Things were supposed to be different after the unrest of 2015 and the elections of 2016. But they are not different. It's been two long years since the mayoral primary, and Baltimore still finds itself trapped between the politicians we elect and the leadership we need. We’re still looking for our path forward as a city. But at least one thing is certain: Catherine Pugh ain't the one to help us find it.
Ms. Pugh’s tenure as mayor has brought us more police — and more police overtime, and more police technology and more reactive anti-crime meetings. But crime remains above five year averages, and the streets that bled after Freddie Gray died are still bleeding.
Meanwhile, Ms. Pugh promised to take real responsibility for our school system, but school enrollment continues to drop, perilously. Her homelessness plan is a $350 million pipe dream, and still there’s no homeless services director or viable strategy for affordable housing. Michael Bloomberg’s help was brought in to help transform the transportation department, but the Mayor's DOT is worse than ever. The "innovation team" Mr. Bloomberg funded hasn’t produced.
It isn’t just that Mayor Pugh cannot manage the government. It’s that she lacks the moral vision to lead it.
And not for letting slip comments that make her sound like a Trump-voting County republican — yelling at a squeegee boy, calling a corner store in a tough neighborhood a hell hole, implying that a murdered 16 year old boy got what was coming to him because of his criminal record.
This administration began with the indictment of the mayor’s long-time advisor for using $18,000 in unexplained cash to make illegal donations to her political campaign. He was rewarded with a job in her office that he still has. And he got a free legal defense from one of the mayor’s top supporters (which, as I see it, was another illegal campaign contribution — just like the payments Michael Cohen made on Donald Trump’s behalf to cover up an affair with a porn star).
And now a supposedly vetted police commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, is facing federal charges for tax issues and is the subject of an ongoing investigation. Ms. Pugh first endorsed him with her “full confidence” after the charges were made public. The next day, she suspended him with pay but let him keep his job. Finally, two days after that, Ms. Pugh shambled to the right answer and announced his resignation.
The De Sousa debacle threatens to send this administration into a death spiral, and the danger now lies in what Ms. Pugh might do with our government — in our name, with our money — to salvage her term.
Case in point is her new "neighborhood reinvestment fund." It’s a billion-dollar empty promise. Another pipe dream with no real plan and no vision statement. And in fact, there's no billion dollars either. Pugh has pledged $55 million of real money; however, that comes from our parking garages, and was supposed to fix our parks and recreation centers.
The other danger lies with our precious new City Council. Since the mayor seems unwilling to work with them or harness their energy, they plan to create their own “funds” too, using city charter amendments.
But the council shouldn’t be competing with the mayor for irrelevance. They could pass bills right now to help tenants get legal representation, to create affordable housing requirements, to establish public funding of elections or establish actual fiscal transparency. Better to risk a mayoral veto than tread water until 2020 or 2024 playing with the charter.
The latest example is Councilman Brandon Scott’s $15 million annual fund to eliminate “structural and institutional racism.” Like Ms. Pugh’s fund, it isn’t a plan, it’s a place-holder, a dollar amount standing in for a vision. It demands each city agency study whether their policies create "inequity," but if you've worked in city government as long as Mr. Scott has, you shouldn't need a study to figure this out. You should be ready to act.
Which brings us back to 2015, and the 2016 election we turned out for in droves, hoping for change. Councilman Scott says racial inequality is something we don't talk about in this city, but in fact that's all we've done for three years. We've talked. We've studied. But city government has yet to act. And under Mayor Pugh, it can’t act right.
Dan Sparaco (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an attorney and former assistant deputy mayor in Baltimore City.