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Baltimore’s next mayor can’t be ‘business as usual’ | COMMENTARY

Leslie Parker Blyther of Baltimore city places her ballot in a ballot box outside the city's Board of Elections office on the first day that drop boxes were available for voters.
Leslie Parker Blyther of Baltimore city places her ballot in a ballot box outside the city's Board of Elections office on the first day that drop boxes were available for voters. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Although delayed, ballots have arrived in the most important mayoral election of my lifetime. Like many Baltimore voters, I continue to agonize over the choices.

Faced with the worst murder rate in the country, jaw-dropping political corruption stories, and a failing local economy that predated the pandemic, we must choose a candidate ready to undertake one of the hardest, and most important, political jobs in Maryland. So how should we decide?

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This year, we are blessed with very different candidates, which only makes the choice more daunting. As a professor of constitutional law and race relations for over 35 years, I have found it most helpful to settle on a framework to think through difficult choices.

Courts use criteria to decide which litigant is right and which is wrong. Choosing the best political candidate can be done in the same way. In thinking about a mayoral selection, I came across The Baltimore Sun editorial board’s guidance in the wake of former Mayor Catherine Pugh’s criminal indictment last fall. Their framework is even more relevant today:

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“The city is in crisis,” the board declared in November. “Families are leaving, schools are declining, violence is soaring, and residents and business people are complaining — rightly so. Baltimore’s next mayor can’t be a business as usual Baltimorean, and by that we don’t just mean innocent of any state or federal crimes.”

“Baltimore won’t survive another career politician who seeks only to maintain the status quo or make incremental improvements in public services. It can’t cope with any further cronyism or lack of accountability in initiatives. It can’t handle excuses.”

“The city needs a visionary leader who will tackle crime with everything they’ve got, because crime — especially the violence — is connected to most of Baltimore’s other problems. That’s a tip for those competing for the job in 2020.”

This aspirational assessment yields three clear criteria to help voters decide which candidate will best serve a city in crisis.

First, who is most prepared to address violent crime “with everything they’ve got”? Who understands that addressing such crime must be done immediately, transparently and with no excuses.

Second, who has the most aspirational vision for Baltimore? Who understands that the vision must be bold enough to overcome the uninspired incrementalism of the past while realistic enough to be achievable with limited resources.

Finally, who is most dedicated to do what is necessary to clean up Baltimore? Who understands that cleaning up Baltimore includes not only reducing the violence, but also increasing economic opportunity, fixing the infrastructure and improving the schools.

These questions of preparation, vision and dedication provide a framework for evaluating our options. They do not necessarily preordain the answer, but objective criteria enable us to focus on what’s important and to avoid being distracted by name recognition, superficial character traits or political machinations.

The bottom line is this: The next mayor will not be judged on speeches, commercials, or slogans, but on actual results of improving the quality of life for all city residents. This is not time for business as usual because these results are directly related to the heart and soul of this city. Baltimore needs a leader who is bold enough to break the status quo, visionary enough to do more than take modest steps or make excuses when things go too slowly and strategically focused enough to curb the worst murder rate in America.

Whatever you decide, be sure to base your vote on a set of metrics aimed at what is best for the future of Baltimore, rather than on traditional allegiances, emotional appeals, or false and divisive narratives. The stakes of this election are indeed high with the city’s heart and soul on the line.

Michael Higginbotham (higginbotham@ubalt.edu) is the Joseph Curtis Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore and a frequent commentator of legal matters on CNN.

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