According to Plan
If Otis Rolley’s bright ideas are enough to get him elected mayor, are they enough to fix the city?
Published: March 16, 2011
There is no doubt Otis Rolley is an extraordinary person. Born in Jersey City, N.J., and raised by his mother, he excelled in an urban public high school, went to Rutgers University, and got himself on national television by his junior year. He decamped to MIT, graduated with honors with a master’s degree in city planning, grabbed a small-time, federally funded economic development job in Baltimore in 1998 and, 18 months after he started working for Baltimore Housing, rose to first deputy commissioner. By age 25, Rolley was in charge of 2,000 employees and a budget of $100 million.
“He kept giving me more and more responsibility, and I was too young to know I couldn’t do it,” Rolley says of Victor Hoskins, his mentor at Baltimore Housing (currently Washington, D.C.’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development).
Then Mayor Martin O’Malley made Rolley, at age 29, the nation’s youngest big city planning director.
Now running for mayor at the tender age of 36, Rolley has thrown himself with vigor into his political campaign. He rises each morning at 5:30 and, from 9 on, calls everyone he can think of and asks for money. On breaks from fundraising, he visits neighborhood associations—there are more than 900 by his count, hundreds more than there would be in the orderly, efficient city he envisions Baltimore could be—and delivers a rousing stump speech. He tells people he’ll lower their taxes and clean out City Hall’s petrified wood, streamline the property acquisition process for savvy developers, and implement the city’s Master Plan—the one he quarterbacked four years ago, which has since languished—so that economic and neighborhood and social development are approached logically and strategically, rather than in the politically driven, piecemeal way it’s been done for the past 30 years. “We can create investment opportunities that make sense in a way we haven’t in a very long time,” Rolley told a passel of tech types in a Canton meeting in late January.
If O’Malley is a gladhander in technocrat’s clothes, Rolley, like Rhodes Scholar Kurt Schmoke before him, like President Obama, is a genuine technocrat whose steady gaze and firm handshake are well-rehearsed skills mustered in service of empirical, quantitative facts.
And those facts, Rolley says, are all in Baltimore’s favor: With just a smidge of better management, a dollop of long-term planning, and a dose of gimlet-eyed truth-telling, Baltimore could be a “world class city.”
Rolley’s can-do optimism reads at first like political calculation (no one votes for a sourpuss), but he comes by it honestly, through a crucible of tough circumstances, rigorous education, religious faith, and, finally, entrée into the elite corps of the best and brightest who have dominated U.S. policy and politics since Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.
“I’m running right now, even though people have told me to wait because it’s not my turn, because I feel that Baltimore is at a tipping point,” Rolley tells his Canton audience. He uses that “not my turn” line often. It imbues his campaign with underdog status, messianic urgency, and righteous credibility, ringing with the tone of a 1960s civil rights march.
But who, in Rolley’s case, are those naysayers?
“Many people. People who are influential in the city,” Rolley says between bites of a vegetarian omelet during a recent two-hour breakfast interview. “These are people who you would read about in the Sun. And some you don’t. They tell me there’s a path you’re supposed to follow, from City Council, City Council president. . . .”
What are their names?, he is asked again.
“Rick O. Berndt,” Rolley says, describing a meeting with the politically wired local lawyer, corporate board member, and archdiocese advisor. “He helped to bring me into the O’Malley administration. I respect him. He didn’t think this [run] would be a good move.”
Berndt doesn’t recall it that way.
“I been listening to Otis, over and over, tell people that people said it wasn’t his turn,” Berndt says. “I just wondered who would say that. I really didn’t tell him it wasn’t his turn. I don’t even believe in that phrase, ‘it’s your turn’ to run.”
What Berndt did tell Rolley, he says, is that Rolley can’t win—because he has never run for public office and so lacks a definable constituency of voters. This is basically what others have also told Rolley, and said about his mayoral prospects.
“It’s what I heard,” Rolley says during a March 8 lunch meeting regarding the discrepancy between his account and Berndt’s.
Rolley does not always hear just what he wants to. One recent Sunday afternoon after returning from church, he was getting himself some soup when his wife, Charline, fell down the stairs with the couple’s 6-month-old daughter, Grace, in her arms. The baby screamed in a way the parents had never heard before.
They went to the emergency room and had Grace checked for a head injury. She scanned fine and the couple (Charline was fine, Rolley says) was about to be discharged when they paused to change Grace’s diaper. That’s when she started screaming again, because her leg was broken. Fiddling with his smart phone at the March 8 meeting, he turns it to display a photograph of Grace with a full-length cast on her tiny right leg.
“I’ve been through some things in my life,” Rolley says, “but stretching out my baby’s leg for the x-ray and then when they put on the temporary splint . . .” he trails off. “Auugh,” he says. “’Cause your gut. . . You’re always trying to protect.”
Fred Puddester, formerly the state budget director and chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and the current Johns Hopkins University dean, walks into the restaurant. “Hey!” Rolley says. “Mr. Mayor,” Puddester responds, shaking hands and moving on.
Does everyone call him mayor?
“Only those who believe,” Rolley smiles.
Not that he has a lot of free time for it, but Rolley says he enjoys writing poetry (which he declines to share with City Paper), swimming, bowling (ducks and tenpins, he says, claiming a 155 average in the latter), and fishing, which he used to do with his grandfather and uncle growing up. He has on his phone another photo, of himself holding up a 75-pound black drum. “I posted that on my Facebook page,” Rolley says (he is also fairly active on Twitter via @OtisRolley). Friends thought it was a Photoshop job, but Rolley says his hands got sliced up pretty well by the huge beast’s gills.
Rolley also fancies himself an audiophile, with an ear for classical, jazz, and gospel. Lately he’s been listening to Nuttin’ But Stringz (a hip-hop violin duo), Third Day (a Christian Rock band), and “a lot of Shirley Horn.”
Rolley has sometimes listened to what he did not wish to hear. As an undergrad, Rolley envisioned a career in international development. He switched to a city planning career as a result of an insult from a Rutgers professor he found crass.
“’You’re just like all those other fake Christians,’” Rolley says the professor, whose name he says he can’t recall, scoffed. “‘You want to run to Africa to save [people].’” The professor told Rolley there was a lot to do here in the United States.
“It hit me like a body jab ’cause he was right,” Rolley says. “Nothing worse than someone you don’t like being right. I knew I was running from what I was supposed to be doing.”
Rolley refocused his efforts on planning. He wanted, he says, to have a practical impact. He did not want to be one of those think-tank academics who write great white papers that hardly anyone ever reads—let alone acts upon. “I’d seen the results of bad planning, how it affected people in my own community,” he says. City planning offered a niche in U.S. policymaking in which he stood a chance of doing some good.
Rolley was as sensitive as any young black man to the sound of racism, be it personal or institutional.
“I got arrested in college,” Rolley says. “The president [of Rutgers] said black people were genetically inferior and, call me crazy if you want, but I didn’t think he should be president.” The errant words came from President Francis Lawrence in a fall 1994 union negotiating session. Rolley says he at first assumed Lawrence must have meant socioeconomically disadvantaged. But no. “Genetic,” he said.
“He was a benevolent racist,” Rolley says. Lawrence wanted to lower SAT requirements to give African-American students a better chance at admission.
Rolley took the lead in a student protest movement. There was a sit-down strike during a televised Rutgers men’s basketball game. The Rutgers United Student Coalition garnered national attention. Lawrence apologized; the university’s regents voted to keep him in place. Rolley called him, according to The New York Times, “a symbol of oppression and racism.” Lawrence kept his job. He retired from the presidency in 2002 and is now a president emeritus.
“It was a big deal,” Rolley says. “From my first interview with [then Today Show host] Bryant Gumbal to the last interview, it was like night and day, ’cause I didn’t have any media training.”
At one point, amid television crews and print reporters, hundreds of students marched to the president’s house. They had notified campus police, and there was to be the standard protest/arrest scene in which police warn and those who wish to be arrested can be. “But some in our group went to the other side of the road,” Rolley recounts—which was not part of the plan. Then, as campus police arrived and began the standard pantomime, another group of uninvited plainclothed cops—state police—came in carrying batons. “Some [of his group] started saying, ‘I can’t get arrested,’” Rolley says, “so we marched back to the student center.”
Several of the protest leaders, Rolley among them, were arrested the following day.
His court date was the last day of a prestigious Woodrow Wilson Fellowship he won in the summer of 1995. By prearrangement, Rolley came late to his court date. He had been under the impression that all the defendants would fight the charges. But “when I got there, everyone else had taken a plea deal.” Rolley’s mother advised him to take the deal. Rolley elected to fight.
“He was the only one,” recalls Patricia Bombelyn, the pro bono lawyer for the group. “We stood up and we fought . . . and when we did, the other students stood up and they all wanted to take back their pleas.”
Bombelyn says she’s kept in touch with Rolley ever since—and that Rolley even showed up to volunteer on her own mayoral campaign in New Brunswick last summer, a favor she plans to return this fall. She says Rolley showed who he was that day.
“This was a special moment, because this was a young man who was very clear and not the least bit hesitant about standing by his principles,” Bombelyn says. “And he hasn’t changed a bit.”
Even now Rolley still styles himself an outsider. He says, for instance, that though he had previously been her chief of staff, then Mayor Sheila Dixon didn’t seek his counsel after she was criminally charged because they were not close. “I was Sheila’s employee,” Rolley says, “not a friend.”
But he’s insider enough to have married the former Charline Gilbert, a former O’Malley aide, now Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s director of community outreach and constituent services. Rolley bought his first home here (from Avery Aisenstark, director of the city’s Department of Legislative Reference), started a family, and got divorced. (His ex-wife, Nicole Jarrett, bought her condo from Kevin P. Clark, the former police commissioner.) On paper, Rolley shows every sign of having fallen in with the establishment he bashes.
But because he’s not from here, Rolley experienced that rush that newcomers—especially those from farther north and east—get when they first encounter this place. It is a real city but it has—or had, anyway—an incredibly cheap cost of living. Before he got married, before he bought his home, Rolley lived in a two-bedroom Mount Vernon high-rise condo he shared with a fellow MIT grad. Rolley’s friend had bought the place outright for $56,000, Rolley says.
“I’d look out on this incredible view—and see all this culture, all this—I’d tell my friends, ‘You won’t believe how great this city is,’” he says. “Baltimore will be fundamentally different when we truly understand and accept our greatness.”
Rolley’s own emergence was not immediate. He arrived in 1998 and took a job with the Empower Baltimore Management Corporation. It was the largest “empowerment zone” in the country, with a sterling reputation as a laboratory for big-idea redevelopment. Assigned to the task of attracting business to several neighborhoods around Coppin State University in Baltimore’s near west side, Rolley recruited exactly zero new businesses during his three months on the job.
The Empowerment Zone was a $100 million federal program that, despite its good national press, is now legendary for its lack of effectiveness in improving Baltimore’s neighborhoods. Rolley says he thought $100 million was a lot of money at the time; now he knows better. His own zone needed a lot of other things, he thought, before it made sense to try to get businesses to move there. There were social problems, housing problems, community development shortcomings of every stripe. “I didn’t understand what the plan of action was,” Rolley says. “The tools we had didn’t seem to match the job.”
Having already laid the groundwork for a move to City Hall, Rolley left to become an assistant to Victor Hoskins, who was then a deputy to Baltimore Housing Director Daniel Henson.
“The opportunity to work with Victor—and Dan Henson’s housing authority—was life changing,” Rolley says. “When you pray for a boss, [Hoskins] was that kind of boss. He set the bar exceptionally high. He also was a mentor. He said, ‘If you find yourself thinking like a stereotypical public employee, that’s when to resign.’” Hoskins did not return several calls to his office seeking comment.
According to Rolley, soon after he joined Hoskins’ staff, Hoskins gave him the huge, two-volume Administrative Manual. It’s the city’s bureaucratic bible, something like 1,600 pages of how to procure paper clips and how to manage every contingency. When people say someone is “by the book,” that’s the book. Rolley took a few days to ingest it. Hoskins quizzed him; Rolley passed. “And Victor says, ‘Now you know more than 98 percent of everyone here. Now I’ll help you learn the informal networks.’”
In other words, Baltimore government in practice is anything but by the book.
Hoskins dispensed his informal knowledge over time. “He did it by conversations after meetings where he’d say, ‘That person has nothing to do with the decision-making process, this person does,’” Rolley says. “He showed me a lot about when to take a stand and when not to.” Like when to actually do a subordinate’s job and let them take the credit “’cause then they owe me, and they also don’t see me as a threat.”
Rolley acted on his knowledge later. “When I became deputy commissioner, I knew who worked and who didn’t,” he says. “I got rid of some, and I upset some.”
This willingness to upset some—to fire people—is one of Rolley’s major selling points. And it is of a piece with his larger philosophy, which happens to mesh perfectly with that of his professional cohort.
For the past two generations, American technocrats have prostrated themselves—in a self-consciously nonideological way—on the altar of neoliberalism, which marries the liberal notion that government can help people to the rather hopeful idea that private corporations can reliably help government do so. Rolley hits all the usual highlights, talking up public-private partnerships, government downsizing, and the conversion of public pensions into 401k savings accounts. Local news site Investigative Voice asked him if he wants to sell the city’s reservoirs and Rolley said, well, maybe.
“I don’t want to sell the water system,” he amends over lunch. “I do want to consider ways to turn assets into revenue.” City planners have known for decades that older American cities and towns have severely underinvested in their waterworks, most of which date from early in the last century. The bill is now due. Wall Street types have seen this coming, and cooked up an array of tax-advantaged, highly structured lease-back arrangements. This is what Rolley is talking about when he says things like, “Certain public resources or assets can be capitalized to bring some revenue now, and if you invest those revenues in a smart way [in schools, for example] the investment will pay off over time.”
According to Business Week, “The 99-year lease of the Chicago Skyway that went for $1.8 billion in 2005 was the first major transaction” of this kind. Rolley cites that deal as a possible model for what Baltimore needs to consider.
In many instances these deals look something like a giant foreclosure rescue scam, with the government in the role of naive struggling homeowner. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sold 11 state buildings and leased them back, garnering a $1.2 billion windfall but setting the hook for decades of high rent payments. His successor, Gov. Jerry Brown, moved to cancel those deals last week, saying it doesn’t make sense for the state to rent buildings it already owns. Atlanta sold off its water system a few years back, but it was so poorly managed by private owners that the government took it back.
“Like any agreement,” Rolley says, “it depends on how sharp you are when you’re sitting on the other side of the table.”
His “turn” or not, the question of whether or not Otis Rolley can amass a political base sufficient to get elected this coming fall remains. His answers to this and other questions raise a deeper question not yet broached: Does Rolley fully understand the problems he’s proposing to tackle? He not only styles himself an outsider, he sometimes appears to display an outsider’s limited perception of the way the city works, despite his years in City Hall and his profile as a bureaucratic prodigy. His confidence in big, allegedly farsighted solutions contrasts markedly with his depiction of the parochial—often corrupt—corps of city workers he expects to implement them.
Asked to rate corruption in Baltimore on a 1-5 scale he gives it a 3.5, adding that he thinks the national average is 2. “More transparency” is Rolley’s proposed fix, and more CitiStat-style management, which he says he implemented in Baltimore Housing as part of the city’s “One Stop” building-permit shop.
“We knew there were issues of corruption,” Rolley says. “We tried to look at it through housing statistics. We’d see the numbers and be able to ask [an inspector], ‘Where were you from this time to this time? How many inspections did you do?’”
This scenario is basically what happened to Antonio Santana, a city building inspector who was fired in 2004 for allegedly going to his bar instead of performing city inspections. But by 2007, Santana was back at work in City Hall, having won back pay in court (though he lost on appeal).
Rolley says he’ll give more resources to the Inspector General. That might work for mid- and low-level scams. But Rolley displays a peculiar gap in his education when it comes to corruption in the upper ranks. He expresses surprise, for instance, when a reporter asks him about the ethical lapses and multi-million dollar contract shenanigans of Henson, his former boss.
After years of reports in The Baltimore Sun, a scathing Housing and Urban Development Inspector General’s audit —which said Henson “provided misleading information” to the agency and that Baltimore Housing “was unable to locate” many of the documents relating to the questionable contracts—was made public in November 2003, shortly after Rolley became planning director. According to the Sun, Henson called the audit “poorly researched, politically motivated, thinly documented, and thoroughly unprofessional.”
Wide-eyed, Rolley says he never heard these things. He remembers only an atmosphere in which, guided by Hoskins, his good work and straight talk was rewarded with quick advancement.
“My narrative is Baltimore’s narrative,” he concludes. “When you believe in yourself you can achieve great things. That’s what happened to me—and what can happen to Baltimore.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.