There weren’t any surprises in Baltimore’s election results. As expected, all the heavy lifting by voters took place in the June primary, and the various charter amendments and ballot questions passed handily while Democratic nominees carried the day. But while Brandon Scott, Nick Mosby, Bill Henry and the winning Baltimore City Council members are entitled to their moment of celebration, it will need to be brief. The city’s 52nd mayor, its youngest ever, is just a month from taking office, and there is much work to be done between now and then. There are serious life or death issues to address (no surprise there either), and a running start isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.
If there is a theme to this year’s election, it’s a healthy distrust of the status quo. Outsiders may not quite understand this. After all, did the city not just elect a slate of Democrats? Is the new mayor not a veteran of City Hall? Isn’t the new council strikingly similar to the old one? But they need to look deeper. Council President Scott ran a campaign for mayor that highlighted the need to put more power in the hands of the council, to give average city residents a greater say in the process, to run city government more professionally and less through political favoritism. This is light-years away from past traditions (exemplified by William Donald Schaefer) holding that Baltimore’s strong mayoral system was essential to getting anything done.
And city voters clearly liked what they heard. Charter amendments to give the council more budgetary authority, to make it easier to override mayoral vetoes and to create a city administrator were approved by wide margins. And they gave the city auditor authority to subpoena documents from anyone receiving city funds. These are not the actions of a city government and voters showing pride in their past. These are reforms that seek to address lingering wounds, some older, some newer. This is not just the legacy of Catherine Pugh, the last elected mayor now serving time in a federal prison, it’s a reaction to a sense that city government is wasteful and inept and that the police department is floundering, failing to slow the pace of homicides and with too many rank-and-file members resistant to anti-brutality, anti-racism and pro-equity reforms.
Of course, it’s really much worse than that. Like most of the world, the city is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and its harmful impact on public health, on the economy and on schools and a shrinking tax base. The federal government has not been especially helpful to cities these past four years (aside from giving Donald Trump a political prop to scare his GOP constituents), and that seems unlikely to change dramatically regardless of who holds the presidency, given the likelihood of a divided government. In Annapolis, Gov. Larry Hogan has not been a city booster either, the Republican’s cutbacks in transit systems serving as his most notable impact on Baltimore. Even a sympathetic Democratic majority in the General Assembly has its own budgetary fish to fry because of the pandemic. In short, there are no rescuers swooping in to save the day. Baltimore is mostly on its own.
And so, we would humbly offer the following five-step course of action for Mayor-elect Scott and the others to follow to help set things right, to restore trust in government and put Baltimore on a path to renewal. These are not new ideas. Good government doesn’t usually require reinvention, it turns on performance and doing all the little things right — from picking up litter to fixing potholes to getting water billing right. The good news is that Mr. Scott’s platform hits many of these same notes. The bad is that there is little margin for error in these challenging times. Some unpopular choices need to be made, and Baltimore can’t really afford a mayoral feel-good honeymoon. Instead, it needs this game plan:
1. Mend fences. Let’s face it, Baltimore needs all the allies it can find right now. The fence-mending needs to start with Mr. Scott and Mr. Mosby. The recent kerfuffle over staffing for the incoming council president suggested friction may exist. It should not. They really need each other to be successful, and they both have skills to bring to the table. Egos need to be set aside. Arrogance was one of the deadly sins that caused Mayor Pugh to follow the wrong path. The Scott-Mosby alliance might start with a citywide listening tour. It might also extend to building better relations with other government leaders at the county, state and federal level. Just because the cavalry isn’t riding to the rescue doesn’t mean some of them can’t be invited to drop by and help out once in a while. It would also be wise to reach out specifically to the city’s business community, many of whom fear Mr. Scott is uninterested in their concerns.
2. Hire and retain the best and the brightest. This is another concept that sounds simple but often ends up proving elusive. The city can’t really afford to bring in people who don’t know what they are doing, are unmotivated bureaucrats or castoffs from elsewhere. The new city administrator running the day-to-day is clearly a key hire, but it doesn’t stop there. Department heads should be top-flight, too. Keeping Commissioner of Health Dr. Letitia Dzirasa seems like a no-brainer given Baltimore’s relatively good pandemic performance compared to many peer cities, but other departments aren’t exactly wowing us. The hunt for top talent, whether by the mayor’s transition team or others, should have already started. Two folks to consider: Jim Shea, the prominent city lawyer and Mr. Scott’s former gubernatorial running mate and Mary Miller, the former T. Rowe Price executive now working for Johns Hopkins who lost to Mr. Scott in the mayoral primary. One of their first jobs may be to downsize the bureaucracy to reflect the shrinking population.
3. Set a path for police reform and stick to it. Baltimore’s homicide rate is too high. That’s a given. But the city is also struggling to address deep community distrust, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Mr. Scott must first decide if he plans to retain the services of Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. He should. Mr. Harrison, who took office early last year, has been a passionate advocate for community policing and for the 3-year-old court-ordered consent decree requiring officers to follow constitutional practices. Statistically, however, the public safety results have so far been disappointing. Even the pandemic shutdown proved unable to slow the body count. But there are modest signs of progress including, most recently, the BPD hiring and retaining new officers faster than it loses veterans. The department needs stability after the leadership merry-go-round (including the term of Darryl De Sousa, another ex-city government official who has done federal prison time).
4. Advance a strategy to address racial inequities. Mr. Scott may be passionate about city administrators, veto powers and budget negotiations, but many people living in Baltimore probably aren’t. What they do get excited about are the glaring disparities that continue to exist in this city whether in housing or health care or public safety or education. Nationwide, people are tired of racial injustice, and they want more than protests: They want action. Not just on criminal justice reform but on all these bread-and-butter issues, as exemplified by COVID-19 and the worse outcomes for people of color. Granted, there isn’t a lot of money for new government initiatives, but the mayor will need to do more than talk about these problems.
5. Focus on the neighborhood level. In this we know we are preaching to the choir, but this is not the moment in time for new tax breaks for large corporations, huge public investments in hotels or other gaudy showpieces that claim to be transformative but whose benefits tend not to reach much farther than Harbor East. We’re not saying the time for public investment in major employers will never return, but it can’t be a priority in the near-term. Baltimore must now focus on the quality of life where average folks live. Bringing grocery stores to food deserts and public transit to the working class enclaves instead of convention hotels to downtown is what the voters want right now, and that point-of-view ought to be respected.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.