Monday, December 4, 2017

One year in: Can Baltimore's Mayor succeed?

After a very competitive mayoral primary Democratic winner Catherine Pugh kept a low profile until the general election. Immediately after being elected she presented her transition team during an event in Sandtown. As an indication how much she felt in the driver's seat, a month later, she turned the table on her transition committee on transportation when she invited Sadiq Khan to speak to the group in the conference room of the Greater Baltimore Committee. The transition team, in Pugh's words to "evaluate agency operations and government services and make recommendations for how they can be better run" found itself suddenly on the receiving end of recommendations. 

Pugh during the campaign (Photo: Philipsen)
Pugh's personal interests don't particularly include transportation, but by bringing in former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ex-transportation commissioner, she indicated she would listen to progressive heavy hitters. Sadiq Khan's positions such as that "transportation is no longer a matter of engineering, its a question of imagination" and that "you can't change the big ship of the city without a plan" had been exemplified in New York where she stunned traffic engineers by closing parts of Times Square to cars and implementing miles of bike-lanes on Manhattan's crowded streets.
Khan was a welcome sight in Baltimore where the local DOT had not shown much imagination for quite some time. Turning her head and addressing the team from her seat, Pugh gave the impression that she would follow Khan's advice and begin a new era in transportation. Transition members where impressed and hopeful that a break on the supreme reign of the automobile in Baltimore City was imminent.

Another impressive step came when Mayor Pugh at her first cabinet meeting loaded all her department heads into a bus  and had them walk in Sandtown from one hot-spot to another, asking each department leader what he or she could do to solve the problem.

Barely in office, Pugh had to finish work for a consent degree with the then still Obama controlled justice department dealing with police reform. She did it on time.

Those early steps painted Pugh as a decisive leader who would hold her administration accountable and not tolerate business as usual. A year later, it is clear that the Mayor, an avid runner who knows well how to pace herself, did not maintain that initial speed and urgency. It took her until July to appoint somebody in charge of the rudderless department of transportation and her appointment still has to prove that she is an impatient, creative and fearless leader in league with Sadik Khan. Instead of urgently moving forward, Pugh threatened to go backwards by taking out a new, not even finished "protected bike lane" in Canton, because she thought it had not been well enough deliberated. Another misstep came recently when the City's Transportation Priority Letter to the State was delivered late and only after the SUN reported that no letter had been filed. Instead of clear priorities the letter contained a quickly thrown together incongruous assortment of projects.
Groundbreaking with developer Danforth (Photo: Philipsen)

Transportation is not the only field where promise seems to outsize delivery: As promised  during her campaign Pugh split the beleaguered housing department into Baltimore Housing and Community Development,making them two separate entities. After that bold move, though, neither leader has come out with a decisive new idea on how Housing would become more efficient or how Baltimore's affordable housing crisis should be solved. The announced restructuring of the Baltimore Development Corporation is also stuck, or at least not public.

Both, as city council person and as State Senator, Pugh gained a reputation for being disciplined, smart, extremely hard working during long hours that would start with a pre-dawn run surveying large parts of her city by pounding the pavement and end late after evening community meetings. She eats and sleeps so little, that at times she appears to be in a daze. But the next meeting or a microphone will snap her right back into high alert, with a quick wit and, compared to Stephanie Rawlings Blake, soaring rhetoric. She was and is also known for having cultivated an excellent network of powerful men who appreciate her business acumen and certainly also her sense of style. (She was once a fashion adviser to Radio One's Cathy Huges and ran a high fashion consignment store on Washington Boulevard). Aside from fashion, Pugh is modest. Before she got her assigned black SUV as Mayor she drove around in age old beaters such as an old green Jaguar and later a Jeep Cherokee, often without buckling her seatbelt. Her house in Ashburton is historic but small.

Already as a Councilwoman Pugh engaged with the private sector. Through sponsors and donations she initiated the Baltimore Marathon and the Baltimore Design School, Baltimore's first all new school in decades. Her attempt to further good causes through money from the private sector was maybe most clearly exemplified by her 2001 "Fish out of Water" campaign, in which private companies sponsored customized fish sculptures in front of their enterprises that would later be auctioned off to support Baltimore youth programs. She repeats her ask of the private sector at any opportunity, for example her State of the City talk in March of this year:
Our goal is to make our schools a part of the community, centers of enrichment.  Here is where I call on the Private Sector. This year’s Youth Works program has seen our largest number ever of young people applying to work this summer, at 12,500 youth.  All of these children must work.  I am calling on our faith-based community, business leaders and philanthropic organizations to help us meet this goal.  If we don’t employ our youth, the drug dealers will. (Mayor Pugh)
When the first marathon was held, Pugh ran the entire race in spite of a bleeding foot. Even today Pugh still starts most days with a 5am run through her neighborhood. This type of perseverance is what secured her enough votes to beat the crowded primary field. But her knack of hanging out with the rich and powerful to get them to support her or her causes still makes many think that the Mayor isn't really all out there to support the poor. Her strong desire to get along with Governor Hogan doesn't help her image either nor do colorful supporters such as convicted lobbyist Bruce Bereano, Senate President Mike Miller or Baltimore's who is who of entrepreneurs, developers and chief net-workers who have kicked off the traditional Pugh New Year fundraiser held at Gertrude's restaurant at the BMA for years. The Baltimore Brew, always ready to stab the powerful into the eye, has scouted out Pugh's calendar on her first anniversary in office tomorrow and reported with delight that she will spend the evening at the ultra posh Caves Valley Country Club in Baltimore County.
Pugh with Senator Nathan Pulliam (photo: Philipsen)

For some the uneasiness turned into hostility when the new Mayor killed the Baltimore City $15 minimum wage bill, in the view of many, at a minimum a massive strategic blunder, if not an unforgivable violation of liberal and progressive policy. When the Mayor, in a quick and surprising move, took down Baltimore's Confederate status it looked for a moment that Pugh had found her footing and disgruntled supporters were ready to forgive her the previous "transgressions." Mayor Pugh has taken many prudent steps, including fostering innovation, strengthening recreational facilities, making Baltimore a Bloomberg City which gets support and advice from best practices across the nation and the world,  but she is probably no progressive but a pragmatist who has little patience with excuses or ineffectiveness and pays attention to streetlights which don't work or prides herself of implementing mobile job centers.

But, as the SUN points out, what really keeps the Pugh administration cornered is Baltimore's crime. In a lose-lose position, the Mayor can neither be tough on crime without alienating the community reeling from the history of Baltimore police which brought federal oversight to the department, nor can she only focus on the social long-term solutions without giving the impression that she has no immediate answers. Originally intent on following Council-president Jack Young's goal of "spending more on education than on police" Pugh suggested in her budget to cut police overtime and shift $5.5. million from the police department to schools. The unrelenting crime rate forces her now to say that the police needs "hundreds more officers".

Baltimore has not been kind to its mayors for decades. It seems that it takes a very long time before mayors can bask in some kind of friendly nostalgic light. Four-term Mayor William Donald Schaefer is now widely seen as a good mayor, but at the time, many residents had grown tired of his showmanship, his focus on grad projects and, as it was bemoaned even then, the focus on downtown and the inner harbor instead of the neighborhoods.

Baltimore's first elected black Mayor, the highly educated Kurt Schmoke, soon earned disdain for being ineffective because he couldn't stem the urban flight that took on dramatic proportions under his term. Still, he managed to be elected three times and is now a highly regarded university president.

His successor, councilman Martin O'Malley was initially seen as very effective, not only with crime reduction and his world-famous CitiStat but also with his resource protecting approach of working from strength. He headed for the Governor's office after two terms. Today, he and zero tolerance policing are seen as the reason why thousands of young African American men began languishing in prisons feeding a long-term cycle of even more impoverishment and crime.

Former council-president  Mayor Sheila Dixon, although admired in inner city neighborhoods, brought it only to one term because had to leave in disgrace when a giftcard scandal brought her a conviction of on one misdemeanor count of fraudulent misappropriation. Her successor Stephany

Rawlings Blake, who was seen as intelligent but too disengaged and isolated, resigned after only one and a half terms, heavily damaged by the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent unrest during which she was initially not seen. By contrast, Catherine Pugh was on the streets of West Baltimore day and night, fearlessly hugging kids and calming tempers.
Pugh at new EBDI park  (Photo: Philipsen)

Of all these previous mayors Pugh holds only Schaefer in some higher regard.

Catherine Pugh loves her job. She says she "is married to this city". Baltimore's Mayor holds a powerful position. Baltimore's recently reconstituted city council, with its many new and young, progressive members, wants to hold her accountable but is also willing to cooperate. Her friendly attitude towards Governor Hogan is probably the only way, given how dependent the city is on State funds. So what are the odds for success?

Most residents want Pugh to be successful. Baltimore really can't afford to have another Mayor go up in flames. One year after having elected Pugh to office, the city can't afford to stand on the sidelines or simply observe. There is no good alternative to her succeeding.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Catherine Pugh's State of the City address of March 17, 2017
Baltimore Magazine: Pugh profile (Jan 2017)
Related on this blog:
Clowns at the Crosswalk - What we were missing at the Mayoral Forum
Mayor Pugh's Agenda

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