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A visionary mayor would be nice, but focus on Baltimore’s big, fundamental problems will suffice

A visionary mayor would be nice, but focus on Baltimore’s big, fundamental problems will suffice
A Baltimore light rail platform at Pratt and Howard Streets collapsed into a sinkhole early Wednesday. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

On Thursday, a man who runs a financial advisory looked at me and said, “You know what Baltimore needs? It needs a mayor with vision. Someone like William Donald Schaefer!” (And he said it in a way that deserved that exclamation point.)

I frequently hear people of a certain age suggest that things were so much better in Baltimore in the time of Schaefer, as if that were some golden age for the city.

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It was no golden age. The crime rate was lower than it is today, but the city experienced huge population losses and became poorer as the suburbs developed and grew more prosperous. If there was anything golden about it, it was Schaefer’s determination to champion Baltimore even as thousands of people, many of them his generational peers, left for the counties. He was beloved for his devotion to his hometown; people used to say he was married to the city. For years, Baltimoreans who had moved to Perry Hall or Reisterstown still thought of him as their mayor.

Schaefer won a seat on the City Council in the 1950s and served in that body for 15 years. In 1967, he ran for council president and won. The following year, riots broke out in Baltimore and other cities after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When the incumbent mayor decided not to run for re-election in 1971, Schaefer stepped into the race and won. He served as mayor until 1987.

During the 16 years of Schaefer’s mayoralty, Baltimore lost significant numbers of citizens. In his first decade in office, the population fell from roughly 900,000 to 786,000. And that pace continued into the 1980s. By the start of the next decade, the city population was 736,000.

So Schaefer governed a shrinking city. Harborplace opened in 1980 and symbolized the post-industrial effort to reinvent downtown Baltimore even as the sprawling city was becoming smaller and poorer.

Mayor Schaefer, doffing his straw boater and holding a rubber duckie, prepares to dive into the 70,000-gallon seal pool at the National Aquarium in the Inner Harbor on July 15, 1981.
Mayor Schaefer, doffing his straw boater and holding a rubber duckie, prepares to dive into the 70,000-gallon seal pool at the National Aquarium in the Inner Harbor on July 15, 1981. (LLOYD PEARSON / Baltimore Sun)

In 1983, when attorney Billy Murphy challenged Schaefer in the Democratic primary, we started hearing about the “two Baltimores,” a city deeply divided racially and economically. Murphy criticized Schaefer for focusing on the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor and promoting the city as a destination for tourists and conventioneers while neglecting the public schools and poorer neighborhoods.

Schaefer’s supporters — and there were many — countered by saying that the city had a shrinking tax base and a shrinking jobs base from the closure of factories. Baltimore needed to do something about both, and promoting tourism was one of the ways. Schaefer was all-in.

But that brief summation overlooks the aspect of Schaefer I think people admired most: His impatient and demanding nature, his insistence on reliable government service, his attention to detail. Having served in City Council for so long, he understood the practical importance of being responsive to constituents, and he carried that into the mayor’s office.

Schaefer was best known for his “Do it now” ethic and his “Action Memos” to staff telling them of potholes that needed to be filled and trash that needed to be removed.

So, all these years later, when I hear someone say Baltimore needs a mayor with vision, I look around at sinkholes, busted water mains, the depressingly incessant violence and struggling public schools, and I think maybe we just need a mayor who sets sights on all that.

And that is quite a load.

Jack Young is mayor now, having replaced Catherine Pugh, who resigned amid the “Healthy Holly” scandal. When he took over, Young said he was not interested in running for mayor next year. But that was then and this is now. As The Sun reported last week, we might see Young get into the race, after all.

Is Young a man of vision?

If he sees the killings, the reading and math scores of school children, the collapsing infrastructure, the potholes and bone-rattling roads, the piles of trash — if he sees those things, and does something about each, then that’s all the vision we need.

A friend with a downtown business says she’s noticed that the area around her store has been cleaner since Young became mayor. She says city employees have been more responsive and engaged when it comes to her concerns about homeless people who sleep on the streets. And she’s noticed a greater police presence.

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Is that all because of Young? Maybe. A look at his political biography shows that he came up the way Schaefer did — through the City Council — and that could mean Young might have the same constituent-service ethic. (Her mayoralty did not end well, but Sheila Dixon had it, too.)

Does this mean we are not interested in big ideas?

No.

Am I dismissing “the vision thing”? Am I saying Baltimore’s next mayor should have no grand dreams? Am I dismissing the prospect of a fantastic pedestrian drawbridge over the Inner Harbor, or maybe a new arena with an NBA team?

Not at all.

But I think everyone in this city — and the great Baltimore diaspora — understands. A visionary mayor would be lovely, but one who’s honest, competent and focused on the most fundamental problems will suffice: Stopping the insane gun violence, getting better results from the schools, keeping ahead of infrastructure needs, preparing for the problems this old port city will encounter because of climate change. That’s quite a load, and all in plain sight.

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