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Fraser Smith: Wanted: new city fathers, mothers

As Baltimore welcomes its second female mayor, it may seem jarring to ask the following questions:

Who are the city fathers? To preserve my politically correct credentials, let me quickly add city mothers.

“City fathers,” of course, is a term of art. It refers to those gray eminences operating as quasi-leaders at every level of government, men (historically) who have earned positions of soft power. They are influential in communities — cities and towns — because they are successful and trusted. Academics might refer to them as opinion leaders.

They are more than that, actually. They are people who ratify and validate official decisions. They can be the lubricant in the gears of government, a human compound that eases the pressure of ambition, the inevitable competition between elected leaders. They prevent gridlock and help sustain momentum.

The gold standard

The gold standard of the type in Baltimore would be the late Walter Sondheim, a man who was 24/7 for the city. He died last year at age 98 after a lifetime of sorting out warring parties, serving as arbiter of policy and as a kind of values umpire.

When then-governor William Donald Schaefer and then-mayor Kurt L. Schmoke were at loggerheads, Walter stepped in. He remonstrated with Schaefer. He interpreted for Schmoke.

One had been the mayor, one was his successor. They didn’t need to love each other but they did need each other. Walter helped them see their mutual responsibility.

Another city leader told me recently that Sondheim would intervene if Schaefer seemed headed in the wrong direction. Schaefer listened.

The “sainted Walter,” as some referred to him respectfully, was not an elected leader. But he had had an influential constituency in the civic and business community. He had earned it over decades advising mayors, talking with business leaders and working for a common purpose.

In Baltimore and most American cities, city fathers were almost always white men. That has changed, though we need more black men and women to assert their own fatherly roles.

So much has changed ethnically, politically and racially that the dynamic may have changed. We are so mobile and have been for so long. Have we lost the dynamic that, over time, produced Sondheims? Does anyone stay around long enough to become a city father? Or mother?

The answer in Baltimore is, no doubt, yes. Some members of the new mayor’s inner circle are city fathers and mothers. They are, by definition,  people this mayor depends upon, trusts and needs.

A matter of trust

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who took over yesterday upon the resignation of Mayor Sheila Dixon, may actually have served as a city mother already. One of the changes in all of this has to do with age and race.

Almost eight years ago, she urged her father, the late Howard P. (Pete) Rawlings, to consider backing Martin O’Malley for mayor. His decision to follow her advice was important to O’Malley’s election.

Rawlings surely served as a city father. He was a savvy political leader. He was courageous politically. If he thought black Baltimore was wrong, he said so. If he thought white attitudes were injurious to the city’s best interests, he said so.

He was, like his mentor, Lillie May Jackson of the NAACP, willing to get in the face of the Establishment.

Thus, as matters turn out sometimes, Pete was a city father in every sense of the word. He spent time urging his children to believe in the possibility that government could make life better for the black community. He became chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, a post from which he could channel help to a city that needed help sometimes desperately.

His daughter stands now to accept the mantle he may have envisioned for her – though he almost certainly didn’t see it happening so quickly. She will need someone like her father — or Walter — to talk her through the difficult decisions.

It will be her responsibility to decide ultimately whom to trust. She has seen the importance of that role and how, sometimes, the role can be shared.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears weekly in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is