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Answers for Baltimore's woes come from within

A year after unrest, new leaders emerge to tackle Baltimore's problems.

We've been wondering what these days would be like for months — the confluence of a primary election (April 26) and the first anniversary of the riots on the day of Freddie Gray's funeral (April 27). It's a quirk of the calendar, with Baltimore deciding on new leadership one year after the city looked for all the world lawless and broken.

Election Day turned out warm and bright, with a breeze that whipped into a pretty strong wind at times. Spring was in full force, the trees along St. Paul Street filled out with fresh leaves. Where I voted, poll workers in T-shirts soaked up the sun on lawn chairs, and some fanned themselves with campaign handouts. It was a beautiful day to be a voting citizen.

I filled out my ballot in a church, and I could hear an organist practicing. It's tempting to say the hymns from the next room made the experience spiritual. It's tempting to say that this election was the most important in recent memory. It's tempting to overstate the whole thing, and cry hallelujah.

But certainly voters in Baltimore — they are, after all, the citizens who care most about what happens here — felt the weight of the anniversary of a heartbreaking day in their city's history as they headed to the polls.

I've been accused of wishful thinking before, and I always ask people who express optimism about the city if they've been drinking that cocktail, too. Idealism can be a health risk in Baltimore.

But I've heard from a lot of people over many months, and the conversations actually made me optimistic.

People stepped up. New leaders emerged to run for City Council, the best and brightest class of candidates I've seen in 40 years of watching the comings and goings on Holliday Street. Baltimoreans had plenty of choices for mayor, too, and for the first time in a long time, we had a good fight on our hands. New people will be going into City Hall, mixed with a surviving band of veterans.

Here's what I heard from people all around the city: We've got to do better, and we've got to do it ourselves. The power to change Baltimore has to come from within Baltimore, and everyone knows that potential is here. This city is full of brilliant people who solve problems every day. It's full of newcomers inexplicably in love with the city; they do not want to abandon it.

So the answers have to come from within.

Of course, last spring's unrest also revealed a depressing level of glee in Baltimore's miseries enjoyed by people who do not live here and who want nothing to do with the city, except maybe to attend a Ravens or Orioles game.

The mess of last April 27 brought out the cynics with their snarky told-you-so's, blaming the explosion of rock throwing, vandalism and fire-setting on 50 years of failed social policies supported by Democrats.

That argument, of course, failed to note that Republicans abandoned Baltimore for those 50 years as that party's political power base shifted to the suburbs and rural areas.

Whatever. All of the harsh, sarcastic rhetoric made clear that, if Baltimore is going to heal and get strong, the energy must come from within. If you live here and care about the place, you have to ignore the snarky cynics who claim there's no hope for the city.

I have heard those voices for years. They relish listing city woes — poverty, drug addiction, violent crime, failing schools, instances of City Hall corruption or incompetence — without ever acknowledging a single positive thing about Baltimore or suggesting something that might make it better.

When Baltimore cracked last April, Gov. Larry Hogan had been in office only four months. With a high profile on city streets during curfew week, at times eclipsing that of the mayor, Hogan suggested a possibility — that the Republican governor of a blue state might strike a new path for his party, right through the heart of a majority African-American city that did not support his election but clearly needed his leadership. In the face of that reality, and 50 years of political history, Hogan had a chance to do something revolutionary.

But two months after the unrest, he killed the Red Line, a serious setback for Baltimore transit and economic redevelopment. Since then, he's expressed love for the city and talked about investing state money — much of it already in the pipeline, thanks to the General Assembly — for urban renewal.

In the months and years ahead, Hogan still has an opportunity to help the city in a big way, especially with a new mayor and City Council. The governor and the legislature can provide the funds, but the ideas and the execution have to come from within the city, from the people who live and work here, from the new leaders stirred to action by the events of last April. Let's go.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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