The mayor, her challengers and the 'vision thing'

Mayor Rawlings-Blake has focused on the nuts and bolts, not grand themes

February 12, 2011

Toward the end of her State of the City address this week, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took a pointed swipe at her challengers in this year's election, who have been criticizing her for failing to articulate a transformative vision for the city. After noting accomplishments of the past year, Ms. Rawlings-Blake called for a 10-year plan for the city's finances. The idea, she said, is to answer "fundamental questions" of how the city pays for vital services, whether it can live without others, what it can afford in employee benefits and how it can reduce reliance on property taxes — a major theme of her challengers.

"Some may irresponsibly choose to ignore and mislead on these fundamental questions, especially when discussing property tax relief," she said. "A real vision for the city begins with treating the people of Baltimore with honesty and respect. If it sounds too good to be true, it isn't true. If we fail to put truth before politics, Baltimore will fall backward. And that is unacceptable. A city that lives on falsehood and false promises is a city that's dying."

Veiled as they are, those are tough words and an indication that those who take Ms. Rawlings-Blake to be a weak opponent because of her generally low-key, soft-spoken manner might be in for a surprise.

That said, her opponents and potential opponents — including Otis Rolley III, Joseph T. "Jody" Landers and Carl Stokes — do have a point that the mayor has not fully articulated a vision for how the city can finally emerge from a decades-long cycle of crime, poverty and disinvestment. In her speech, the mayor focused on the right priorities for the city — safer streets, better schools, fewer vacant houses, greater opportunities for those who are addicted to drugs. Those happen to be the priorities that her predecessors, to one degree or another, have focused on, in many cases making strides but failing to produce a breakthrough. Baltimore deserves something more than incremental progress, and ideally, the person who emerges from this mayoral election will be the one who can provide a convincing plan to accomplish it.

As Ms. Rawlings-Blake's State of the City address attests, that has not been the hallmark of her first year in office. She has dealt with one problem after another, starting with the February snowstorms and the budget and pension crisis of last spring, and working through questionable police shootings and the near failure of the teachers contract. Her habit has not been to sugarcoat problems or pretend they don't exist. In fact, she has been remarkably open about the city's shortcomings — as in the case of The Sun's report last summer of the police department's deplorable practices when it came to investigating rape — and willing to work through them in a way that emphasized problem solving over politics.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake may not have found a way to package her attention to the details into a grand vision, but her opponents haven't yet established their credibility on the nuts and bolts. The ideal of an election is that it will produce a contest of competing visions. The reality is that voters first want to be sure the trash gets picked up and streets get plowed. Until the mayor's opponents establish their credibility on the basics, they don't have much room to challenge her on vision. She may need to up her game, but so do they.

—Andrew A. Green

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