Mayor Catherine Pugh didn’t roll out a lot of new initiatives in her second State of the City address; rather, she spent more than an hour recapping a lot of what she’s been talking about for months. Nonetheless, it provided a few interesting takeaways about how she sees the city and her role in improving it.
The opening section of the speech focused heavily on crime, the toll of violence and the revelations of the Gun Trace Task Force trial. A mayor who got mocked for saying in a press conference that she hadn’t been reading the coverage of the trial didn’t shy away from assessing the damage done by testimony in that case. She segued from that to the ongoing efforts to implement the federal consent decree addressing the Baltimore police department’s legacy of unconstitutional practices, so she is clearly setting up the reform of the department to be one of the most important ongoing stories of her administration. Among the biggest applause lines of the speech: calling out the Fraternal Order of Police for resisting efforts to put civilians on trial boards.
Mayor Pugh took some credit for recent improvements in the crime numbers, even as she acknowledged substantial help from Gov. Larry Hogan, Michael Bloomberg and others. She clearly attributed the recent reductions in crime to her holistic approach to the issue. It’s notable, for example, that she discussed her decision to replace former Police Commissioner Kevin Davis with Darryl De Sousa in the context of the daily meetings she instituted between police and the heads of other city agencies. She says became particularly impressed with Mr. De Sousa in those meetings.
Ms. Pugh is interested in bringing technology to the crime fight. She thanked Bloomberg Philanthropies for sponsoring a gunshot detector and Governor Hogan for providing funding to put computers in police cars. (OK, so that one is technology circa 15 or 20 years ago.) She touted the department’s recent effort to import predictive policing technology that has been effective in Los Angeles and Chicago. But she held back on endorsing the renewed push to put a police surveillance plane back in the sky, offering only that if the community clearly indicates a desire for it, she will consider it. Her caution is smart given how big a public relations issue the plane was in its previous iteration.
Mayor Pugh may understand that she can’t give a State of the City speech in 2018 without leading off with a discussion of crime. But it’s clearly not she wants to be talking about. Matter-of-fact as the opening section was, it was dwarfed in length by her discussion of other initiatives of her administration, from mobile job vans to adding thousands of new streetlights.
The big announcement of the speech was that the Shake and Bake Family Fun Center, which she closed for its dilapidated condition, will reopen this month. There’s something Schaefer-y about the mayor of a major American city making so much of the reopening of a roller rink. Is it a problem akin to homelessness (another theme she addressed in the speech) or the overdose epidemic or the homicide rate? No. But it’s something she can fix, and it’s something she can be remembered for.
The emotional core of the speech was the recounting of a story Mayor Pugh has been telling recently about a 14-year-old squeegee boy she found on the street when he was supposed to be in school. She got him to class and later ran into him again. The boy told her he needed a job to support his family; they were homeless, Mayor Pugh says, and his mother was addicted to drugs. The boy is now in foster care, she said, in a loving and safe home. “There are so many others just like him,” she said. “I ask you to be slow to judge and more eager to help.” It’s a story that works for her. It emphasizes her image as being married to the job and highlights the compassionate side of a mayor who can be prickly. She should tell those kinds of stories more, not because it’s good politics but because it’s good for the city. She can humanize struggling Baltimore residents to a broader audience who might not otherwise feel a connection to them. She’s struggling against a narrative that Baltimore is a mess and sliding toward being a lost cause. She can highlight the top-places lists we’ve landed on recently from The New York Times and so on, but if folks in Towson or Pasadena or Ellicott City write off Baltimore, the city is in bad shape indeed. Mayor Pugh’s squeegee boy story doesn’t sugarcoat the situation, but it does suggest that we have the power to improve it and the moral responsibility to try.