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C. Fraser Smith: The making of a mayor

William Donald Schaefer won the mayoralty in 1971, moving into City Hall with more knowledge of the job than many mayors have when they leave it.

He’d been a member of the city council. He’d been president of that body. He’d been a member of the Board of Estimates, the city’s business arm. Every aspect of city business had come to his attention.

He did radio interviews with city officials at 5 a.m. on Sunday mornings. Hopeless insomniacs comprised the audience, no doubt hoping the conversations might finally lead to sleep.

Schaefer’s extraordinary commitment to the city led him to these scintillating moments. He wanted to be mayor. He wanted to know the job. He apprenticed himself for decades.

There’s no preparation available today that comes close to the schooling Schaefer created for himself. He was a bachelor.  There was no competition for his time.

And yet the candidates of 2016 must find ways to approximate what Schaefer did. The mayor’s office is not a place for on-the-job training.

The coming race for mayor should provide a distinct advantage for the incumbent, Stephanie Rawlings Blake. She, too, has been on the council and council president and she will have had five years in office.

And yet these advantages may avail her nothing – no second term, that is.

There are at least eight men and women who think her experience will mean far less than experience usually means. Her performance as crisis manager during the Freddie Gray unrest has been deemed weak. Her general performance as mayor has been less mayoral than it should have been, challengers will charge.

She’s done a poor job of selling herself. People who have dealt with her know she is smart with a great sense of humor. But, until recently, she has found infrequent opportunities to show this side of herself.

But these are not her only shortcomings.

She has developed less support than she should have among political and business leaders.  She was less insistent in her support for the Red Line transit system than she should have been.

Her relationship with Gov. Larry Hogan is tepid at best. She must find ways to improve her standing, not for herself but for the city.

Mayors must be passionate advocates of their cities. Passion is not something anyone thinks of when they think of her. She should be the city’s chief salesperson and promoter. She’s not even close to the standard set by Schaefer.

The growing list of contenders sense this. Candidate polls reportedly illustrate her vulnerability.

She might prevail, of course. A big pack of worthy contenders could split the anti-Rawlings Blake vote. That would be the classic outcome.

But if the disaffection with her performance is deep she may lose the advantage of the incumbency and be nothing more than one of the many contenders.

All of her challengers, of course, must show they can marshal some of the skills and personal qualities needed to run the city.

Such as:

  • Spirit, energy and ideas for the future, a personality that might infuse the city with hope for recovery, not just from the Freddie Gray episode, but from years of slow-walking.
  • Alliance-building with political leaders, including the governor.
  • An eye and ear for new talent. Schafer’s cranky style brought him a team of smart acolytes as driven as he was.
  • A sense of urgency with business leaders – the men and women who have been willing to join mayors in city development enterprises.

Challengers will lay out their views of Rawlings-Blake’s failures over the relatively short nine months between now and the primary election in May.

By then we will see if the mayor can muster a credible argument for four more years.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR. His column runs in The Daily Record on Fridays. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.