Woman power

September 16, 2007

Baltimore is distinguishing itself on the political map. Put the recent Democratic primary victories of Sheila Dixon for mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for council president and Joan Pratt for comptroller together with Patricia C. Jessamy's reign as state's attorney and the city's major political offices are held by African-American women. Assuming that (in an overwhelmingly Democratic city) Ms. Dixon, Ms. Rawlings-Blake and Ms. Pratt prevail in November's general election, such a sweep of offices in a major city is setting precedents.

But the obvious question remains: In a city with daunting challenges, starting with a soaring murder rate, can these women provide a different kind of leadership that will result in significant improvements in the lives of their constituents?

Although their numbers have increased, women and women of color are still underrepresented in state and city politics. Nationally, women hold about 24 percent of statewide elective executive positions, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, and women of color hold only about 1 percent of those positions. In the nation's 100 largest cities, the center cites Ms. Dixon and Shirley Franklin of Atlanta as the only two African-American women serving as mayor, bringing the historical grand total (starting in 1987) to six.

Ms. Dixon did not highlight her race or gender during the campaign. But since her primary victory last week, she has talked about approaching the job with more "sensitivity," which she attributes to her gender. Many of her priorities are centered on enhancing "human development" and "connecting the dots" to address the city's special challenges, such as the breakdown of families and neighborhoods. She sees government playing a critical role in providing support services, including drug treatment and job training, to help people take responsibility for themselves.

It's too soon to determine whether she and her sister officeholders can rally disaffected and disillusioned constituents to take back communities ravaged by crime and violence. Will they inspire more black women, already a dominant voting force in city elections and an important social force as breadwinners, parents and church members, to work even more diligently to turn the city around?

Historical milestones may be noteworthy, but what will really distinguish the city's top leadership sorority is not gender or race but their ability to present and execute bold and innovative ideas. At this critical juncture, what all Baltimoreans want from their leaders are answers and solutions.

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