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Former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh leaves the downtown federal courthouse after she pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges in federal court Thursday.
Former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh leaves the downtown federal courthouse after she pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges in federal court Thursday. (Jerry Jackson)

When people attempt to explain Baltimore’s various sources of misery, they often trot out explanations like deindustrialization, institutional racism, middle class flight, poor schools, underdeveloped transit and a lack of support from higher levels of government. These explanations are plausible, but these issues pertain to many cities across the nation, and only Baltimore can claim to be America’s murder capital. So, what separates Baltimore from those other cities?

The answer likely lies in our remarkably poor leadership. The last four Baltimore mayors have been Sheila “Gift Cards” Dixon, Stephanie “People Need Room to Destroy” Rawlings-Blake, Catherine “11-count Indictment” Pugh, and Jack “I’m not Committing the Murders” Young.

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I actually liked the way Mayor Dixon was operating the city, but under the collective leadership of the last three mayors, Baltimore has been making news for all the wrong reasons, including surpassing 300 homicides for five consecutive years, though I’m willing to concede that the current mayor, in fact, committed none of them himself.

One would like to make the case that the worst is behind us. It would indeed be difficult to imagine further deterioration in circumstances, especially along the dimension of law and order. In addition to widespread death and injury, including involving the smallest of children, madness and mayhem have translated into an array of economic and demographic maladies, including ongoing losses in population and tax base. Recent market reports indicate that rents in downtown Baltimore on commercial property are no higher than they were 15 years ago.

But as much as Baltimore has lost, there are still enormous losses to come. Many who root for Baltimore take heart in large numbers of millennials who have moved into the city, including into pricey waterfront apartments. But these renters don’t receive a tax bill, and signing a 1-year lease is hardly an indication of long-term commitment to the city. Once these young people start to form larger households, it’s off to the counties they go, absent meaningful improvement in the city’s circumstances.

Still, others take heart in the sizeable number of cranes that hang over parts of Baltimore, especially the waterfront. One would have to probably go back to the 1990s to find such a crane-rich environment in Baltimore. But even here, there is room for caution. Much of what is being built are apartment buildings, which may or may not be substantially occupied and which won’t be filled with owners of property who directly pay taxes. What’s more, many developers needed subsidies to move forward with their investments, even in some of the city’s most appealing areas, a reflection both of Baltimore’s economic challenges and its sky-high property tax rate.

On April 28, 2020, and then again on Nov. 3, Baltimore’s citizenry will have an opportunity to elect a new mayor. It would help if this time the people of Baltimore elected someone decent — perhaps someone brilliant like Kurt Schmoke, data driven like Martin O’Malley or just plain in love with Baltimore until it hurts William Donald Schaefer. History suggests that it is possible for Baltimore to elect great mayors; we just haven’t done it lately.

This may be because we keep reaching into the same well, and for whatever reason that well has run dry. There was a time when the City Council produced great leaders. Both Martin O’Malley and William Donald Schaefer served on the City Council prior to becoming mayor, and it worked. These were more than credible mayors who could point to some real accomplishments, including improving Baltimore’s reputation as a place in which to live and do business. But the formula no longer works.

Accordingly, it’s probably time for Baltimoreans to elect someone who is from beyond the shattered inner sanctum of city politics. Voters may want to consider a candidate who: is committed to law enforcement, while insisting upon a well-trained and properly disciplined police force; is committed to rendering the city competitive along the dimension of taxes; has the capacity to improve agency performance and efficiency; and understands nitty gritty quality of life issues like being able to time traffic lights and send water bills rooted in reality.

There are in fact outsiders who have announced that they are running to be Baltimore’s next mayor. We should give these candidates our undivided attention and perhaps be less deferential to the candidacies of people who have been leading our city into despair.

Anirban Basu is chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group, Inc.; his email is abasu@sagepolicy.com.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly stated Martin O’Malley’s role on the Baltimore City Council prior to becoming mayor; he was not City Council president. The Sun regrets the error.

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