Catherine Pugh will be inaugurated Tuesday as Baltimore's 50th mayor at a time of great challenge and possibility. The unrest that followed Freddie Gray's death 18 months ago compounded the long standing problems mayors have long tried to fix — a high murder rate, failing schools, blight — with a new urgency to address the deeply entrenched inequalities that are the legacy of Baltimore's segregation. There is a palpable sense of possibility, a willingness by people across the city to understand one another and work toward common solutions. It is a moment built for a collaborator, a leader who can cut across the economic and racial lines that have long divided the city and channel a pent-up desire for change into a vision for a better, more inclusive Baltimore. That is exactly what Catherine Pugh is, and it is why, despite the enormity of the task she faces, that we greet this transition with true optimism.
Baltimore is ready for a new paradigm. We've tried big-project boosterism — the Inner Harbor, Harbor East, Harbor Point and so on. We've tried technocratic management — CompStat and CitiStat. We've tried supposed game-changing events like the Grand Prix, Sailabration and Light City. We've argued about whether a casino will save the day or whether cutting property taxes in half overnight will turn Baltimore into boomtown. But there is no simple, top-down solution to a complex web of problems that has developed over decades. If we are to make progress, it will be by building trust across the diverse communities that make up this city and fostering an understanding of what connects us. It can happen. It has happened.
Trust and collaboration
The debate this year over Sagamore Development's proposed city-within-a-city in Port Covington had all the hallmarks of another sour chapter in Baltimore's uneven rebirth. The scope of the vision Under Armour founder Kevin Plank laid out for an under-used section of the city was breathtaking — a new corporate campus for his company, plus homes, offices, retail, restaurants, parks and more. And so was the scope of the public support he was seeking — half a billion dollars in tax increment financing, plus a like amount in state and federal infrastructure funding. When the TIF deal shot through the Baltimore Development Corp. and the Rawlings-Blake administration without a penny trimmed and with nothing more than vague goals for local hiring and affordable housing, it looked like the fix was in. Some members of the City Council might complain, but they would ultimately vote for it. The rich would get a new waterfront playground, and the poor would get nothing.
But, thanks in large part to pressure from City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and City Councilman Carl Stokes, Sagamore sat down to negotiate with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, the venerable faith-based group whose leaders had been sharply critical of the deal. Those who participated in the talks on both sides say the process wasn't always pretty. But it was informed by extensive community organizing and public meetings that had led to a public consensus about ways the project could be transformative of more than Baltimore's skyline. The meetings started with prayers — at one point, the Sagamore officials had to remind the ministers — and the two sides sat together during lunch breaks to chat about their families. Each came to understand where the other side was coming from. They built trust, and from that trust came creative ways to address the community's goals.
A similar sprit informs the Open Society Institute-sponsored Solutions Summit, which will culminate in a day-long public meeting on Saturday at the War Memorial Building. For months, a diverse array of Baltimoreans — ordinary individuals, corporate leaders and everything in between — has been meeting to talk about ideas for improving the city in the areas of jobs, criminal and juvenile justice and behavioral health and addiction. Ideas have been pared down and refined, and organizers hope to emerge from Saturday's event with a focused agenda. The historian Taylor Branch, who has participated in the process, says it has served to "rebuild opiumism about the possibilities of engaging." Ms. Pugh will get a chance to witness that possibility; she is scheduled to give the welcome address.
Being mayor of Baltimore requires more than optimism, of course. Ms. Pugh takes office at a time when Baltimore is lurching toward the 300-homicide mark for the second year in a row. We as a city cannot allow that to become the norm, as it was throughout the 1990s. She will need to quickly articulate a crime-fighting strategy and address the morale problems and confusion about its role that the police department has faced since the Freddie Gray riots. Part of that involves wrapping up negotiations with the federal government on a consent decree to address its findings of unconstitutional policing. Any failure on that front will constitute a real breach of trust with residents. Meanwhile, if the state's fiscal woes are any indication, Ms. Pugh may face a projected budget shortfall in the tens of millions of dollars, if not more, as soon as she walks into City Hall.
To her credit, the members of her inner circle that she has announced so far are strong. Tisha Edwards, the former acting CEO of the city schools system, brings a strong reputation for management and can serve as a bridge to North Avenue; greater cooperation between the city government and school system will be essential if Ms. Pugh is to make Baltimore a more attractive place to raise a family. Del. Pete Hammen has a reputation as one of the smartest and fairest committee chairmen in Annapolis. And former Baltimore County executive James T. Smith Jr. brings a wealth of executive experience. But Ms. Pugh has not otherwise fleshed out her administration. If she wants a new direction, she will need new leaders in city agencies, and time is of the essence; the transition to a new administration brings goodwill and eagerness that may be hard to maintain over a four-year term.
That said, Ms. Pugh's strength may lie less in driving an agenda through municipal policy than in using the convening power of her office. As a member of the City Council and the legislature, her biggest successes came not from her ability to muster votes for legislation (though she was good at that too) but from her skill in cajoling people into common goals, whether it was establishing the Baltimore marathon or creating a school of design. That's something that has been missing at City Hall. University, foundation, non-profit and corporate leaders can only do so much on their own; ultimately, a mayor needs to be making things happen on a city-wide scale.
We understand the concern about whether Ms. Pugh's wide array of connections in the business community and with other elected officials might present conflicts. She will need to operate with utmost transparency. But the possibilities afforded by her thick Rolodex, her instinct to collaborate — and her unwillingness to take no for an answer — are palpable.
The fact that Gov. Larry Hogan is scheduled to speak at Ms. Pugh's inauguration is intriguing. His relationship with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has been strained, to put it mildly, since the riots. But Ms. Pugh has made plain her willingness to reach out and work with the Republican governor. Doing so may benefit him politically (not that he seems to need the help), but the up-side for the city should outweigh such considerations. For example, the Mass Transit Administration is moving forward with public meetings in January on BaltimoreLink, the proposed redesign of the bus system. Rather than focusing on the extent to which BaltimoreLink is a poor substitute for the Red Line light rail that Mr. Hogan killed (which, of course, it is), Ms. Pugh needs to partner with Mr. Hogan to make the plan better — perhaps by persuading him to dedicate more funds to the overhaul than he had planned. There are plenty of other areas in which a more productive City Hall-State House relationship could make a huge difference, from the fate of State Center to coordination of the governor's commitment to eliminate vacant housing.
Whatever it takes
We are not as hopeful about Ms. Pugh's plans to reach out to the Trump administration — she says she plans to write him a letter pitching Baltimore as an ideal demonstration city for his ideas about building the economy through infrastructure investment. But we do like the attitude it represents. A Baltimore mayor could angle for slots on Sunday morning talk shows as a voice of urban opposition to the new Republican administration. Or she could do whatever it takes to help Baltimore.
This city needs a whatever-it-takes kind of mayor. It needs one who exudes optimism, confidence and determination. It needs one who will channel the energies of all those striving to make Baltimore a better place into a compelling narrative of rebirth. Ms. Pugh has the skills and temperament to be that kind of mayor. This is her opportunity, and she needs to seize it. There's not a moment to waste.