The Rev. Douglas Miles made an astute observation this week amid the continuing limbo at City Hall. The veteran leader of BUILD said faith and civic groups have started to come to the realization that they need to work together to develop a shared vision for Baltimore’s future and not wait around for a mayor or other political leader to provide one. The uncertainty and disruption caused by former Mayor Catherine Pugh’s political downfall amid the Healthy Holly scandal, he said, “forces us to take our eyes off of any political officeholder as a savior of the city.”
He’s onto something there. Baltimore is culturally conditioned to look for its mayor to be a superhero, someone who will solve every problem and direct every important thing that happens here, from urban redevelopment to street festivals. Perhaps it’s a nostalgia hangover from the William Donald Schaefer years (heavy on the recollection of the City Fair and Inner Harbor and “do it now” but scrubbed of memories of heavy population loss and insider-dealing). We keep expecting a savior, as Mr. Miles puts it, whether that was in the form of the best and the brightest luster of Kurt Schmoke, the raw ambition of Martin O’Malley, the moxie of Sheila Dixon, or the family legacy of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
And what have we gotten? A population poised to drop below 600,000. Redevelopment on the waterfront and decay beyond it. A school system that struggles to cobble together resources for the basics when it faces children with boundless needs. An opioid epidemic unparalleled in the state and a murder rate unparalleled in the nation. A legacy of social and racial injustice that exploded in anger after Freddie Gray’s death.
So we turned to Catherine Pugh. (The “we” here is appropriate; The Sun endorsed her.) She had been on the streets of West Baltimore during the unrest and held the promise of uniting the city. She had experience in state and local government and a no-nonsense attitude. But she was no Superwoman either. Even before the Healthy Holly scandal that brought down her mayorship, her administration was rife with mistakes, the most serious of which — her bumbling effort to name a police commissioner — might have fatally wounded her political fortunes had she not pulled another prospective Superman (Police Commissioner Michael Harrison) out of her hat.
We don’t mean to say that neither she nor any of the other mayors accomplished anything of note. They did. But the advances they made tended to be incremental — say, an improvement in the murder rate from horrific to merely abominable — and were ignored or forgotten from one administration to the next.
Given Ms. Pugh’s resignation Thursday, Baltimore will elect a new mayor next year, and we expect another crowded race, likely featuring several qualified candidates with compelling ideas for how to move the city forward. In the meantime, City Council members are pursuing changes to Baltimore’s charter to tip the balance of power somewhat away from the mayor.
We welcome both debates, but we also recognize that we can’t legislate our way to a good mayor, nor can a good mayor by himself or herself fix all of Baltimore’s woes. Important as a mayor has always been to Baltimore’s sense of itself and its possibilities, the willingness of tens of thousands of us to commit to this city matters more.
The energy is already there — in the Ceasefire movement or the parents and students who rallied for more school funding or the land trusts that are starting to pop up in the city — to allow local residents to guide the development of their own communities. We need a mayor who embraces and enhances other people’s ideas to raise up this city, not one who bristles at them. We need a mayor who makes city government a partner to the investments in effort and capital Baltimore needs, not an obstacle to them. We need a mayor who will provide other leaders in and out of government with the opportunity to shine, not fear them as rivals.
We need to stop waiting for a superhero, and we need our elected leaders to stop trying to be one. No single person can set Baltimore on the right path — but 600,000 of us can.