Baltimore, a strongly Democratic city of just under 600,000 people, just had its mayoral primary. The apparent winner is City Council member Brandon Scott, who will face Republican Shannon Wright in November. Baltimore is a city where it is very difficult to be a competent mayor, let alone a good mayor. The city faces many problems, and has few solutions. To understand what Scott will face as Mayor, you have to understand how Baltimore became what it is today.
Thomas D’Alesandro Jr.
Modern Baltimore history generally starts with the election of Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. in 1947. D’Alesandro Jr is almost universally considered the greatest mayor in Baltimore history. He had strong political connections and often used “dirt” that he had on his rivals to advance his career and to make sure that federal appropriations were given to Baltimore. He also had connections with all of the local power brokers in the city – from the unions, to the Klan, to the NAACP, and even the mob. He governed by playing off each of these different power brokers and collecting favors that he cashed in when he did his pet projects which included building BWI and Memorial Stadium, the home of the Baltimore Orioles.
D’Alesandro Jr’s governing style did come back to bite him, however. The Maryland Democratic party recruited him to run for higher office multiple times. In 1954 he ran for governor. He dropped out because of his connections to a Baltimore businessman convicted of fraud and obstruction of justice. He ran a second time in 1958 for Senate but was defeated in the primary by perennial segregationist-backed candidate George P. Mahoney. Eventually, the city of Baltimore grew tired of his style of domineering politics and he lost the 1957 mayoral primary to J. Harold Grady.
Grady and Goodman
J. Harold Grady was a relatively forgettable mayor bordering on bad. He ran specifically against the Jack Pollack and the D’Alesandro political machine. He notably did not get along with City Council president Philip H. Goodman and city comptroller R. Walter Graham Jr. The city was also dealing with the aftermath of a construction boom during an era of white flight, which heavily drained the city’s coffers. This lead to labor unrest that Grady did not have the political sway to deal with. Grady was a man that was more comfortable, and competent, in the judicial sphere, and the state government agreed. He was later appointed to the Baltimore circuit court, where he excelled.
Philip H. Goodman replaced him as mayor of the city when Grady was appointed to the bench. He had the exact same problems that Grady had and narrowly lost the 1963 election to Republican Theodore McKeldin. McKeldin is generally considered either the second or third best mayor in Baltimore’s history. He was mayor of Baltimore from 1943-1947, Governor of Maryland form 1951-1959, and was elected mayor of Baltimore from 1963-1967. He focused on urban redevelopment. Disgusted at the horrid living conditions that the city’s poor communities lived in, McKeldin worked to fix it. He drove investment in the inner harbor of Baltimore, turning it from one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city into a thriving business district. McKeldin was the consummate public servant that cared about his community. He retired in 1967. City Council president Thomas D’Alesandro III was elected as the new mayor.
Thomas D’Alesandro III is unquestionably one of the worst mayors in Baltimore’s history. He is the poster child of the downsides of nepotism and the fact that 90% of politics is timing. D’Alesandro III had none of the sway that his father had and struggled to live up to his legacy. He started his tenure overseeing one of the largest riots in the country following the assassination of MLK. Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew had to send in the National Guard because the city police could not control the riot. This turmoil was exacerbated by the decline of Baltimore’s industrial economy; the factories closed down and have not come back. Union budget feuds led Mayor D’Alesandro III to raise taxes. In 1971 he decided to step down.
William Donald Schaefer
Thomas D’Alesandro III was followed by William Donald Schaefer. WDS is generally considered along with McKeldin to be one of the best mayors in Baltimore’s history. WDS got things done. He ran on a law and order platform that included doing everything in his power to reduce crime in the city, which was a breath fresh air following the riots.
WDS can be compared to D’Alesandro Jr in that he played the different factions off of each other to get his way. Instead of having dirt on everyone like D’Alesandro Jr, he wielded power because he did not have any ties to any of the city’s power-brokers, and actively disliked almost all of the factions. He was not afraid to tell anyone to pound sand. This antagonism ran deep to the point that you could reasonably argue that during his three reelection campaigns he ran on the platform of “F*ck Baltimore”.
In a move to diminish the power that the Italian machine had on the city, he appointed Baltimore’s first African American chief of police. WDS did not have any good relations within the city but he did have good relations with the state legislature. State Senate President Steny Hoyer worked with him to direct appropriations funds to finish the urban renewal projects that McKeldin started. These include the Baltimore Aquarium, the Charles Center, Camden Yards, and M&T Bank Stadium. He parlayed his effectiveness into two terms as Governor of Maryland. WDS was replaced as Mayor by Kurt Schmoke.
Schmoke was Baltimore city attorney. He was not a good mayor, but he was a competent one. His main focuses were breaking away from WDS’s “tough on crime” policies. He favored light policing and the complete decriminalization of drug use. Both policies were controversial at the time. Baltimore saw some of its highest crime numbers during Schmoke’s tenure. Another controversy was that he had the full-throated support of charter schools. He advocated charters because Baltimore public schools have historically been terrible. He desired to try something different to increase student outcomes. Even after all of his controversies and the contempt of some members of the Democratic mainstream, he remained an effective steward of the city and its finances. He, along with WDS, lured the Cleveland Browns to the city to become the Baltimore Ravens and both contributed to the continued agenda of “urban development”.
O’Malley and Dixon
Schmoke was replaced by city councilman Martin O’Malley. O’Malley was the opposite of Schmoke. He was 100% against charter schools and was supportive of the teacher’s unions. He also thought that Schmoke was a failure when it came to crime. The anti-crime policies that O’Malley implemented during his tenure were based upon groundwork policies that were successfully employed in New York City, such as compstat and stop and frisk. These policies helped facilitate a 37% drop in the city’s crime rate during his tenure as mayor. These policies, however, came at a cost; the tensions between O’Malley’s administration and African Americans led to increasingly bad relations between them, foreshadowing events that would occur in his second term. He was criticized for being too focused on his statewide ambitions but overall he was a competent administrator that helped the city deal with its crime problem.
City council president Shelia Dixon was appointed mayor when O’Malley was elected governor. Dixon moved away from O’Malley’s zero-tolerance policy for crime and more towards community policing and the apprehension of only the most dangerous offenders. This was a move that designed to improve race relations in the city, but it faced concerns from Delegate Jill Carter and Councilman Keiffer Mitchell that it did not go far enough to decrease crime. Overall, she was well-liked as a steward of the city until her scandal broke. In 2009 the state charged her with four counts of perjury, two counts of misconduct, three counts of theft, and three counts of fraudulent misappropriations. the state found her guilty of one of the fraudulent misappropriations charges for using $600 of appreciated money for needy families on personal expenses. As a result of her plea deal, she resigned from the office.
When Dixon resigned, Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took over. The financial collapse left the city in tatters. Decades of de-industrialization reduced city job opportunities and decreased the amount of tax-paying residents. The grim economic hopes, combined with a city pension crisis, led to an explosion of the cities debt; Baltimore was on the verge of bankruptcy. To tackle this, Blake and the city council led a restructuring of the city budget and pension system that was able to cut the debt to a reasonable amount. Blake also led a task force designed to locate abandoned buildings, buy them, tear them down, and then sell the lot to developers. She was a perfect fit for the city at the time. Blake seemed destined for statewide office until her career stalled following the Freddy Gray incident.
Freddy Gray, an apprehended man, died in police custody and as a result, the city protested over the heavy-handed actions of the city’s police department. Like the riots under Thomas D’Alesandro III, the protests could not be controlled by local law enforcement and the national guard had to be deployed to the city to control the rioters while combating looting. The officers involved in the incident were acquitted and the protests continued. Blake lost the confidence of the city council after calling the protesters thugs and declined to seek re-election.
Catherine Pugh to present
In 2016, Baltimore decided to break from the candidates that the city council produced, and elected state senate Majority Leader Catherine Pugh to office. The goal was to get someone with some sway in Annapolis that would aid the city’s stagnant economic growth. Pugh was initially successful in her efforts to grow Baltimore’s economy, but her tenure quickly became plagued with scandal. It was uncovered that she had defrauded the University of Maryland Medical System by using her power as a trustee to enrich herself with a no-bid contract for her “Healthy Holly” series of books that she never delivered on. This led to 11 counts of fraud, tax evasion, and a plea deal that led to her resignation from office.
The Democratic-dominated city of Baltimore will almost certainly elect Brandon Scott, the Democratic nominee to be mayor in November. He is going to be overseeing a city that has a myriad of problems from a lack of trust in police, coupled with a high crime rate, to a lack of a tax base, and a poor economy. Hopefully he has good relations with Annapolis and is able to direct funds to the city like WDS. Likewise, I hope that he is able to avoid scandals like so many other previous mayors. What Baltimore needs right now is a competent mayor. Every Marylander is wishing him luck.