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Challengers say mayor lacks vision for Baltimore's future

It's a criticism that those challenging Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for the city's highest office frequently repeat: Since she became mayor a year ago following the resignation of Mayor Sheila Dixon, she has managed the city's daily concerns adequately enough — but she has not laid out a vision for Baltimore's future.

"For any great city, the mayor has to be able to articulate a vision, not just for the citizens to get behind, but to draw others to the city," said Otis Rolley III, a former planning director who is challenging her in the Democratic primary. "There has to be a common theme that everyone can get behind."

With her State of the City address on Monday, Rawlings-Blake will have an opportunity to inspire residents with her vision for the city. She has been tight-lipped about the details, but a spokesman said she would discuss new plans to improve schools, public safety and neighborhoods in spite of budget limitations.

In an interview, Rawlings-Blake said her strength as a leader lies not in pithy slogans or abstract ideas, but in improving the core services on which residents rely most — a mission encapsulated in her administration's motto: "Better schools. Safer Streets. Stronger Neighborhoods."

"I'm improving the city for the families of Baltimore by focusing on the things that are most important to them," she said. "People want to send their kids to good schools. They want the city to be safer. They want their neighborhoods to be strong."

Rawlings-Blake, who celebrated her first anniversary in office last week, said she aims to "change the culture of gun violence" by lobbying for state legislation that would require tougher sentences for gun violations. She hopes to increase the presence of Teach for America volunteers in classrooms, reduce the dropout rate and decrease the number of vacant properties in the city this year.

Herb Smith, a professor of political science at McDaniel College and longtime city resident, said a strong vision is less important for a mayor than for a governor or a president. But in bleak times, he said, a heartening message can inspire residents and spur change.

"One of the tricks of governing is a positive state of mind," said Smith. "When you're in the locale of "Homicide" and "The Wire," it's easy to slip into a clinical depression."

He said William Donald Schaefer, for whom he consulted, and Martin O'Malley are the recent mayors best remembered for galvanizing residents with inspiring slogans.

Schaefer, who made a mantra of "Do It Now," started both catchy projects — such as allowing residents to pay for a pothole to be filled and emblazoned with a heart for Valentine's Day — and massive programs such as the development of the Inner Harbor.

O'Malley sought to convince Baltimoreans that the city was headed for better days with the stripped-down slogan "Believe." At the very least, the campaign inspired several knockoffs — "Blieve, hon," "Behave," and that favorite of tree-huggers: "beleaf."

"It did go viral," Smith said.

In contrast, he said, former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's branding effort, "The City That Reads," never enjoyed wide appeal. Schmoke still was elected to three terms, evidence that voters look for more than a snazzy slogan in selecting the city's top executive.

And Rawlings-Blake might not need a catchy slogan to be elected, Smith said. The homicide rate has fallen for three of the past four years, and the school system has enjoyed steady gains.

"You could say with some indicators turning up, the need for this enthusiastic, positive vision is very diminished," he said.

Rawlings-Blake has raised more than twice as much money as all her likely opponents combined. She had $840,000 in her coffers late last month; state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who is rumored to be contemplating a run for mayor, came in second among likely contenders with $250,000.

Rolley says that Rawlings-Blake's back-to-basics approach has failed to inspire the city's residents.

"It's the difference between a leader and a manager," said Rolley. "We could hire anyone to manage the city and make sure things are okay."

Rolley has made the concept of vision and planning the cornerstone of his campaign.

"The city is too big and too important to be reactionary," Rolley said. "I think we can both plan for the future and deal with the everyday challenges."

Rolley says he would cut the property tax rate to entice new residents to move to the city. He says he would offset the lost revenue by making city government more efficient, but he has not offered details.

Fellow mayoral challenger Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, says Rawlings-Blake has lacked foresight in the manner in which she has addressed fiscal challenges. Landers, along with another potential challenger, City Councilman Carl Stokes, believes that lowering the property tax rate is crucial to the city's revitalization.

Landers headed a panel in 2007 that drafted a raft of strategies to lower the city's property tax rate, which is by far the highest in the state. Rawlings-Blake implemented many of those proposals in a $50 million package of taxes and fees she used to partially plug a $121 million hole in the city's $1.2 billion budget last year.

The taxes and fees were "nothing more than a grab bag of everything possible that they could pull together," said Landers. "We need to get beyond the short-term, stopgap measures."

He said Rawlings-Blake's "Vacants to Value" program, intended to spur the sale of the city's 30,000 vacant properties, is inadequate. Landers supported a proposal backed by Mayor Sheila Dixon to create a land bank to speed sales.

Stokes, who says he is contemplating a run for mayor, said he often hears that Rawlings-Blake's administration appears to lack direction.

"I haven't heard a vision spoken to, other than race cars on Pratt Street," said Stokes, referring to the city's planned Grand Prix. "Why are we spending millions on roads for a race when we can't get up [Interstate] 83 in a snowstorm?"

Stokes said that Rawlings-Blake's first actions in office belied her statements on safety and neighborhoods. A preliminary budget she floated last year to illustrate the seriousness of the city's fiscal challenges proposed laying off hundreds of firefighters and police officers and closing recreation centers and pools.

Many of the cuts were ultimately avoided by the tax package she later introduced.

"Almost the first announcement she made when she took office, the mayor says 'We're closing pools. We're closing rec centers,'" said Stokes. "That right there is a lack of vision."

Rawlings-Blake pointed to her record over the past year as evidence of vision. She said a landmark contract with the teachers union, her program to speed the sale of vacant properties, and a website on which city agencies are now posting property tax records, crime statistics and other data are all evidence that she is advancing the city, she says.

"My administration is about innovation," said Rawlings-Blake. "While I think it's an interesting criticism, it doesn't reflect the work that's being done."

But the challenge for those running against Rawlings-Blake is not merely to criticize the mayor's vision — but to prove that they have a better plan for the city.

The true test will come at the polls during the September primary, Smith said.

"If she winds up winning, she's got a good slogan," he said. "Winning validates everything in politics."

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