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Laslo Boyd: Why strong mayors are important

Big city mayors have been much in the news this year. The end of Michael Bloomberg’s 12 years as mayor of New York City has drawn stories describing the many changes that he brought to that city, from major development projects to bike sharing to policing tactics to the recovery from 9/11.

While Bloomberg certainly has had his share of critics, even they have had to acknowledge that he was a forceful and effective leader. That he didn’t make everyone happy is underscored by the election of an outspoken critic of his tenure, Bill de Blasio, as his successor.

Rahm Emmanuel in Chicago has been generating a similar range of reactions to Bloomberg even though he is still in his first term. What characterizes both men is that they have strong opinions about the issues facing their cities and are unrelenting in pursing their preferred solutions.

On the other hand, right now it doesn’t matter who the mayor of Detroit is since the city is in bankruptcy and all significant power resides with a state-appointed emergency manager. Detroit is widely seen as a case study of bad management, although an argument can certainly be made that many of its problems are the result of economic and demographic trends beyond the control of city government.

Fixing what’s broken

A broader view of the role of mayors is provided in a recent Brookings Institute book, “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy.” The authors, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, argue that creative and dynamic responses are being developed at the local level to the challenges facing the country even as Washington flounders.

Baltimore is not highlighted in their book. What a change from 30 years ago, when every analyst of local government, whether a scholar or a journalist, was flocking here to watch and then extol the extraordinary leadership of William Donald Schaefer. In his 16 years as mayor, Schaefer transformed the downtown and skyline of the city, brought national attention and tourism and fought, often successfully, for increased state assistance for Baltimore.

Finding the right yardstick to evaluate the current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, is not easy. The bar shouldn’t be as low as “This isn’t Detroit.” On the other hand, the Schaefer standard, while it may offer some guidance, is not entirely fair either given the many changes — political, economic and demographic — that have occurred since he was in office.

There are certainly many positive things going on in Baltimore. The recent announcement that Amazon will be opening a new distribution center and hiring 1,000 employees falls into the category of a big win. New developments in Harbor East, Fells Point, Canton and Locust Point are among the signs of economic energy in the city. You can also find smaller-scale but highly promising projects, including Seawall Development’s work in Remington and the revitalization of the Patterson Park area.

What’s less clear is Rawlings-Blake’s vision and strategy for the city’s future. Her most frequently mentioned goal is to attract 10,000 families to live in the city, but it’s never explained how that is to be accomplished or how that number was determined. The spike in the city’s murder rate earlier in the year seemed to show an administration that had stopped paying attention. That’s hard to understand because crime and the perception of crime are among Baltimore’s biggest challenges in attracting those new families — to say nothing of new economic activity.

Does the mayor have views about the search for a new head of the city school system? Despite numerous critics, both Bloomberg and Emmanuel have been deeply involved in education. The same can be said of Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.

Absent agenda

Crime and schools are perennial issues and deserve aggressive involvement by any mayor. Beyond that however, there needs to be more of an agenda than attracting 10,000 families. Is there a strategy to deal with the enormous inventory of vacant housing? Under Schaefer, the dollar house program was established. Is it possible to turn this problem into an opportunity to house city teachers and police?

Another characteristic of all the strong mayors you can think of was that they had some “big” projects going. Construction cranes were certainly important to Schaefer. Please don’t tell me that the big project is the new casino.

Imaginative initiatives are also signs of strong leadership. Go visit the High Line in New York, where an abandoned overhead train line was turned into a public park. Could there be a Baltimore version of that project?

Another lesson from New York is that much of the energy and economic growth are being driven by new immigrants. Has this city thought about ways to attract and to welcome immigrants?

Being a mayor is hard work, and the challenges are formidable. But it is also the level of government at which it is most possible to directly impact the lives of people.

When I asked a number of well-placed observers of the city how Rawlings-Blake is doing, the most common response was some version of “OK.” The city needs better than that.

Laslo Boyd writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. He has held senior positions in higher education in Maryland and Massachusetts as well in the Maryland governor’s office. His email address is lvboyd@gmail.com.