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C. Fraser Smith: Pugh’s non-existent transition

Transitions are not what they’re cracked up to be. I would argue they don’t exist – if we are talking about the interminable time between Catherine Pugh’s official ascent to the mayor’s office and the actual one.

“Official” comes in December when she’s sworn in, seven months from now.

“Real” arrived the minute Pugh won the race.

Almost immediately, she and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake were operating almost in tandem. Their first meetings are said to have been as collegial as the official mayor said they would be.

If Pugh had confidence she would win, she soft-pedaled any criticism she might have leveled at the incumbent – knowing she would need the cooperation she’s getting. We don’t know how intentionally strategic this may have been, but it suggests the kind of instinctive decision an experienced political leader would want.

Perhaps – most likely – Pugh is not surprised to find herself in the no-transition posture.

She was immediately confronted with questions about which of the Rawlings-Blake department heads she would keep – police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Health Commissioner Leana  Wen. Or not keep: Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano.

She will be on record almost immediately in agreement or in opposition to important decisions made during her unofficial tenure. What does she think about the proposed half-billion-dollar tax breaks for the Port Covington development?

Asked for her position on this subject in one of the forums (at least one), she was carefully still deciding. Many of her competitors went for the reflexive anti-developer position. She kept her counsel. Makes you think we have a bit of a chess player – not a bad thing. Decisive is good, but taking time to think and understand is wise.

Hogan as an ally?

In this regard, her decision to support Gov. Larry Hogan’s Red Line alternative – buses – may pay off as well. Or as well as anything now on the table might pay off. Baltimore needed the Red Line and the Hogan place holder is insufficient. Empty nesters without cars needed that link as did millennials who don’t own cars – not to speak of workers trying to get to jobs at Johns Hopkins Bay View or the Social Security Administration.

If or when the traffic burden becomes undeniable, Pugh may be in a much stronger position to push Hogan for relief.

The governor has recently said again that he wants to help Baltimore. He’s been saying this without doing much of significance to prove it. He told a group of Towson University students that  the city’s problems are immense and will take time to solve. No doubt.

But there’s the thing, a bit of a secret to some.

Baltimore has many hidden assets and strengths to go along with these generation-long challenges. Even before the Freddie Gray rioting, any number of good things were underway in distressed neighborhoods. Much of these good works, as always, have been done, as they say, in silos – without much in the way of coordination. No synergy, no potentiating – nothing to make them greater than the sum of their parts.

The Southwest Partnership, a promising linking of seven neighborhoods with the University Maryland, Baltimore has seen the folly of independence. Clear gains will and have come from this new cooperation. Pugh represented these neighborhoods in the state Senate.

Similar accelerated progress is likely in the city’s east side as BUILD and Johns Hopkins Hospital continue their remarkable alliance.

Looking for a leader

The secret lies in the energy waiting for leadership. Pugh can begin to operate even now as if these civic entities are reaching out to her for help and guidance. This is no middling gift. This is the essence of what a new mayor should welcome and encourage.

Government must not relinquish its role, but it must take advantage of the talent, desire and commitment of neighborhoods already organized on their own behalf.

For whatever reason – maybe because so many other aggressive alligators were in the lake – the current mayor seemed willing to proceed without neighborhood power.

That power is not always there, to be sure. But success will breed success. Every neighborhood has a strong, smart, indefatigable leader or two or three.

And speaking of transitions: The movement from potential to proud and productive need not wait for the calendar either.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is