Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"Now or Never", what can a Mayor do?

Former Deputy Chief for Operations at Office of the Mayor Dan Sparaco left his job as a political insider behind and took to writing a stunning four part series about Baltimore's power structure titled "Now or Never". He had initially aimed for the final part to be done for today's primary, so people would fully understand how pivotal those mayoral elections can be. But he now feels that "there will be a certain anticlimax to the election [and the last segment] wouldn't be a good end-point".

But even without the missing segment bringing the story back to the current day, Dan's narrative is full of interesting analogies, conclusions and connections that I haven't heard being told like this before. For example the parallel between Mayor "Little Tommy" D'Alessandro not again running for Mayor being demoralized by the 1968 riots, and Stephanie Rawlings Blake not running after the recent riots.
Uprising in the neighborhoods

According to Sparaco the 1971 replacement of Thommy D'Alessandro with Donald Schaefer was a pivotal moment in Baltimore's history, and Dan's view of Schaefer is much dimmer than the usual glorification. It is interesting to read that even though Schaefer did channel 75% of all federal funds not to downtown but to poor neighborhoods, almost all those projects are considered failures today: The Highway to Nowhere, Old Town Mall, Upton public Housing, Rosemont urban renewal and the recently re-clad tower on part of the old North Avenue market.
For a lot of us it feels like a city that’s had “potential” for decades is further now than ever from realizing it, and our uncertainty stems from this fact: last April blew apart the political consensus that has governed Baltimore for the past five decades. That consensus emerged after the city last rioted in 1968, and was the second stage of the city’s now century-long effort to manage and contain the consequences of its original sin: the destruction of its own black middle class. [...] the difference between April 1968 and April 2015 is the difference between water in a kettle put to boil and the smoldering embers left behind from a fire not quite put out.
The mayoral debate leading to the primary election tomorrow did not allow those broad sweeping views afforded by a historic retrospective. Instead, the local debate in part mirrored the national debate of insiders versus outsiders, where  "outsiders" are trying to channel the cynicism, anger and frustration that many people have directed against their political representatives  in their favor by defining themselves as non-politicians.
City Hall, a place of power?
The other part of the local debate was myopic with a narrow local focus as if Baltimore was the only city in America with a crime problem, with a shrinking middle class and with bad schools. The myopic view wants the mayor to be as home-grown as possible and have all the solutions come from within. People coming to the city from the outside are seen as interlopers and carpet beggars, their less locally flavored views are unwelcome. Police officers, teachers, mayors, department heads, best they were all born and raised in Baltimore. That view wants also wants all money spent "in the neighborhoods" and their mayor must be one connected to the hood as well. No chance for a David Warnock coming to town "in this old truck", no chance for a DeRay McKesson who had taken the liberty of sniffing some air outside of the narrow confines of the city limits.

Even a person that has the hood credentials is seen with suspicion if perceived as too cozy with  the so called power elite, for example BGE's new CEO, a young and dynamic African American who worked his way up inside the corporation.

The suspicions and the cynicism are understandable. As Sparaco puts it:
...many people of good will, in power and out, in public and in the quiet, have made their own valiant efforts against the disparities of our city. But there is only one lesson to be drawn from April and its dysfunctional aftermath: we have failed.
Yet, there is little doubt in my mind, that as much as Baltimore's solutions must come from within, they also need the boost from the outside. Without a growing tax base, population, educational attainment, and an educated workforce, there is no way any part of this city can prosper in the long run. Addressing neighborhoods, schools and crime & grime is not antithetical to attracting investment, businesses and millennials to town. As President Obama put it, we have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time or in a line from his energy policy "all of the above". And, here we get back to the election, our new Mayor has to be able to do all of it. There is one candidate in particular, who is exceptionally well positioned to bridge the many divides. In and of the community and yet born and raised in outside, trusted in the neighborhood but also able to speak forcefully with executives.
Baltimore's black Mayors (Not showing DuBurns)

Once the voters have spoken the real work will begin: to set an agenda for the next four years that is bold, ambitious and inclusive and find the right team to move it without  everybody tripping over everybody else, a mode of operation that has prevailed for too long.

Wednesday it will be time to roll up the sleeves and bring together the many good strands of what we have going. Strands that somehow never seemed to add up and fizzled in oblivion.

Imagine how powerful Baltimore could be with a Mayor that can articulate where the journey is going, assembles a great team,  pays attention to actual progress and bring in all those folks muttering on the sidelines to help pulling?

The task in Dan Sparaco's words is this:
Five decades after the city last rioted, in the midst of another transitional period of uncertainty, it is now or never for Baltimore to get right with its past and reclaim the alternate future it left behind a century ago, an alternate future that remained buried under the political consensus that just disintegrated. This is the moment to transform the riots, not into the euphemism of “the unrest,” or the romanticism of “the uprising,” but into a new and durable consensus that can found meaningful political action. And this is the necessary agenda of whomever should win the mayoral election.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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