AMONG Democratic hopefuls for mayor of Baltimore, Carl Stokes is The Sun's choice. He has the broadest experience, best-reasoned program and sharpest recognition that the city needs administrative change to get moving again.
Mr. Stokes, a former two-term City Council member and ex-school board member, offers particular strength in two areas vital to the city's future: He is passionate about bolstering neighborhoods and about turning around the woefully inadequate public schools. Baltimore needs a mayor who has a thorough understanding of those needs and a personal commitment to bringing about change.
The decision to endorse Mr. Stokes, 49, was not easy. We had to determine whether his lie about a college degree was disqualifying. And while the field is not the cream of the crop, there are alternatives: Councilman Martin O'Malley impressed us with his tenacity and vigor, both qualities that the mayor's office could use. City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III showed signs of growth during his four years in the municipal government's No. 2 job.
In the end, Mr. Stokes' deception, although inexcusable, had to be judged against his overall background. It was a stupid mistake, but didn't appear to be part of a wider pattern of dishonesty. On the contrary, Mr. Stokes has been a highly regarded public servant and -- until this -- he had no blot on his record.
Also, Mr. O'Malley's platform, impressive though it was in its detailed proposals on attacking crime and drugs, was essentially a single-issue agenda. And Mr. Bell's program was much too vague, considering the expertise he claims.
Particularly worrisome was Mr. O'Malley's self-acknowledged weakness -- his superficial knowledge of housing and development issues.
The mayor does not have to be an urban planner but can't rely solely on aides in making crucial decisions that affect neighborhoods and downtown. The mayor must have a gut feeling about all-important development issues.
Neither can a mayoral aspirant hope to solve today's complicated problems with one-line proposals that merely evoke the successes of the past. Mr. Bell is trying to do this when he advocates that the city combat abandonment by selling surplus houses to homesteaders for $1. However successful the dollar-house program was in the 1970s, high rehabilitation costs have made its large-scale duplication nearly impossible.
By contrast, Mr. Stokes offers many creative housing initiatives.
He would combine the housing and planning departments and make them more sensitive to neighborhood aspirations.
He would overhaul the nine Neighborhood Service Centers, making their employees, who represent various city agencies, answerable to center directors rather than their own bureaucracies. And he insists that if demolition of vacant houses is needed, it should be done by whole blocks with a plan for each section afterward.
Mr. Stokes would also designate about a dozen neighborhoods, with solid infrastructure and strong community support, as the first stabilization and reinvestment areas, destined to receive targeted resources. Once these neighborhoods are improved, the city's attention would shift to a dozen adjacent areas.
All of these are long-overdue measures. After years of population losses and decay, the city needs a leader who sets priorities. The next mayor has to pick and choose, making the tough political decisions to rezone and raze some neighborhoods that are beyond hope, while targeting viable areas for rescue efforts.
Mr. Stokes also proposes to reorganize the mayor's City Hall staff. While he would head the government, a chief operating officer would oversee the day-to-day functioning of city agencies.
This reform -- which Mr. Bell favors but Mr. O'Malley opposes -- is long overdue. A designated administrator might have made Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's 12-year reign far more productive by ensuring much-needed follow-through.
"I feel the city is inefficiently run, poorly managed. We are not an em- ployer but a service provider," Mr. Stokes says, pledging to "look for turnaround people to step in."
Although Baltimore's public schools operate as an independent entity, Mr. Stokes wants stronger city involvement in furthering their renaissance.
He would use the mayor's office as a bully pulpit to promote smaller class sizes, adequate facilities, functioning libraries and modern technology. Mr. Stokes says he can identify up to $100 million in waste and unnecessary municipal spending to finance such expensive allocations.
Unlike Mr. Bell and Mr. O'Malley, who advocate the adoption of zero-tolerance policing, Mr. Stokes favors community policing that targets repeat offenders. Through such strategies, he pledges to cut Baltimore's shocking homicide rate -- one of the highest in the nation -- by 50 percent during his first term. Like his chief rivals, Mr. Stokes says he would make police, prosecutors and courts work together better.
Can Mr. Stokes keep these kinds of promises? We don't see why not.
Baltimore is certainly ready for a new direction after 12 years of the Schmoke administration, which started with great expectations but will end with disappointment. While many of America's big cities took aggressive advantage of the economic boom, Baltimore stood still or slipped behind.
Hoping to end this lethargy and inaction, political kingmakers early this year began looking for a messiah. They thought Kweisi Mfume was the one, but after an agonizingly long flirtation, the NAACP president decided not to run. Efforts to draft similarly charismatic candidates failed.
A result of that process is that many voters have lowered expectations. That's unfortunate. The field of candidates is better than conventional wisdom has it.
In Carl Stokes, Democratic voters have a thoughtful, mature candidate who offers a comprehensive platform of doable ideas to lead Baltimore's rebirth. Just as important, he has the ability to grow.
Baltimore has to be turned around. Accomplishing that requires a mayor with vision and the will to act -- rather than just talk.
The next mayor must not accept continued decline as inevitable. Where others see depressing reminders of the exodus of businesses and residents, the next mayor must see opportunity.
Many of the conditions for a dramatic turnaround exist, including civic and community activists eager to help build a better Baltimore. What is needed is a leader with courage, foresight and determination.
We believe Carl Stokes is capable of stepping into that role.
Tomorrow: The Sun's recommendation in the Republican mayoral primary.