Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

C. Fraser Smith: Ready for a leader in Baltimore

After the fear and loathing generated by this year’s Republican primary circus, the race for mayor of Baltimore is a tonic.

Thirteen Democrats and 16 assorted other contenders are politely (for the most part) asking for a job that seems impossible, thankless and excruciating.

As if doubting their commitment, someone arranged a gauntlet of 40-plus forums and debates. And we still have a week or so to Primary Day, April 26.

Councilman Nick Mosby got out of the race Wednesday, but his less-than-winning position in the polls, not exhaustion, seemed to be the motivating force.

The contenders include one national star, DeRay McKesson, the blue-vested veteran of various campaigns, including “Black Lives Matter.” So far, the voters seem unimpressed. He’s been polling around 1 percent.

Exchanges on the debate/forum circuit have been, with rare exceptions, civil and illuminating. There have been what the newspapers like to call “sharp exchanges,” which are all to the good. (There’s been what the watchdog Common Cause views as Baltimore-style shenanigans – misleading leaflets – but for the most part they are out of keeping with this year’s general tone.)

Sometimes the term “negative campaigning” is overused or misused. Voters need to hear candidates challenging each other on important issues. If there is disagreement, all the better. Mayors will have to defend themselves and their policies. We deserve to see how they handle the inevitable criticism – and to see if they have the internal flexibility to deal with it.

Voters seem very much tuned in. They’re looking for help sorting out the players and the issues. They seem perfectly aware of the city’s plight.

The death of Freddie Gray one year ago threw the curtain back on a city in deep distress. The campaign could be – and should be – seen as a further delineation of where we stand. Were we sufficiently aware of Baltimore’s grinding poverty? Many of us were not. We weren’t living it.

Not knowing, James Baldwin said years ago, is not an excuse. It’s a crime.

What we need now is a blueprint for recovery. Whoever wins will need a clear mandate to try some difficult approaches. What does the winner have in mind for saving us from falling-down buildings, one of which literally killed a man a week or so ago? Others are dying in these conditions, if more slowly.

The remarkably effective BUILD organization says Baltimore finally must face what it calls years of disinvestment. This means confronting what will surely be a generational effort to reach something like One Baltimore, the outgoing mayor’s rather tepid response to the looting and burning and poverty on display after Gray’s death.

And here’s one of the most intriguing aspects of the race. Endorsements by other political leaders will matter.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, well-known and respected, says Sheila Dixon is the best candidate. She steps past Dixon’s conviction on charges of embezzlement – to wit the misappropriation of gift cards meant for poor children. Dixon has apologized. Clarke says Dixon was a good mayor who got things done.

A countervailing endorsement came from Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who declared his support for state Sen. Catherine Pugh. Pugh says it’s time for Baltimore to move out of the shadow of the past.

Time remains in this campaign for everyone to make a case. If things stay on the high road, odds of dealing with urgent issues will improve.

And one more thing: Kudos to the passionate Councilman Carl Stokes for a campaign moment of generosity and real concern for the city he wants to lead. Asked by Tom Hall of WYPR if there were a candidate who had the skill and credibility to bring the city together, Stokes said he thought any of his competitors could do that.

Stokes honored his opponents – and the voters. One of the candidates, black or white, could bring us together. And most of us, black or white, would follow.

I think this is called keeping the faith.

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