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C. Fraser Smith: For Baltimore mayoral candidates, challenges in a city ready to be led

You can’t tell by the thermometer it’s springtime – for those who would be mayor of Baltimore.

Or, maybe you do see it – two dozen of candidates of both parties lining up to run.

It’s already an open seat. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake left the city leaderless when she announced months ago that she would not run again.

We have no incumbent, thanks to Freddie Gray. Other aspects of being the mayor – aside from mishandling mayhem in the streets – led to her departure. That, and almost certainly, polls showing her popularity in sharp decline.

The candidates will say this election is about the future. Of course. Elections are always about the future.

But they are also about the past. The backdrop is Freddie Gray, his death, the art of policing in troubled neighborhoods and the search for ways to harness resources and human capital.

In that respect, we are fortunate. Since Gray’s death and the revelations that followed, citizens and city institutions have responded to the obvious need for more attention to poverty and the criminal behavior that can follow.

One of the candidates, Elizabeth Embry, offers a credible assessment of the challenge: without attention to the need for jobs, better education and housing, “we will not be able to put an end to the cycles of violence and crime in our city.” We need what she calls “pathways out of poverty in the poorest, highest crime” neighborhoods.

Of course. Every candidate will say the same.

Without a more focused, full-throttle addressing of these issues, the murder rate, the gun violence rate and the rate of despair will remain on an upward trajectory.

Embry lists number longstanding efforts of promise, some of which need revitalization. Ways must be found, she says, to disable the “engines of violence.”

Double-victims

She wants to create “a culture of accountability and transparency.” What does that mean, exactly?

It should mean finding leaders who demand adherence to the rules. How, for example, was it possible to have something like “the rough ride” (from infraction to station house) without intervention by police officials?  Freddie Gray may have died in police custody after such a ride.

It took Gray’s death to force some real attention to the issue – attention, that is, going beyond promulgation of rules. How could police commanders not know?

Embry wants to require more police to live in the city. That might be good. It will also exert more pressure on police who will know offenders personally – and find themselves pinned between deplorable living conditions and the resultant crime.

She says housing has to be a priority. Indeed. Hands-on management of the housing we have must be part of that change.

How could the city’s public housing residents be plagued by a “sex-for-repairs” culture? Improvements here were forced by the victims who raised hell. Double-victims, actually – rundown apartments and a maintenance that included predatory handymen.

In fact, this election may be about those two issues: Gray’s death and neighborhoods plagued with joblessness and idle ex-offenders trolling for income in the one industry they understand, illegal drugs.

‘Nobility of governing’

The race is also about restoring what Embry calls “the nobility of governing.”

“I believe in making a difference,” she says – no doubt offering a value shared by some if not of her fellow candidates. “Nobility” will rise with strong leadership.

After hearing months of anti-government invective voiced by Republican candidates for President, her declaration seems almost brave.

That would be more the case if not for the history of leadership by Baltimore mayors reaching well our history, including the incumbent, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

She mishandled the Gray riots, but she has otherwise guided the city through rough financial seas. She took on powerful forces, including the police unions. And she personally led the comeback from three mega snowstorms.

Her tenure might well be a caution for those who hope to succeed her. It must at least provide greater understanding:

— Mayor, to quote former mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and others, is a verb.

— Half your job at least will be finding talent.

— Make sure the city knows you personally. You will be government.

— No one else can bring us together.

The good news? Look around you. City institutions and individuals are ready to be led. In fact, much of the city is ahead of you.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.