Spotted recently on Craigslist: Baltimore City seeks a new mayor. Position entails overseeing a city with a diverse population of 600,000-plus currently suffering from a severely damaged national image in the wake of recent, racially charged civic unrest; an alarming homicide rate (344 in 2015, second only to 353 in 1993); entrenched poverty; astronomically high property taxes, which send residents scurrying to the suburbs; under-
resourced public schools (another disincentive to stay); crumbling infrastructure; shrinking tax base; and a Byzantine bureaucracy.
Must endure constant, sometimes withering criticism from mainstream media, pesky bloggers and zealous neighborhood leaders; deal with unpredictable calamities such as massive snowstorms; liaison with an occasionally obstreperous City Council; cope with a popular Governor disinclined to offer the city handouts; attend innumerable, mind-numbing grip-and-grin ribbon-cutting ceremonies; and be on-call 24/7. Salary: $167,000, give or take a few dollars.
Okay, just kidding: That post did not appear on Craigslist. But think about it: Who would want this job? Would you apply? Mayor of a large American city must rank among the most thankless occupations on the planet. Given the problems enumerated above, some of them seemingly intractable, Baltimore arguably might be considerably harder to govern than most big U.S. municipalities.
Yet a gaggle of candidates has rushed in to fill the vacuum created when, this past September, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (SRB) abruptly announced that she would not seek re-election. The death of Freddie Gray and the riot/uprising that ensued in its aftermath—plus the promise of the incident continuing to seize headlines with the trials of the six police officers charged in association with Gray’s death—prompted Rawlings-Blake to go—contrary to Dylan Thomas’ admonition—relatively gently into that good night.
“The last thing I want is for every one of the decisions that I make moving forward—at a time when the city needs me the most—to be questioned in the context of a political campaign,” she said back then. “I knew that I needed to spend time, the remaining 15 months of my term, focused on the city’s future and not my own.”
As for her would-be successors, only seven can be taken seriously: Democrats Sheila Dixon, Carl Stokes, Nick Mosby, Catherine Pugh, Elizabeth Embry, David Warnock and, waxing generous in a city that bleeds blue, the requisite sacrificial Republican, Alan Walden. All declare that they want to improve Baltimore and, in the process, the lives of its citizens. Certainly a noble motive. Believable, too. But what other factors have driven them, consciously or unconsciously, to run? Hubris? Political ambition? Responsibility/civic-mindedness?
“Generally, when someone runs for public office, they have a public rationale: They have a sense of mission, they say they want to help people,” says Benjamin Ginsberg, the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.
But, in truth, Ginsberg adds, “People run for office for a variety of reasons. One is a craving for fame or notoriety. There are many people who, for some deep-seated reason, want others to notice them, want to be famous. The desire for fame can be an incredible driving force.”
The author, co-author or editor of 24 books, Ginsberg scrutinizes the psychology of people who want to be political big shots in his upcoming Presidential Government (due this July), as well as in another title he just finished writing, What the Government Thinks of the People, scheduled for publication at a later date.
“Another reason,” he continues, “is that there are people who like to be ‘in the know.’ They want to be at the center of things; they want everyone to call them; they want to be where the action is. And a third reason is being in charge. There are many, many people who like to be in charge of everything. That is a very common driver for politicians, particularly for executive positions where they make decisions: Presidents, governors, mayors—they like to be in charge of things.”
While Ginsberg acknowledges that Baltimore is a “broken-down city” whose governance presents a daunting challenge, he points out that, nonetheless, “There are Baltimoreans who want to be in charge, who want to be well-known and who want to be in the thick of things. I have friends in Baltimore [Ginsberg lives in Potomac, Md.]. Because it’s a small city, you don’t have to do too much to be in the thick of things there. They love a little bit of involvement in local politics: They can name-drop, they can know what’s going on. And, gee, if you’re mayor, that’s even better.”
The following candidates (the Munificent Seven) want to be mayor of Baltimore. On April 26, the Maryland primary will very likely determine which one rides City Hall’s fame/in-charge boss/where-the-action-is roller coaster for the next four years. Let the games begin.
“The Comeback Kid”
Main Issue: crime/violence
A personable former elementary school teacher and trade specialist for the state with a 1,000-watt smile, flair for fashionable attire and winsome sassiness, Dixon, Baltimore City Council president at the time, inherited the mayoral hot seat from Martin O’Malley when he became governor in January 2007. Later that year, as the incumbent, she thrashed a handful of challengers in the Democratic primary, then coasted to victory in the general election to embrace the mayoralty outright.
During her three years in office, Dixon shepherded into law a ban against smoking in public places; carried out a “Cleaner Greener” campaign to neat-ify the city; ushered into practice single-stream recycling; and, significantly, instituted a community policing policy that resulted in a decrease in the crime rate, particularly the number of murders. But she resigned in early 2010 as part of a plea agreement after she was found guilty in a case involving her snagging gift cards earmarked for poor city residents.
“The Fresh Prince”
Main Issue: educational opportunities
Breathlessly described as half (with wife/ city State’s Attorney Marilyn) of “Baltimore’s Power Couple” by multiple media sources, Mosby worked as a project manager for BGE and in IT for Verizon before deciding to devote his attention full-time to representing West Baltimore (Penn North, Reservoir Hill, Mondawmin) on the City Council. Still in his first term, he has helped pass laws safeguarding job applicants from being quizzed by prospective city employers about their criminal record, and barring liquor stores from making sales to minors.
Significantly, Mosby’s 7th District was a flashpoint in the April 2015 unrest, catapulting both him and his wife into the national glare. At the time, he famously characterized the disturbances as “a cry for help,” and spent considerable time on the still-smoldering streets attempting to restore peace. Additionally, over the years, he and Marilyn have participated in numerous “Enough Is Enough” anti-violence/crime walks.
Main Issue: crime reduction
Granddaughter of Jake Embry—a successful exec in radio and pro sports team ownership—and daughter of Bob Embry, an ex-city Housing Commissioner/City Councilman/city School Board president and, more recently, longtime president of the nonprofit Abell Foundation—Elizabeth Embry boasts a purple local pedigree.
A grad of Columbia University’s School of Law, she now heads the criminal division of the Maryland Attorney General’s office. Previously, she served as deputy for policy and planning in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office (she spearheaded moving minor cases against nonviolent offenders out of the court system and into counseling programs); a felony prosecutor in the same office (working with victims of crimes, witnesses and police officers); and acting director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice under Rawlings-Blake. Curiously, despite this wealth of family-related community connectedness and an extended career in public service, Embry casts herself as an outsider—although, true, she has never run for an elected office.
“The Stranger in a Strange Land”
Main Issue: intrusive, reactive government
With his measured, resonant tones, dry humor and slightly fusty avuncular manner, former WBAL Radio newsman and commentator Alan Walden would make the perfect fireside-chat mayor (he quotes H.D. Thoreau!), reassuring the teeming Baltimore masses via “the wireless” that the roads will be plowed, civic order will prevail or the crisis du jour will be dealt with poste haste. Of course, we live in a news-by-the-nanosecond-streaming-from-your-mobile-phone era, not FDR’s 1930s and 1940s. And, more to the point, we live in a city in which eight percent of registered voters officially pledge fealty to the Republican Party. Eight. Not a typo.
Naturally, Walden knows this, and yet he has bravely stepped forward to fall on his sword in an effort to bring a message of hope (reminiscent of Barack Obama) to what he sees as an increasingly hopeless populace experiencing a disconnect with its elected
officials. Those who are about to die….
Main Issue: jobs creation
Polished, poised and persistent (she finished an encouraging second behind Rawlings-Blake in the 2011 Democratic primary), Catherine Pugh operates her own marketing and public relations company, plus owns a Pigtown women’s clothing consignment shop, 2 Chic Boutique. Earlier, she established the city’s first African-American business newspaper, worked as dean and director of a local business college and published a collection of poetry (a friend once entertained a dinner party with dramatic readings from this volume) and a kids’ book about healthy lifestyles. More recently, she co-founded and still chairs the city’s Design School, a sixth-through-12th-grade public institution that stresses fashion, architecture and graphic design programs. After a one-term stint on the City Council (1999-2003), she was appointed to an open seat in the state’s House of Delegates for a year, after which she won election to the state Senate, where she has specialized in fiscal matters and now serves as its Majority Leader.
“The Boss with Heart”
Main Issue: jobs creation
As senior partner with the downtown
private equity firm Camden Partners,
venture capitalist and political newbie David Warnock principally manages investments in the business and education sectors. Oh, and he lives in a $1.7-million condo at nearby Ritz-Carlton Residences. Which, in his case, doesn’t necessarily constitute escaping to a gilded tower. For years, in fact, Warnock has quietly engaged in a handful of philanthropic efforts, notably as a trustee and board chair for the Center for Urban Families, a nonprofit that assists ex-offenders in finding work.
Additionally, he co-founded Green Street Academy, a West Baltimore charter middle school that preaches sustainability while teaching the skills needed to succeed in
college and the workplace. In 2012, he created the Warnock Foundation, which functions as a funding engine for programs devoted to education, employment oppor- tunities, community engagement and social innovation. He aims to apply his biz savvy and do-gooder energies to the corpus municipalis.
“The Elder Statesman”
Main Issue: invest in neighborhoods/end sweetheart tax breaks for developers
During two stints on the City Council (1987 to 1995, 2010 to the present), Carl Stokes has staunchly represented some of Baltimore’s most economically challenged areas (Middle East, Latrobe Homes, Oliver), while staking out budget and education issues as his hobby horses. A businessman, he has owned and operated a chain of retail clothing stores and worked as a VP for Mid-Atlantic Health Care, a provider of medical equipment and supplies. Like Pugh and Warnock, he has actively affiliated himself with city public schools, in his case as former chief operating officer of the Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy, an East Baltimore charter middle school for boys.
Stokes dived into the mayoral politics deep end back in 1999 and, for a while, loomed as the front-runner, but some resumé fudging derailed that campaign, with Martin O’Malley eventually emerging the winner. Consider this Take Two, with his vitae thoroughly vetted in advance.