What is Donald Trump to make of Baltimore? Last Thursday, the newly sworn-in City Council made its first act a unanimous resolution to "oppose and condemn the false narrative and scapegoating rhetoric promoted by President-elect Donald Trump" against "historically disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed groups." Then, on Saturday, newly inaugurated Mayor Catherine Pugh sidled up to him at the Army-Navy game at M&T Bank Stadium and handed him a notably polite and respectful letter outlining projects in Baltimore that could help fulfill his campaign promise to use federal infrastructure spending to spur the economy.
The council was cheered by those in the chamber when it passed the resolution, and we agree with the sentiments it expressed. During the campaign, Mr. Trump called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, asserted that an American-born federal judge could not be impartial in a Trump University lawsuit because of his Mexican heritage, mocked a disabled reporter, trafficked in white supremacist and anti-Semitic imagery and themes on Twitter, suggested banning all Muslims from entering the United States and repeatedly insulted women based on their looks. Since his election fringe groups of white nationalists and neo-Nazis have come out of the shadows, and acts of hate speech and vandalism have been on the rise across the country. Mr. Trump's condemnation of the trend has been perfunctory. We have little doubt that council members were accurately reflecting the views of their constituents, who voted against Mr. Trump by an 85-11 margin.
Even so, we admire Ms. Pugh's moxie in getting her wish-list in the president-elect's hands. We have no doubt that she is just as deeply offended by some of Mr. Trump's statements as the City Council is, and there's no political up-side for her in tweeting out a picture of her doing a double-handed shake with Mr. Trump on the concourse of the football stadium. But what it represents is her willingness to set aside all considerations besides what is in the best interests of the city she now leads, and she identified some areas of real need: transportation access improvements related to the Port Covington redevelopment; renovating the Howard Street tunnel to accommodate double-stacked cargo containers; fixing the city's leaky water infrastructure; and expanding broadband Internet access.
What's notable about the letter is not only what she asked for but how she made her case. The letter contained no hint of politics, no criticism, veiled or otherwise. Rather, it made a business case for each of the requests. The highway and other improvements related to Port Covington would support 60,000 jobs in one of the biggest redevelopment efforts in the country. The Howard Street tunnel retrofit would maximize the Port of Baltimore's capacity and foster additional economic growth. Investments in water infrastructure provide a 3-1 return in economic activity. And federal funding for the broadband fiber network would leverage existing local investments.
Some have criticized the City Council's resolution as self-defeating, if not inappropriate. That's not our concern. Thin-skinned though Mr. Trump may be, he's certainly capable of handling the good cop/bad cop routine the council and mayor have employed. What gives us pause is the question of whether the new council will be spending its time on symbolic gestures or on directly attacking the problems of injustice and inequality that plague the city. There are, early on, some positive signs that the council will quickly shift its attention to the latter.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young opened the new council session with a pledge to foster partnerships with non-profits to tackle crime, blight and the lack of economic opportunities. Much of that work is already underway around the city, Mr. Young said, and the council's job will be to speed the process and eliminate barriers to its effectiveness. New council members said they plan to focus on nuts and bolts issues like trash and rats (Shannon Snead, 13th District) or affordable housing and economic inclusion (Leon F. Pinkett III, 7th District). Councilman Zeke Cohen from the 1st District set the right tone in leading a group of council members to question recent changes in MTA student bus pass policies that have made it harder for kids to participate in after-school activities.
Notwithstanding the hopeful note in Ms. Pugh's letter that "as a native of New York" Mr. Trump knows "the value of America's cities and the challenges that cities face," all signals from the transition suggest that the Trump administration will be less engaged than the Obama administration was on a host of issues important to cities, from housing policy to support for community policing. Baltimore may well have found itself on its own whether the council had condemned Mr. Trump's rhetoric or not. That's why the kind of practical leadership Ms. Pugh has shown thus far is so vitally important. She and the council need to keep putting Baltimore first.