This year, it's status quo over idealism

September 09, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

Well, we're not getting Bloomberg. Fuhgedaboutit. He's mayor of New York and, while he's donated a ton of money to the Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater, he's not about to pull up stakes, establish residency in Baltimore and run for mayor here. He's far more likely to run for the White House.

So we're not getting Bloomberg. (And the Orioles probably won't be getting A-Rod if he opts out of his Yankees contract, either.) Day after tomorrow, there's an election in the City of Baltimore, where Democrats rule and the winner of the party's ho-hum 2007 primary will be the next mayor. There's no Bloomberg in the field. There's no one with his billions, obviously, but also no one (with the exception of the constant candidate Bob Kaufman) with his populist appeal and big-think independence, either. Nor is there a candidate (including Kaufman) who gets people genuinely excited - or even mildly interested.

If any of the candidates possess the power to inspire people and foster a profound generational shift in municipal health and self-image, which is what Baltimore needs, I have neither seen nor heard it.

Of course, a lot of people don't care about that.

They're not looking for charisma; they're looking for competence.

They just want the trash picked up twice a week and the main streets plowed - no one ever expects the side streets to be plowed - after it snows. They want the police cruisers and firetrucks to show up when they dial 911. They want clean tap water. That's about it.

A recent poll commissioned by The Sun indicated that Baltimoreans are primed to settle for the status quo at City Hall, though most think the status quo is taking the city in the wrong direction.

(It reminds me of the 1990s, a decade of steady population decline and rising violence - and an acceptance of it. City Hall was Sleepy Hollow and Baltimore became a Leno joke.)

Late last month, OpinionWorks conducted a poll for The Sun.

Half of the Baltimoreans in the survey said they believe the city is on the wrong track.

Only 29 percent said they think the city is headed in the right direction. That was a drop of 5 percentage points in just the past month or so.

More significantly, that was a drop of 41 percentage points from just two years ago, when 70 percent of Baltimoreans told Gallup they believed the city was on the right track - remarkably, a sense of satisfaction that far surpassed all other cities involved in that 2005 nationwide poll.

So most Baltimoreans felt good about their city's direction two years ago. They don't now.

Still, the Sun poll showed that a majority favors keeping Martin O'Malley's successor since January, Sheila Dixon, in office.

Why this contradiction?

Some might think Dixon is doing a good job, under stressful circumstances beyond any mayor's control (the homicides, for instance). Some might think she deserves more time. Some might just be far more familiar with Dixon than with her prime opponent, Keiffer Mitchell.

Whatever.

I'm sure of one thing - come Tuesday, we're not going to suddenly get the big, bold leadership Baltimore needs if it is ever going to break out of its long struggle with decline and mediocrity.

And too bad about that.

With a dynamic, eloquent mayor pulling together statewide political, business, religious and cultural forces, this city can be so much better than it is. Baltimore's renaissance could go on for the next 20 years. There should be a sweeping effort to raise the city's quality of life and its international reputation.

It could be a bigger city, probably with another 200,000 in population, and it could be a destination for people who today sneer at the idea of taking up residence here. That should be an ambition - making Baltimore a real possibility for new homeowners and corporations seeking regional or national headquarters.

A shrinking, mediocre Baltimore just shouldn't be. Look at the projected population growth of Maryland. We'd be able to absorb a big chunk of it, and curb suburban sprawl, if Baltimore was a better city.

"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls," we need to hear a mayor say. "This city can be a great place, where more people want to live and raise their families. Baltimore should be a big, busy city, full of life and new opportunity, a shining city at the water's edge ...

"We have settled for poverty, decline, abandonment, violence and ignorance for too long.

"I propose a new deal, to rebuild more of this sprawling city, make it safer and smarter, healthier, greener. People should be able to move here with full expectation that they'll never have to flee because the schools aren't good enough or the drug dealers rule or the air chokes their lungs."

Baltimore needs a mayor with energy and commitment, a progressive with integrity and idealism, someone who doesn't see the city as primarily a steppingstone to the next office. We're talking about eight years - a Schaeferesque 12 or more perhaps - during which a mayor dedicates himself and the forces of government and business to the full restoration of an American classic, until the bleakest stretches of this old city fill with people and pride again.

It sounds grandiose and extravagantly idealistic.

Which is why we need to hear it. Someone needs to get Baltimore thinking this way, and not always settling for less.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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