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Where I Come From

Nothing Personal, Just Politics

A friend of mine is running for mayor. Observing Baltimore politics from this vantage point has been a rude awakening—not for him, but for me.

I met Otis Rolley several years ago, shortly after I returned home from graduate school when he was director of the Baltimore City Department of Planning. We soon discovered we had a lot in common. I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in East Baltimore. He spoke about “a roach-infested apartment” in Jersey City, N.J., that was his childhood home. Only six years my senior, Otis went from a gifted education program for the underprivileged to college then on to a prestigious graduate school to study urban planning. So did I. We were both young, thin, and hungry, but our camaraderie ran even deeper than that.

By the time we met in 2005, holding out faith that Baltimore could be better, as I always had, felt a bit like loving someone on death row. Trial after trial, appeal after failed appeal, most of the facts of the “case”—the murder rate, the poverty, the drugs—were no longer in question. Still, I saw some potential, some innate goodness that was worth saving. Otis did too. So I worked for him briefly, and years later, when he told me he would run for mayor, I made a donation, became an unpaid volunteer, and wrote some of his campaign material. Along the way, I began to watch Baltimore politics more closely than I ever had. Most of what I saw was not good.

Aug. 10, 2011 is a case in point. That day, high school students in a youth development program called the Intersection hosted mayoral candidates for a public forum. These students were brilliant. They posed tough, well-researched questions and gave a wide array of area residents, some of whom are now registered to vote because of these young people’s efforts, an opportunity to engage in the political process. But by and large, the candidates were far less impressive.

Some couldn’t or simply wouldn’t answer the students’ questions. One candidate, after planning to be called upon later in the order, looked as if he’d literally been caught with his pants down when he was asked to respond. Another begged attendees for applause since he had not packed the audience with his supporters. The current mayor was not there.

The non sequiturs, the gaffes, the no-show—it would make such great satire if the stakes of this race weren’t so high. And that’s when I came face to face with a fundamental truth about Baltimore, a fact that, until then, I’d only stared down at a distance: Somehow, in this city, know-nothings, court jesters, and the missing in action consider themselves fit to lead, and we often allow them to do just that.

I’ve heard the fatalism that makes this possible in the way some people talk about Otis’ candidacy. No one I’ve met questions his credentials—the urban planning degree, top positions in a city agency and a local nonprofit, a stint as chief of staff in then Mayor Sheila Dixon’s office, private sector experience. Many respect the résumé, so the reasons some offer for why he cannot or should not win are interesting. “I like Otis, but he can’t beat the [current] mayor,” some say, as if their vote won’t matter. “It’s not his turn,” others insist, as if Baltimore has gained much by waiting. Waiting for whom? But my favorite is this: “He’s splitting the black vote,” the implication here being that race trumps everything else. It shouldn’t. Yet even if it did, why would the largest racial group in the city be obliged to vote as a single block?

How do you even begin to challenge this type of defeatism? My strongest argument is rudimentary. It has nothing to do with political parties, nothing to do with friendships, and nothing to do with Otis Rolley.

You don’t have to vote for Otis. No, Baltimore, all I ask is this: Vote for someone who gives a damn.

Vote for someone who seems to be running at least as much for our sake as for his or her own. Vote for someone who can articulate a plan to move the city forward and answer questions without getting lost in talking points. And speaking of talk, vote for someone who’ll make time to talk to some of the city’s future leaders even if those young people aren’t yet themselves old enough to vote.

It sounds strange, but becoming more involved in local politics this go-round actually depersonalized some of the process and helped me focus on the bottom line. Our elected officials don’t have to love us, I’ve decided. And there may be long stretches between election cycles when they don’t even pretend to like us. But if we don’t demand their respect, well, the joke’s on us.

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