I interviewed 50 candidates for the Baltimore City Council over the past six weeks. I had been scheduled to interview 52, but two did not show up, and one of them got lost on the way to The Baltimore Sun at 501 Calvert St., which is incredible for someone who wants to be a member of the city's legislative branch. I mean, we're four blocks from City Hall.
Three incumbent council members — Warren Branch, Sharon Green Middleton, Ed Reisinger — never responded to invitations to be interviewed for "Roughly Speaking," The Sun's podcast. Maybe they don't understand the podcast thing. Maybe they're confident of victory in next week's primary election and see no need for additional exposure. Maybe they're just fraidy cats.
Whatever. I proceeded without them, interviewing four incumbents — Mary Pat Clarke, Bill Henry, Pete Welch, Brandon Scott — and 46 men and women (mostly men, mostly Democrats, mostly under 45, all but one political neophytes) who are campaigning for seats on the City Council.
I've said this before (in a "Roughly Speaking" blog post) and feel compelled to say it again: I'm impressed, more so than ever.
In 40 years of covering Baltimore, I've never seen candidates of this quality: smart and informed, many of them highly educated, already experienced in community action, conversant in some of the most complex issues facing the city, and willing to take on the day-to-day grunt work in their districts.
All of them speak with urgency, some with righteous anger, about post-Freddie Gray Baltimore.
In fact, last April's uprising and unrest seem to be what convinced about a third of the candidates to get into their respective races.
Others had been thinking about a run before Gray's death, convinced that the City Council needed new energy and brains, and needed to get on top of problems instead of constantly reacting to them.
Almost every candidate expressed impatience with the city's response to everyday problems — trash, broken water mains, property crime, vacant houses and neighborhood nuisances — and several declared the council derelict in tackling the city's long-festering social and economic inequities.
By my score sheet, 12 of the city's 14 single-member council districts have at least one shiny-bright candidate. By that I mean an educated, informed, earnest and engaged citizen with a sense of urgency, someone with a yearning for public service and specific ideas about improving city life. I mean a person I would gladly vote for.
Three of these districts have at least four stellar candidates; a couple have three, two of them have two. (Before you take this as an anti-incumbent rant, please note: Three sitting members are included in my assessment of solid candidates.)
I'm telling my fellow Baltimoreans this because, in a refreshing break from history, we have more and better choices than I've ever seen, and you need to take a hard look at the candidates in your district.
We should be grateful that some of our best and brightest citizens are willing to serve.
For decades, we had low expectations of the City Council. It's not quite the rubber-stamp joke that we saw during the reign of Mayor William Donald Schaefer in the 1970s and early 1980s. But a reputation for status-quo thinking and complacency lingers. A lot of citizens write the council off as a powerless body in a strong-mayor system. Many of us still see council members as pothole patchers and nothing more — men and women willing to make a call to get a street repaved or a trash-filled alley cleaned, but incapable of mounting any kind of grand effort on city-wide problems.
That is starting to change, and, because of some recent council actions, voters might soon have a say on the balance of power between the mayor and the city's legislative body, particularly when it comes to setting budget priorities.
It would be great if the 2016 elections resulted in 10 new faces and voices in City Council to go along with a new mayor. That would say, a year after Freddie Gray and the drugstore fires, that the status quo is officially unacceptable, that we no longer tolerate mediocrity in City Hall.
Baltimoreans need to raise their expectations.
The city has had an inferiority complex for good reason (you lose a third of your population over a few decades, you get a little self-conscious) but it's time to cast that aside and get on with the great unfinished business of raising the quality of life for everyone who remains here, from Canton to Carrollton Ridge, from Dickeyville to Druid Heights.
All those conversations with candidates have made me optimistic that the City Council might finally become an activist body that gets serious about fixing some of the city's problems in a sustainable way. Fellow voters, there is a huge opportunity here. Don't miss it.
(Listen to conversations with candidates on the 'Roughly Speaking' podcast: baltimoresun.com/roughlyspeaking)