Facing big choices, many are undecided

The Baltimore Sun

In the most recent Sun poll, "undecided" was neck-and-neck with the leading candidates for City Council president.

That a large number of voters are claiming no decision in this race is understandable. People may be having difficulty choosing between two able but relatively unknown candidates: incumbent City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and community activist Michael Sarbanes.

So, this indecision is a good thing for our democracy. It means voters are taking care in deciding which of the two to support. It means talented people want to be political leaders.

The council president's race is one of many aspects of this election that should point toward a respectable turnout on Tuesday, primary election day.

But low turnout is the discouraging prediction.

Interest in our democracy has fallen below interest in the Ravens, or Texas Hold'em, or you name it.

Apathy is blamed. But it's worse than apathy and more complicated.

We're said to be turned off and discouraged. We're on extended sabbatical from citizenship. We don't feel responsibility for our community or for the future of the city. We're estranged and disaffected.

I say it's also about over-cautious candidates and a consequent failure to ignite interest. Candidates need to show us that, as Gov. Martin O'Malley has said, we're all in this life together and all of us must try to make it better.

As usual, candidates have called this election a watershed, a crossroads, a moment of opportunity. To be sure, many if not all elections are precisely that.

This year, voters will choose leaders who must confront a dislocating array of challenges:

A murder binge that leaves the city as one of the most deadly in the nation;

A school system trying to build on marginal improvements;

The need for skilled balancing of resources in a city where yachts and new condos seem surreal when contrasted with dispiriting blight.

As always, to vote is to take a leap of faith. The voter never knows how a candidate will perform. One votes anyway, making a judgment based on many things, including whom you might like to have a beer with.

In the race for mayor, even the apparent front-runner, Mayor Sheila Dixon, will be new to voters. No one has ever voted for her as mayor. She inherited the office from Mr. O'Malley, who left to run for governor.

The same is true of the council president's race. Ms. Rawlings-Blake moved up when Ms. Dixon became mayor. Here the city may decide it wants an entirely new face in the council, someone to jolt the system into more progressive approaches to the city's many problems and challenges.

Or, it may wish to leave the future in the hands of its new-era team of women headed by Ms. Dixon and Ms. Rawlings-Blake. They have proudly defended their relatively brief moment in command. Many will want to give them a longer time to prove themselves.

Whatever the choice, the point is that there are important decisions for the voters to make this Tuesday.

The old leadership - going back to Mr. O'Malley and his predecessors - has given the city new development for the wealthy that virtually walls the rest of the city out of its birthright: its unobstructed view of the famously recaptured harbor. It's too late to restore these sight lines, but it's not too late to make sure the city earns some benefit from its ceding of this landscape to developers and those who can afford the ritzy living spaces.

Whoever wins high office will have to deal with the crime crisis. It's remarkable that no candidate for mayor or City Council has proposed anything like Mr. O'Malley's promise to get the number down from the 300s to 175. He didn't succeed - but he made the right promise.

All of the candidates have suggested that Baltimore need not accept the carnage as inevitable and insurmountable. They envision a city where college recruiters outbid the gang leaders. Where, though, are the passionate arguments that can make the case?

But here's the bottom line in our system: You have to choose. There's no line on the ballot for undecided.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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