Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has the office and the cash, but lacks her rivals’ ambitious plans for change
Published: August 31, 2011
Saturday, June 11, is a gorgeous, sunny morning for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to open her campaign headquarters at 2601 N. Howard St. There is a café on the corner, but no door to the new office. To get to the grand opening you have to go down to an opening in the building, through a gate, and into a hidden courtyard.
There are around 50 people milling about at 11:30 this morning. Most of them appear to be city employees, or close to it. There’s Mel Freeman, executive director of the Citizen’s Planning and Housing Association and City Councilmember Robert Curran (D-3rd), bubbly as usual, crowing about his upcoming legislation squeezing certain towing companies. Baltimore Housing Deputy Commissioner Reggie Scriber is here, the man people see when they’re left homeless by crime or disaster; Kevin Cleary, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods, shakes peoples’ hands a few steps from Salima Siler Marriott, the former deputy mayor and former state delegate. Black and yellow balloons fly from posts. Busy cooks turn over ribs and dogs on the grills. Children frolic in the spaces between knots of adults talking shop.
The mayor shows up at 10 till noon, looking slim in bright white pants and unusually tall in what look like 5-inch heels. Smiling while her daughter clings to one leg, Rawlings-Blake appears painstakingly assembled, tight as a drum, and slightly uncomfortable.
In the 11 weeks since that morning, Rawlings-Blake has run her campaign like she runs her office: cloistered elegantly, almost regally. She and her aides have met challenges her predecessors have not had to tackle—the budget and the pension crisis—but she has hardly deigned to acknowledge her challengers and, on the street, many see her as aloof.
There are fewer candidates in the mayoral Democratic primary this year than there were in 2007, yet the field feels weightier. Four years ago, only Keiffer Mitchell seemed in a position to challenge the incumbent, Sheila Dixon. With strong family name recognition and years on the City Council, Mitchell emerged early as the main alternative to the incumbent, even as Andrey Bundley and Del. Jill Carter (D-41st District) siphoned anti-Dixon votes.
This year, despite rising to the office upon Dixon’s resignation, the incumbent is at once stronger by virtue of her scandal-free reign and arguably weaker because the economy has forced on her wrenching choices that recent mayors never faced. And the field is stocked with experienced contenders such as Otis Rolley, who spent 10 years in high-level city administration without ever becoming a true insider; Jody Landers, whose city service decades ago is still remembered and who has been a go-to man for high-level commissions; and state Sen. Catherine Pugh (D-40th District), a former city councilmember. Even Frank Conaway Sr., the clerk of the Circuit Court who is something of a perpetual mayoral candidate, has brought something new to the table this year, pushing an ambitious proposal to expand the CSX tunnel to create jobs.
The only candidate not proposing bold ideas is Rawlings-Blake, who contends that her opponents lack the realism required to govern. “I think they’re equally adept at pointing out the obvious,” she says. “I haven’t heard any original ideas.”
If that’s true, she is not listening very carefully—a complaint critics have leveled for years. Yes, Rawlings-Blake managed a string of crises, beginning with double blizzards, better than many others would have, and better than many expected. But her growth in office feels put-on, like extra-high heels, and her rose-garden-plus-brute-force re-election campaign plays like someone else’s script—as if Rawlings-Blake is, uneasily, acting the role of imperious mayor.
That this is Rawlings-Blake’s race to lose is axiomatic. As of Aug. 12, the last campaign finance reporting deadline before the primary, she had raised $1.4 million this year, nearly twice what her opponents had, all combined, while those challengers have been fighting among themselves. (On the Republican side, Alfred V. Griffin III is battling Vicki Ann Harding for the right to lose the general election. Neither candidate has filed a campaign finance report, and neither candidate has any visible base of support.)
While Rawlings-Blake’s policy achievements are substantial (finessing a $121 million budget deficit and taking on police and fire unions to save $800 million in pension costs were Herculean efforts unmatched by previous Baltimore administrations or most mayors in her peer group), they do not lend themselves to campaign sound bites. So the mayor has resorted to hype, directing a flood of press releases touting things like street paving and her new Vacants to Value initiative, a six-point anti-blight plan that’s gotten her an audience with President Barack Obama.
Despite her dismissal of them, her opponents have countered with several substantial policy initiatives, including several solid property tax-cut proposals, calls for school rebuilding, and even an ambitious, left-field railroad plan.
The 2011 mayoral primary is “one of the best races in 40 years,” Jody Landers says, marveling at the quality of the competition. He and his advisors think he can win the office with 30,000 votes. “We don’t need a majority,” Landers says, “we just need a plurality.”
On the morning of June 13, Landers has not yet quit his day job (his last day as Executive Vice President of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors came June 24) but he’s scheduled for the American Visionary Art Museum’s flea market, the Greek fest, a house party/fundraiser, and the Association of Black Charities gala at Martins West. Sunday he’s got the farmers market and then home to cut the grass.
That he mows his own lawn is the perfect metaphor for this bootstrapped campaign. On the one hand, here is a serious man with serious experience—a professional administrator who has spent the past 13 years at the helm of the nation’s oldest real estate trade group. On the other hand, here is a modest guy with an idiosyncratic campaign who, often enough, handles details personally (more than $16,000 of the $97,000 total he’ll report raising for his campaign as of Aug. 12 came from people with the same last name as his).
To become Baltimore’s next mayor, Landers has two prongs of attack, one of which seems technocratic and professional, the other of which feels haphazard—if not wacky. The wacky first:
In early June Landers’ campaign released a tale of his stolen car as a narrative for political change. “My experience was completely absurd,” Landers says, “and I’ve gotten e-mails from people saying they had a similar experience.”
The outlines of the story are familiar to those who’ve been watching the campaign closely. The car thief collected a red-light-camera violation, parking tickets, and a towing fee, so Landers, who had already reported the car stolen, asked various judicial and city officials’ forbearance on the accumulated fines. Failing this, he ended up paying them. “The point for the city,” Landers says without a hint of irritation in his voice, is that “if we put the right processes in place, we should be able to save a lot of money and a lot of aggravation.”
Landers’ stolen-car campaign may have appeared to voters who don’t know him as a “rent’s too damn high” moment—the kind of stunt a fringe candidate might try. Another illustration of Landers’ easygoing style happens later this June day when he green-lights an intern’s plan to dress in a blue body suit to wave signs from busy intersections. The “Blue Man” will become the campaign’s mascot, as random as it is effective.
Yet, in Landers’ technocrat prong we hear the frustration his stolen-car tickets couldn’t conjure.
“It is a basic law of economics,” Landers says, driving his new car to a Fells Point meeting with volunteers. “Lowering the [tax] rate will attract more people to the city.”
Landers is one of a small number of people who have really studied the city’s tax rate as it relates to the larger economic impact, as co-chair of then Mayor Sheila Dixon’s Blue Ribbon Committee on Taxes and Fees. “It was a pretty broad-based group,” he says. “We put together a report with 12 recommendations.”
In sum, the report (available for download at landersformayor.com) posits a “goal of reducing the City’s property tax over the next several years by 25-35 percent,” though it also suggests raising other taxes and fees to compensate.
“We were looking for ways to reduce the property-tax rate without the city losing any revenue at all,” Landers says. “Unfortunately, nobody ever took the initiative on it.”
Underlying the project is the idea that lower property-tax rates will increase property values while attracting more people of means and more business, which will lead to increased income for city residents. And that income would be taxed as well.
“Right now, in rough figures, a $100,000 city house costs $200 per month in taxes while the same house in the county is taxed at only $100 per month,” Landers says. “If you can cut the [city tax] rate down, now I can afford a $120,000 house.”
But, isn’t the high tax rate in the city made up for in part by low values? “Yeah,” Landers says, “but it’s worth more! I’d rather have a higher valuation and a lower rate than vice versa, because it’s worth more to me.”
As a real estate man, Landers understands the financial flexibility afforded by higher property values, but he doesn’t acknowledge their flip side, which has left the nation’s economy in ruins with no end in sight.
“We want to change to a tiered tax system,” Landers continues, treading ground the Blue Ribbon committee never considered: “In [Washington] D.C., the [tax] rate for a habitable house is .85 percent. The rate for a commercial building under $3 million is 1.65 percent, and over $3 million is 1.85 percent,” Landers says. “Ours would be different. Vacant residential, commercial, or industrial—if it stays that way a year it goes to 5 percent. If it’s blighted, 10 percent.”
The idea has caught fire among City Council candidates, several of whom have pitched flavors of it. On the surface it looks good. The punishing rates might garner the city a little revenue, but they could also spur turnover and redevelopment. Landers says he would add a “land bank” to gather up all the vacant buildings that would be turned over by would-be flippers unable to pay the higher taxes. It would be a sort of backdoor land-confiscation program, but targeted at the slumlords.
Then again, Landers’ plan presumes a stable and efficient collections system is already in place, something that anyone who has paid attention to the homestead tax credit—still going to hundreds of people with boarded up houses, according to a Baltimore Sun story last week—knows is a fantasy.
At a sort of pep rally for his college volunteers, Landers tells stories about his early days in politics (he headed HARBEL in the ’70s, worked for then Mayor William Donald Schaefer, and served as a city councilmember from 1984 to 1991, when he lost a race for comptroller). Landers praises his young volunteers’ dedication to working within the system. Much could be accomplished if this were government policy, he says: “We don’t use the brainpower we have in the colleges and universities of this city.”
Catherine Pugh says something like that too, noting the wealth of colleges and universities in and around the city, most of them with tenuous connections to the communities that surround them. “What if colleges adopted communities?” she asks. “The world is right in front of them.”
Pugh also proposes a “pipeline of home ownership” from the city’s colleges and universities. “Seventy percent of our graduates go somewhere else,” she says. “Forty-nine percent of city residents are renters, and no one is talking about converting them to home ownership.”
Pugh says she would work with philanthropists, foundations, and corporations to leverage money into city projects—something she says she’s done before, taking a $100,000 grant from the Abell Foundation and coming up with $1 million for school band instruments, for example. But Pugh says she would also cut out the waste in city government, claiming to have identified $7 million that could be trimmed from the Police Department through reorganization and better use of technology.
“We throw out great ideas instead of building on them,” Pugh says. “I heard a lot of great ideas at the [Empowerment Temple] forum, some of which I’ll include as the next mayor of Baltimore. Good ideas become great when they are listened to.”
One can perhaps see an example of this in the Baltimore Economic Recovery Team (BERT) established by Dixon.
Since 2009, the city’s economic lifeline has come courtesy of the federal government, which spent more than $900 million in “stimulus money” as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Dixon promised early on to make tracking that money easy with BERT, an ad hoc city commission and a web site on which the spending would be accounted. By the end of 2009, the web site was moribund. In late 2010, Rawlings-Blake promised to find answers. Nothing changed in the first eight months of 2011, and when asked about it again on Aug. 19, Rawlings-Blake has no explanation. “I think we might have run though the stimulus funding,” she says.
Only a tiny fraction of the more than $930 million sent to the city can be found in the BERT reports (“Following the Money,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 22, 2010). In June the Sun’s Scott Calvert tracked $5 million of that money to a revitalization effort in Johnston Square, a half-abandoned neighborhood on the east side just south of Greenmount Cemetery. Three-story rowhouses there are being renovated by a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit called Mi Casa, at a cost of $300,000 to a half-million dollars each. Baltimore Housing Director Paul Graziano defended the cost, saying they were within reason for the state of the buildings and the rules of federal financing.
Pugh says those costs are “unsustainable” and contrasts them with the $75,000 to $90,000 Habitat for Humanity typically spends to renovate a house. “Think about the $300,000 house,” Pugh says. “The developer got paid, the architect got paid, the guy who put in the floor got paid. With sweat equity you might do it for $40,000.”
The famous “dollar home” program could be revived, Pugh says, even absent the federal Urban Development Action Grant money that actually made the program viable. “I want to do 3,000 residents a year, provide a home at a low fee. They give $2,500 a year to the city,” she says.
Pugh cites a Jacksonville, Fla., program in which the city created bonds to underwrite mortgages for poor folks to become homeowners. “Detroit is offering up to $20,000 to people moving into Detroit,” she says. “Five corporations put together a portfolio of incentives.” This idea—the public-private partnership in which large companies chip in big money under the direction of a strong government leader—is central to Pugh’s vision.
The leveraging of private dollars, and close ties with business and industry, are key themes of Otis Rolley’s campaign as well, though he has given Pugh no credit or respect. In an Aug. 19 press release, Rolley points out that Pugh took a two-week, $75,000 loan from Scott Donahoo, “the used car dealer she named to head her apparently still-working-on-it property tax commission. Without that loan, Otis far out-raised her.”
Pugh’s $400,000 raised this year puts her ahead of Rolley, though she accomplished that with only 700 contributions to Rolley’s 1,165. She’s been thrifty, too, spending less than $250,000 as of the Aug. 9 transaction deadline.
Rolley raised $269,000—most of it from a couple hundred individual contributors who gave small amounts many times. Rolley’s mentor, Victor Hoskins, gave $6,000 and his wife, Diane, came up with another $4,000 for the effort. Former Baltimore Health Director Peter Beilenson chipped in a total of $800. On several occasions, Rolley and his wife, Charline, went into their own pockets for $200 and $120 contributions.
That Rolley is issuing press releases attacking Pugh is perhaps telling. Out of the gate first with the all-important Bill Cosby endorsement, he had previously spent his time hammering on Rawlings-Blake’s lack of vision while methodically releasing policy plans on issues as diverse as crime control and education.
His forte, of course, is planning (“According to Plan,” Feature, March 16), and Rolley has a vision for Baltimore that actually could leverage its low property values to attract more young professionals—rather than, like Landers and everyone else, trying to immediately make those values increase. But some of Rolley’s big ideas could tie the city’s fortunes to corporate pay masters, privatizing basic things like parking and the city’s water supply. And he has yet to introduce a coherent plan for the large percentage of city residents who lack both a college education and a criminal record. It is those people Frank Conaway Sr. wants to reach.
“We need jobs, jobs, jobs,” Conaway says at the start of a debate on radio station WOLB-AM. “And if I can add something to it, I’d say more jobs.” He calls for more vocational schools for students not cut out for college. But central to Conaway’s campaign is a little-noticed proposal for a huge public-works project. “We need to expand the Howard Street Tunnel,” Conaway says during a mid-July lunch at Roly Poly, next to the courthouse he has run since 1998. “Double it. That’s 30,000 jobs. They can bring more stuff in. Cities with larger space [for commerce like that] can get more business.”
Conaway’s CSX tunnel plan is not quite fully formed. Asked for details, he refers uneasily to a folder, and still comes up empty. He has no idea who would pay the billions that it would cost. But it is a big idea, and might, in the right hands, be turned into a jobs machine for the city. The existing 116-year-old tunnel is about a mile and a half long, with a single track running through it—meaning north- and south-bound trains have to lay up outside it to wait for their opposite to pass through. It is also not tall enough to accommodate the double-stacked trains that otherwise ply the rails from Maine to Miami, and that means major freight haulers look for ways to route their cargo around Baltimore unless they’re coming or going very nearby. “We need to reindustrialize,” Conaway says. “Subsidizing hotels and office buildings—that’s crazy. That doesn’t create jobs. Hotel maids don’t make enough to take care of a family.”
State auditors called Conaway’s administrative skills into question this summer, reporting, among other issues, that $7.8 million in criminal fines had not been collected. “Not my job,” Conaway says, adding that some of the fines go back 50 years. To Conaway, long a critic of Gov. Martin O’Malley, the audit seemed suspiciously pitched and timed. “This was my fourth audit,” he says. “The only difference I can see is I’m in a heated election. This audit didn’t go up to date. They stopped at a certain point, after which things were fixed. But they didn’t put that in.”
This kind of thinking animates much of Baltimore’s politics. It’s not necessarily paranoia, but it’s just not supported by evidence.
That same inchoate sense of injustice undergirds Wilton Wilson’s candidacy, the idea that ordinary citizens are excluded from some kind of club, the members of which get high salaries, easy jobs, and other opportunities not available to anyone else. “That’s kickback monies,” he says during the WOLB debate, describing the State Center project, which promises a huge new office development but which could hurt downtown office landlords already contending with a 19 percent vacancy rate. “I support any project in this city that creates jobs for the people in this city,” Wilson says. “I would definitely support this project. [But] seems like too much politicians involved . . . and they try to get their own kickback.”
Wilson suggests that 2 percent of every city contract be diverted to community projects. “There’s $6 billion of contracts in the city,” he tells the crowd at the Empowerment Temple. “Do the math.”
Wilson, a nurse, did not respond to two e-mails to his campaign over a two-week period (he did not list a phone number on either his web site or his state filing). He has not filed a campaign finance report but has said in debates that 40,000 people asked him to run for mayor—a figure that, if true, could easily sweep him into office.
Baltimore leaders have long faced a tough choice. They can either try to reform the corrupt culture of the city’s bureaucracy or they can try simply to channel it. Since the time before William Donald Schaefer, every Baltimore mayor has chosen the latter route, effectively strengthening the insider culture while declining to acknowledge its existence.
Rolley has said he will challenge it. “The more light—the more transparency, the more openness—the less corruption. You can’t eliminate sin,” he says, but you “can make it exceptionally difficult to do the wrong thing.” He calls for more openness in contract letting, more sunlight at the Board of Estimates. “I would argue that when someone is making multi-million dollar decisions every Wednesday, I should get more than a paragraph” description of the transaction in a summary, he says.
No other candidate even mentions this problem. (Conaway harps on all his rivals’—especially Rawlings-Blake’s—close ties to Gov. O’Malley, as if this is self-evidently bad.) Though Rawlings-Blake advertises that she “appointed three new members of Ethics Board” and “issued [an] executive order to prevent city employees from being paid while in prison,” she appears to have done little to tame or channel corruption and entropy in her 18 months. On the ground, such neglect manifests itself in complaints about potholes, building inspections, police neglect, overzealous trash tickets, and underzealous trash collection—basic constituent services that mean more to most residents than any long-term budget plan or bond rating. One City Hall insider who strongly supports Rawlings-Blake acknowledges the problem, suggesting the mayor is too loyal to some longtime aides. “These are old friends of hers since forever, now in high positions,” the person, who asked not to be identified by name, says. “She can’t fire them—an effective leader can fire anyone.”
The city’s overall budget crisis has arguably done more to reduce constituent services than any alleged shortcomings in Rawlings-Blake’s management style. But the mayor will not make that argument. She denies there is a problem.
“We work hard every day to improve service,” Rawlings-Blake says during a 30-minute phone interview on Aug. 19. She says her administration has actually cut response time on most 311 calls and promised a new initiative the following week. “We—I take those types of complaints very seriously,” she says. “When I get those complaints I work on them.”
The mayor of Baltimore says that she has never fired a friend, but that’s to be expected: “For me whether I work with a friend or a new acquaintance the expectations are the same, and that’s performance,” Rawlings-Blake says. “So I have admonished, pushed, disagreed with friends. . . . I hold the people I’m friends with to a much higher standard, because we are friends.”
Rawlings-Blake’s performance standards are exactly the issue in the campaign, and no initiative better illustrates these than Vacants to Value, her six-point plan to eliminate blight, which was unveiled last November (“Everything Must Go,” Mobtown Beat, Nov. 17, 2010).
In the months since its unveiling, press releases touting V2V’s initiatives have issued regularly from both the mayor’s office and Baltimore Housing. There have been workshops for buyers and rehabbers, claims that “homebuyers are lining up” for the cash incentives the program offers, even an announcement of specific building demolition. On June 20, Baltimore Housing announced that the U.S. Conference of Mayors had given Rawlings-Blake its City Livability Award for Vacants to Value.
“Today, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake provided a detailed briefing to senior Obama Administration officials and staff on Baltimore’s Vacants to Value program during a White House visit,” a July 28 press release from the Mayor’s office said. “Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s Vacants to Value presentation is part of a White House series designed to expose federal policymakers to innovative approaches being rolled out in cities across America.”
Yet nowhere in the accolades has there been any accounting of the program’s performance. The mayor does not know, on Aug. 19, how many houses have been sold through the award-winning program—let alone rehabbed. A series of e-mails to the campaign and Baltimore Housing brings the number: 135 properties sold through the end of July. Baltimore Housing spokesperson Cheron Porter says in an e-mail that 262 building renovations are under permit already and that $23 million in private investment has resulted from the program. While this appears to be short of the original goal of 1,500 rehabs, Porter denies that was the goal: “[W]hat we said at the launch on November 3rd, 2011 was: ‘Initiative is projected to trigger rehabilitation of more than 1,000 vacant buildings and leverage $70 million in private investment.’ We never said anything about 1,500.”
On page 29 of the original plan it says that “1,500 vacant buildings will be rehabilitated as a result of first year activities (500 in distressed neighborhoods and 1,000 in the otherwise healthy markets). Of those, 500 rehabs will be completed in the first year.”
While Porter says officials expect the pace of renovations to increase, even taking the city’s permit count at face value it seems unlikely that 500 rehabs will be done by November.
Setting impossibly high goals and then fudging the numbers when asked about performance was a specialty of O’Malley, who explained years ago that the goals spurred city staff to try their hardest. That unrealistic goals might instead result in demoralization or cheating seemed not to concern O’Malley.
Whether the strategy will work as well for Rawlings-Blake remains to be seen, but, judging by her fundraising and laconic re-election campaign, she seems to believe it will.
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.