Bill Henry, the city councilman from North Baltimore, says people will be looking for three things in a mayor this time around: Someone who can manage the city government. Someone with a vision for the future. Someone who will represent the city well to the rest of the country — indeed, to the rest of the world, post-Freddie Gray.
That's how voters pick a mayor, he says, based on which of those qualities they think is most important.
Henry is correct. But I also think we should be looking for the candidate who offers the complete package: Not just one quality, or two, but all three.
And a fourth akin to the third: Integrity.
You might think it was always thus — sound management skills, bold vision, good public image — but, the way I see it, Baltimore mayors were never expected to have all three of those traits. (If there's one thing Baltimoreans have been too good at, it's keeping expectations low.)
Some mayors were better at managing city government than others. The last six mayors mostly had to manage a downsized city, making tough decisions about firehouse closures and city services that needed to be curtailed.
Some mayors focused on one issue and let others slip.
Some had the vision thing. Others became bogged down in muddy day-to-day problems and parochial politics.
Representing the city to the rest of the world? What Baltimore voter even thought about that on the way to the polls?
But this is 2016, and we are less than six weeks from the first municipal election since last spring's unrest. The world watched Baltimore on the day of rioting, and waves of national and international reporters and commentators parachuted into town to report on the city's entrenched problems. They painted a dystopian picture of a place in perpetual recovery from the loss of industry, decades of racial segregation and concentrated poverty.
April's unrest was followed with month after month of gun violence, ending with Baltimore's worst year of homicides per capita.
So here we are, with spring arriving and heavy symbolism in the forecast. The election takes place almost one year to the day from the afternoon of burning, looting, rock-throwing and general lawlessness in West Baltimore.
The world will be watching to see what Baltimore decides, who we turn to for leadership after one of the worst years in the city's history.
So, yes, we need a good manager, someone to make sure the government works — you know, accurate water bills, speedy repair of busted water mains, wise use of highway funds to patch streets that look like they've been hit with mortar shells.
But this year, Baltimoreans should be listening for vision and ideas when they evaluate candidates. You're voting for a mayor, not a city manager. Baltimore needs inspired leadership, someone willing to try new approaches to old problems.
I'm telling you this because, it turns out, voters have choices. We did not get the ho-hum, here-comes-Sheila-Dixon-again campaign a lot of people expected last year when the former mayor announced she wanted the job back.
Based on what I've heard in one-on-one interviews (for the Roughly Speaking podcast) with eight of the Democratic candidates, including Dixon, there's plenty of vision and a lot of good ideas. In fact, compared to the Republican presidential campaign, the Baltimore mayor's race has been a series of TED Talks.
David Warnock looks at thousands of vacant houses and sees opportunities to create thousands of jobs in demolition and home repair. (Interview here)
Elizabeth Embry draws on her background in criminal justice and a grasp of best practices in violence reduction to offer several progressive ideas for making the city safer. (Interview here)
DeRay Mckesson wants to get Baltimore's children off to a better start in school, and he thinks police officers ought to get as much training in de-escalating conflicts as they get in the use of firearms. (Interview here)
Nick Mosby has ideas about a lot of things, from how to save money on the municipal phone system to making the city more attractive to first-time homebuyers. (Interview here)
Calvin Young wants the city to seed more minority-owned small businesses to expand the local job market.
Catherine Pugh and Carl Stokes are, with Dixon, the political veterans of the pack.
Dixon wants to force new residential development to include affordable units for low-income families. (Interview here)
Stokes wants to bring back the "dollar house" program from the 1970s to spark homeownership in neighborhoods with lots of vacants. (Interview here)
Pugh thinks the many nonprofits that provide much-needed services to the city could be better funded by private foundations, relieving taxpayers of some of those costs. (Interview here)
Together, the candidates offer more innovative ideas — and not just sketchy campaign promises — than I've ever heard before in a mayoral campaign. Voters really need to take a look and a listen, and we need to raise our expectations because it's time for that and because the world will be watching.