Last weekend, two candidates announced campaigns for city-wide office in Baltimore and immediately got hit by cheap shots from the others running for high office or thinking about it.
I hope everybody remembers something: we can only fix this city together.
Of course, real leadership is not always polite. Real leadership has to make hard choices and, sometimes, tell hard truths.
Real leadership establishes accountability and is accountable. It helps us define our challenges, and find ways to overcome them.
With 2020 approaching, everyone is wondering, how will Baltimore find real leadership and restore accountability?
A Chicago story of leadership.
Harold Washington became Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983, defeating the Chicago machine – a white, Democratic machine – that had built high-rise public housing to hold Black residents on the South Side and keep them from moving into white neighborhoods, and which was led by Richard M. Daley, who openly stood against integration of the city’s neighborhoods and who, on the night after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, ordered police to shoot to kill rioters.
The obstacle in the way of Washington’s campaign was clear-cut – as told in this podcast, a great weekend or car-ride listen. It was the racism that denied Black neighborhoods in Chicago the things that white neighborhoods got – street cleaning and sewers, newly-paved roads and sidewalks, economic development money. It was a system where Black kids were squeezed into mobile trailers behind public schools instead of attending white schools just blocks away.
Washington overcame that obstacle in dramatic fashion, exemplified by his message to defenders of the past: “When he says that he would hope that I would have all the good qualities of past mayors, there are no good qualities of past mayors to be had. None. None. None.”
He pulled off his attack with immense charisma. “Though I may sound abrasive, I have no malice toward anybody. I have a job to do . . . and I approach this job just like any masterful surgeon, when you have to cut out a cancer. I cut it out with no emotion. Get it out. Get it out!”
This worked because Washington promised to be the mayor for everyone, to be “fairer than fair.” And he was. Once in office, fairness meant ending the patronage system that controlled city services – even as some of Washington’s own supporters, noting that the shoe was on the other foot, wanted a Black mayor to put Black people first after white mayors had long put white people first.
Had Washington lived longer – his career was cut tragically short by heart failure at the start of his second term – he’d be better known than he is today, and he also would have run into a different obstacle, as did our first elected Black mayor, Kurt Schmoke.
A Baltimore story of leadership.
Baltimore’s Harold Washington was a man named Kurt Schmoke. He became mayor in 1987 – the year Washington died – at the height of the Reagan era, when direct federal investment in housing and social programs was being replaced with tax credits, ‘enterprise zones,’ and money for police and prisons.
It is hard to imagine these days, but cities once had tremendous federal support. Federal funding was 46% of Baltimore’s budget in 1978, when the all-powerful William Donald Schaefer was in the middle of his decade and a half as mayor.
But by 1985, two-thirds of that federal money had disappeared.
As the power his predecessor enjoyed was eroding and the ground was giving way beneath him, Kurt Schmoke embarked on three visionary undertakings:
1. He came out against the war on drugs, and said he wanted a better answer for both crime and drug addiction. But he was swimming against the tide. Threatened with a loss of funding, he was forced to fight the war anyway.
2. He tried to turn around historic Sandtown-Winchester with a $120 million investment, but ran up against decades of redlining and infrastructure choices that isolated the neighborhood from jobs and opportunity – hard problems to fix for a mayor who didn’t control the transit system.
3. He tried to fix the schools and make ours “the city that reads,” long after the federal government abandoned the real problem – racial segregation. Schmoke was forced to give up City Hall responsibility for schools altogether in order to get state funding for reform (that never really happened).
Schmoke wasn’t able to stop the war on drugs and didn’t have the power or the money to fix Sandtown or the schools.
Two decades later, what happened?
With Sandtown as its epicenter.
Decrying the injustices of drug-war policing, neighborhood isolation and disinvestment, and beginning from student anger in the schools over the unexplained, unaccounted for death of a 25-year-old Black man in the back of a police van.
It looks like Kurt Schmoke was right all along. And this calamity should have been a clarifying moment. But nothing has been clear in Baltimore since then.
The next chapter.
Our obstacle is not as clear-cut as Harold Washington’s was in 1983. He could target a machine and an ideology personified by one man – Daley – and galvanize a movement.
We don’t have a Daley.
In fact, what happened in 2015 was the first urban uprising against a Black mayor and a Black police commissioner in American history. No one in their right mind can lay the condition of Sandtown at their feet.
But then, who is accountable?
The answer can’t be nobody. And it can’t be Mr. Root Causes. That’s how the uprising happened in the first place – because it feels like nothing works, and yet somehow it’s no one’s responsibility to fix.
The answer is, everybody. It’s everybody’s responsibility to fix this.
It is going to take all of us to overcome our Richard J. Daley – the forces that removed the ground from beneath Kurt Schmoke’s feet years ago. As I’ve said these many months, it’s the policy, the ideology, and the choices made recently and long ago that have put our city at a structural disadvantage – which culminated in the uprising. (Children’s books and gift cards didn’t get us here.)
More than anything, we have to rebuild the capacity of City Hall. The decades-long erosion of this institution – less capacity, less accountability, lower and lower expectations – has left it corrupt, weak, and unaccountable for what matters most.
We cannot continue to be a city where not a single elected official has direct accountability for schools, police, or transit. We cannot continue to be a city where no one is accountable for 300-plus homicides a year.
Our rebuilt City Hall will be accountable to the city again. Not just for clean and safe streets. For our future. It’s a City Hall that sees the incredible opportunity of a Democrat back in the White House to get the resources we’ve been denied for too long – for transit, for housing, for schools, for infrastructure. (The national candidates on the right track see the fight as we do. Trump isn’t their Daley. It’s something much bigger.)
We have a job to do – and we’ll do it just like Harold Washington’s masterful surgeon, with no malice toward anybody.