordstrom's.
"The housing commissioner's plan to revitalize a community is to tear it down. Other cities have zero-tolerance programs for crime, and we're afraid of it. Why? Zero tolerance doesn't mean you arrest every guy who's drinking wine on his front steps. It means the police go up to him, and they dump the wine. It's a quality-of-life issue. Is that so hard to understand?"
Stokes juts a thumb over his shoulder toward where his grandparents bought their home on Lanvale Street in 1953. His grandmother Arlene Stokes still lives there - if you call this living.
"People drive onto the block three times a day to buy drugs," Stokes says. "My grandmother's afraid to sit in her living room from the gunplay. There are abandoned houses, and trash all over the place. She can't walk to church.
"You know," Stokes says, more softly now, "I'm part of a lucky generation. Everything opened up that wasn't open before. My parents made sacrifices, and they put their hope in me, and they turned the city over to my generation in pretty good shape - much better than I'll be able to turn it over to my children. And we can't do that."
After a 12-year absence of passion at City Hall, Stokes' words sound like a wake-up call. But, is the city only sleeping, or has it slipped into something deeper, something beyond the best-intended language?