Tag Archives: Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Memorial Day Musings

By Barry Rascovar

May 30, 2016—A number of thoughts while celebrating the contributions of the men and women who served or serve in our nation’s military:

Baltimore City’s elections on May 27 offered two striking lessons for politicians and state election officials.

Provisional Mistakes

Yes, there was a terrible screw-up: Over 1,100 provisional ballots were mistakenly counted before the legitimacy of voters casting the ballots could be checked.

Memorial Day Musings

City election board officials have been pilloried for this mess. Fair enough, since it is clear there had not been nearly enough education or training of election judges.

But the state election board is culpable as well.

Converting from an electronic, computer touch-screen system – where voting errors are few – to an old-fashioned paper-ballot system that is known to be error-prone – was ripe for confusion and mistakes.

Not one city election-day judge had ever worked with the state’s new paper-ballot/automated counter system before. Baltimore City had used the old lever mechanical voting machines before jumping directly to the computer touch-screens. The city never held a paper-ballot election in anyone’s lifetime.

State election officials knew this. They also knew the city historically has voting snafus.

Yet state officials failed to take extra steps to help the city election board adapt to a brand-new voting system. Nor did they dispatch personnel to assist with training or offer more supervisory help on Election Day.

Instead, the state board and its staff sat back and watched the easily-predicted train wreck occur.

The main problem – confusion over how to handle those casting provisional ballots – could have been avoided if the state board had used treated paper for provisional ballots that the counting machines automatically rejected.

This and other ideas were scotched by the state board in Annapolis.

City election officials say they have learned the hard way and will make sure this doesn’t happen again in November. Perhaps the state election board will do more, too, and start acting like a cooperative partner instead of a stern superior.

New-Age Electioneering?

The May 27 city election held a lesson for young politicians as well. Some of them counted heavily on social media connections to springboard them to victory.

DeRay Mckesson was the most prominent social media star convinced that his heavy Facebook and Twitter presence was all it took to win at the ballot box. Local media made a big deal of his entry into the mayor’s race.

He and others forgot that while millennials might run their lives with a constant eye tuned to social media, the vast majority of voters aren’t plugged in. Indeed, Mckesson’s campaign turned into an embarrassment.

Despite his national Facebook renown, Mckesson received just 3,445 votes – a mere 2.6 percent of the votes cast.

The message is clear: You have to earn voters’ support the old-fashioned way, at least for the next decade or two.

Eye of the Storm

Lucky Elijah Cummings. He gets a starring role at the Democratic National Convention.

Now the bad news: He’s chairing the convention’s Platform Committee, where the hell-hath-no-fury-like-Bernie-Sanders-scorned protests will be heard.

It could get messy, angry and even violent.

Here’s one example. Two Sanders delegates on the committee are determined to have Democrats on record as condemning Israeli violence toward the Palestinian cause. That could set off a cataclysmic response from Jewish delegates and Clinton supporters.

So congratulations to the Baltimore area’s long-serving congressman. But he’d better bring a thick skin and a heavy gavel with him to Philadelphia in July.

Edwards Still in Denial

Defeated Congresswoman Donna Edwards, who lost badly to Congressman Chris Van Hollen in the Democratic primary for United States Senate, remains bitter and angry. She’s gone public now with her sour grapes and excuses as to why she failed to advance her career.

Edwards thinks there’s a “glass ceiling” for black women like herself. That’s why Van Hollen won.

Donna Edwards

Rep. Donna Edwards

Maybe it had something to do with the lousy constituent service Edwards provided for her Washington-area constituents, her grating personality that alienated House colleagues and her failure to sell herself to voters in the Greater Baltimore region.

Maybe her loss had something to do with her meager record in Congress versus Van Hollen’s all-star record.

Elections are won on the basis of merit and executing a solid campaign plan, not proportional representation based on race and gender.

Edwards needs to stop blaming others for her deficiencies. She lost because her campaign focused almost exclusively on race and gender rather than persuading Maryland Democratic she was the best candidate.

School Board Secrecy

Baltimore City’s school board decided to hide its business from the public. So it intentionally circumvented its own rules and picked a new school superintendent in total secrecy. The board didn’t even feel it necessary to tell the public it had fired the incumbent school chief months earlier.

It was a process more suited to the old Soviet Union than the U.S. of A.

What will the board do next behind closed doors?

All sorts of public officials are wringing their hands and criticizing the school board while proclaiming nothing can be done about this outrageous display of heavy-handed secrecy.

That’s not true. There’s plenty both the governor and mayor could have done.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., who appoints half the board members, could have picked up his telephone and read the riot act to school board members for acting in such a cavalier and undemocratic manner. He could have hinted that any shadowy repetition would have consequences when it comes to state funds for city schools.

Meanwhile, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake could have picked up her telephone and shouted at school board officials, too. Then she could have demanded an end to secrecy. She could have gotten the near-certain next mayor, Sen. Cathy Pugh, to echo those sentiments and make clear more secret actions would jeopardize budget support from City Hall.

Both Hogan and Rawlings-Blake dropped the ball.

Hogan doesn’t spend time worrying about what happens in Baltimore City anyway; Rawlings-Blake has been missing in action since announcing her plans to retire.

Transparency and openness in government be damned.

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Void in Baltimore

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 14, 2015 — Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s retirement announcement last week turns next April’s election into a free-for-all among a group of imperfect, little-known or inexperienced candidates.

Void in Baltimore

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

It reveals the reality of Baltimore’s sorry class of politicians. There are no lions in this crowd, no movers-and-shakers.

Few have much elective experience. Few possess proven management skills to run a complex, $2 billion organization.

So far, no one in the list of putative or announced candidates has shown the sort of leadership charisma Baltimore sorely needs.

Rawlings-Blake will be remembered more positively by historians than she is today. Her once bright political future lies in shambles, the result of a series of poor decisions and her laid-back demeanor during April’s civil unrest.

Burned Out

She’s not the first Baltimore mayor to lose her appetite for Baltimore’s top elective office following days of destructive rioting, looting and arson.

Thomas J. D’Alesandro III, from an illustrious political family, gave up a bright future after one term as mayor. He was burned out emotionally and physically by the strains of the 1968 conflagration after the assassination of Martin Luther King — and the massive effort required to restore order, rebuild and convince citizens that Baltimore had a bright future.

It was left to William Donald Schaefer to take on that monumental task, which he did brilliantly.

Rawlings-Blake was too cerebral (much like former Mayor Kurt Schmoke) and too deliberative to deal effectively with a terrible crime wave and civil unrest that required quick, firm decisions and public assertiveness.

She botched one key element of her job, public safety, by forcing into retirement a popular and successful police commissioner (Fred Bealefeld), replacing him with a West Coast outsider who never hit it off with the community or rank-and-file, and then turning Anthony Batts into a scapegoat following her administration’s botched handling of disorder in West Baltimore.

She trusted only a handful of intimates with policy decisions, blocking the kind of broad networking and communications good CEOs need.

She exhibited a coolness and unapproachability for a job requiring just the opposite. Her calm, dispassionate demeanor came across as uncaring. She never struck the right chord with Baltimore’s citizens or with the business community.

She lacked outward warmth, humor and emotion — three essential elements for successful leadership.

Keen Eye for Budgets

Nevertheless, she was an excellent fiscal steward for Baltimore. Much like her father, Rawlings-Blake knows how to dissect a budget and take steps to get government’s financial house in order.

She negotiated a long-term deal with the state to embark on a $1 billion, long-overdue school-building and renovation program. She sharply lowered teen pregnancies and recruited a highly regarded health officer.

She had the guts to implement pension reforms that threatened to bankrupt the city. She cut property taxes. She halved the city’s structural deficit.

Rawlings-Blake made the right choice in declaring she will not run for reelection. Restoring Baltimore’s equilibrium between now and the time she leaves office late in 2016 won’t be easy, especially with more unrest looming if the results of police jury trials displease local hotheads.

America’s Curse

Concentrating on getting reelected instead of the nitty-gritty of governing would have been irresponsible.

It is one of the curses of America’s electoral system that incumbents are asked to do the impossible — govern and campaign simultaneously. You can do one or the other well, but not both.

Rawlings-Blake now can focus her undivided attention on the needs of Baltimore as it tries to pick up the shattered pieces of progress after April’s disturbances.

It was a logical and thoughtful move that placed her personal political desires on the shelf.  The mayor deserves applause: The city will have a full-time mayor for the next 15 months.

Baltimore is the winner.

Who’s Next?

But who will succeed Rawlings-Blake? So far, the list of candidates and potential candidates is depressingly unimpressive.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon has the management experience to run the city in a highly effective manner. She is dogged, though, by her theft conviction of gift cards for the poor and homeless. Still, she is one of the few people in the race who has run citywide, has a broad-based organization and name recognition.

Carl Stokes is a seasoned city councilman who has run for mayor before, but his too-obvious ambition may turn off voters.

Cathy Pugh is a shy state senator and former councilwoman who has done solid work in Annapolis but lacks an appealing, outgoing personality.

Nick Mosby is only in his freshman term as a councilman and is married to the most polarizing figure in Baltimore.

There’s not a bona fide lion in the bunch.

Baltimore used to have plenty of political heavyweights but these days the list has dwindled. Barbara Mikulski is retiring. Martin O’Malley is quixotically running for president. Elijah Cummings is ensconced as a powerful voice for African Americans on Capitol Hill. Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman, hasn’t shown any previous interest in becoming mayor.

Uphill Challenge

Perhaps someone will emerge with strong backing from the legal or business community, much as Schmoke did when he came out of nowhere to defeat an incumbent state’s attorney.

Perhaps Mfume will look seriously at running for mayor this time.

The next mayor faces a daunting challenge. Baltimore is a poor city with huge, unmet needs. It is the last refuge for the region’s underclass — the homeless, the unemployed, the dispossessed. Much of the city’s former middle class now lives in the suburbs. A conservative governor in Annapolis shows little desire to make Baltimore’s needs his priority.

It’s a bleak picture. Whichever candidate voters select had better be up to this Herculean task.

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Baltimore Scapegoat

By Barry Rascovar

July 13, 2015 — It’s a time-worn tactic employed by floundering elected officials: When criticism builds to the point that your career is at risk, find a scapegoat and blame him for all that’s gone wrong.

Anthony Batts, Baltimore’s recently fired police commissioner, became beleaguered Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s scapegoat.

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts

Like author Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, Rawlings-Blake screamed, “Off with [his] head” to deflect the growing crescendo of dissatisfaction with her handling of Baltimore’s unprecedented crime and violence.

Here’s what she conveyed in her sudden dismissal of the police commissioner: None of this is my fault; Batts is to blame.

Getting the Boot

So now Batts is out of a job after three years of trying to get a handle on Charm City’s growing epidemic of  shootings, drug-related crime and gang violence. Surely Batts’ removal will make all those gruesome homicides go away.

Fat chance.

History tells us Rawlings-Blake’s ploy is unlikely to work.

Firing Baltimore’s top cop won’t stop the street gangs and the drug trade from firing away at their targets. Communities aren’t any safer today with Batts gone. The killings continue.

As usual, the mayor hesitated too long before taking decisive action. She hired Batts and was reluctant to give up on him. She failed to recognize early on that her police commissioner’s “West Coast offense” against Charm City’s criminals wasn’t working.

This will become a major issue in the 2016 mayoral race that already is heating up.

The Other Option

Rawlings-Blake picked the wrong man for the job. Batts had no familiarity with East Coast urban crime and law enforcement. His experience was mostly in smaller communities in sunny California, not in an aging, densely populated urban core with severe poverty, joblessness and distrust of the police.

Batts’ intentions were on point but his execution was lacking. He never gained the confidence of the men in blue, or of the community and its leaders.

But Rawlings-Blake liked him, in part because of his sterling education credentials.

In hindsight, she should have gone with the logical choice back in 2012: Acting Commissioner Anthony Barksdale, the young, behind-the-scenes deputy police chief who had devised a community policing strategy that brought the city’s homicide rate to record lows and reversed former Mayor Martin O’Malley’s “zero tolerance” approach that embittered young blacks unfairly targeted and jailed.

Former Acting Police Commissioner Anthony Barksdale

Former Acting Police Commissioner Anthony Barksdale

But Barksdale was a Coppin State dropout who then joined the police force and worked his way to the top through “street smarts” — unlike the Oberlin-educated mayor, who seems to prefer working with folks with degrees from the “right” colleges.

Barksdale also had another strike against him. He was the protégé of retiring Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld, a much-praised appointee of the prior mayor, Sheila Dixon.

Rawlings-Blake wanted to separate her administration from the disgraced Dixon, who had been convicted of gift-card theft and forced from office. Barksdale became an unintended casualty.

Early Warning 

We should have suspected the wheel was coming off the track for Rawlings-Blake in 2012 when two groups complained that the mayor’s advisory panel to pick a new police chief didn’t include  any civil rights or community leaders. They called it a “closed-door process being made in a vacuum.”

That apt description also applies to many of Rawlings-Blake’s major decisions since then.

It might have been quite different if the mayor had moved heaven and earth to get Bealefeld to stay on as police commissioner. The Baltimore native knew the city and its law enforcement team like the back of his hand. His demeanor and policing tactics were working big-time. He was changing the culture of the police force for the better and crime had declined sharply.

Former Police Chief Fred Bealefeld

Former Police Chief Fred Bealefeld

Barksdale, a born-and-raised Baltimorean like Bealefeld, would have continued those policies. Instead, Rawlings-Blake, as has been her pattern, opted for something new and different — an credentialed outsider who knew nothing about Charm City.

Batts came in, and Barksdale immediately went on medical leave for two years until he could retire at full pay. Also exiting was Col. Jesse Oden, who ran the Criminal Investigations Division. Batts forced out most of Bealefeld’s team and brought in more outsiders, like himself. It was downhill from there.

Dixon will claim in the mayoral campaign that she hired the right guy for the job — Bealefeld — and that Rawlings-Blake had gone outside the department to select a new police commissioner who never understood Baltimore and as a result mishandled April’s standoff with angry mobs in West Baltimore.

Mayor’s Prime Failure

The resulting conflagration, looting and violence staggered Baltimore. Rawlings-Blake’s excessive caution, excessive deliberation, her inability to grasp quickly what needed to be done and her aloofness may well cost her a second term.

At the heart of the problem was the mayor’s failure to recognize the importance of retaining and promoting highly experienced and skilled people from the inside rather than turning to outsiders.

National searches are overrated. Too often the outsider selected is intent on wiping out existing leadership and policies. Different is deemed better. Past successes are denigrated. Home-grown talent is shown the door.

The new leader hires more outsiders to run things differently. It takes them years to figure out the local turf. Morale plunges, confusion reigns and progress — if at all — is slow in coming.

Promoting from within is quicker and usually pays hefty dividends. The best Baltimore police chiefs, from Frank Battaglia to Leonard Hamm to Fred Bealefeld, came up through the ranks.

But new bosses — in politics and in business —  feel a need to show they are in charge by making a dramatic break with the past, even when that move is counter-productive.

High Price

Rawlings-Blake is now paying the price for insisting on new-and-different. Instead  of hiring a “change agent” as police chief, she should have stuck with the Bealefeld-Barksdale policies that were working so well.

Acting Commissioner Kevin Davis is both an insider and an outsider. He’s been a deputy commissioner for six months, which gives him a head start. Yet his prior career — an up-from-the-ranks success story — was spent in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.

Acting Police Commissioner Kevin Davis

Acting Police Commissioner Kevin Davis

Davis has a firmer grasp of Maryland policing than Batts did. He’s had time to assess the existing leadership. He’s seen what went wrong over the past half-year. But can he institute changes that lower the crime rate, boost police morale and improve community relations?

That’s a tall order, especially  in the midst  of a heated mayoral campaign.

His initial innovation — establishing a multi-agency “war room” to go after the “bad guys” causing much of the mayhem — sounds exactly like Fred Bealefeld’s operating mantra.

Given the failures at City Hall and at police headquarters in April, any move by Davis that lowers the violence and hostile rhetoric would be a giant step forward.

If he can get a handle on the crime epidemic, he deserves the job permanently regardless of who wins the April Democratic mayoral primary.

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Heartbreaking Failure of Leadership

By Barry Rascovar

May 4, 2015 — Baltimore deserves better. The citizens of Charm City, black and white, dutifully worked for decades to overcome obstacles of urban decline, including poverty and joblessness, with the goal of creating a thriving neo-urban, multi-racial environment attractive to residents and employers.

Those intent on achieving that dream have suffered a heartbreaking setback.

Failure of Leadership

Baltimore’s younger generation of African Americans decided anger and violence were more important than taking constructive steps toward empowerment.

They seized on a failure of leadership at multiple levels and drove their inflammatory actions, like a spear, through Charm City’s armor.

Partial Responsibility

The roots of this civil unrest will be analyzed for decades.

One obvious flash point could become a bone of contention in the Democratic presidential campaign. Another could dominate next year’s election for mayor.

History may record that both Martin O’Malley and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, mayors past and present, bear partial responsibility for what went wrong in Baltimore over the last week.

O’Malley, who has set his sights on the U.S. presidency, won election in 1999 to Baltimore’s top position with the courageous support of Rawlings-Blake’s father, Del. Howard “Pete” Rawlings, one of the most influential power brokers in the Maryland General Assembly and a staunch defender of black Baltimore.

The O’Malley mayoral campaign of 1999 centered on the need for tougher police enforcement after eight years of a failed community policing policy under Baltimore’s first elected black mayor, Kurt Schmoke.

Indeed, O’Malley made a name for himself on the Baltimore City Council as a persistent critic of the soft, ineffective policing tactics put in place by Commissioner Thomas Frazier.

Discontent with Violence

Baltimore is a heavily African American city. For a white to win the city’s top elected post speaks volumes about the discontent with the violence and rising crime rate in 1999. Pete Rawlings’ endorsement of O’Malley over two major black contenders proved pivotal.

Martin O’Malley came into office promising a tough law-and-order stance that would deter crime. He initiated a zero-tolerance approach based on New York City’s successful “broken windows” theory — go after petty crimes, such as vandalism or a broken window, and it would prevent more serious criminal action. Young blacks simply congregating on street corners ended up in jail on suspicion of drug dealing.

Over 100,000 arrests were made one year (in a city of 650,000). O’Malley also embraced New York City’s statistical analysis, renamed Citistat, to pinpoint crime hotspots.

The two initiatives led to a dramatic drop in law-breaking. At the time, O’Malley was lauded for his tough stance that seemed to have made Baltimore safer. It also eased the way for his reelection as mayor.

Residue of Anger

But zero-tolerance sowed the seeds of discontent and bitterness among young black men. Much of the fury expressed on the city’s streets last week flowed from those mass-arrest sweeps and the targeting by police of young blacks during the O’Malley years.

His tough-on-crime approach as mayor stands in stark contrast to O’Malley’s current attempt to position himself as the ultra-liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton. Indeed, zero-tolerance policing is the antithesis of what Democratic liberals believe in.

His hard line on law enforcement could well dog O’Malley during presidential campaign debates and interviews.

His successor as mayor, Sheila Dixon, quickly discarded O’Malley’s zero tolerance strategy in favor of a more humanizing law-enforcement tool — increased on-the-street patrols and closer affiliation with community groups.

O-Malley and Rawlings-Blake

Mayors past and present in happier times

Rawlings-Blake has continued that less confrontational approach to policing.

Some now contend the mayor’s permissiveness on that first night of clashes encouraged young blacks to engage in looting, arson and attacks on policemen and firefighters knowing there would be no crackdown.

In hindsight, the mayor’s critics may have a point. But on-the-spot decisions are easily faulted after the fact.

No Rapid Response

Rawlings-Blake will be dogged over the next year and a half by those who point to her failure to go after the miscreants immediately — before the violence got out of hand.

Her mystifying refusal to request help from Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. in the critical hours leading up to the outbreak of lawlessness now looks like a tragic mistake. Her standoffishness from the governor since then defies explanation.

Prior to last week’s upheaval, Rawlings-Blake looked like an easy winner in next year’s mayoral election.

That’s no longer the case — especially with the hero-worshipping status accorded Baltimore’s new state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, who rushed to charge six police officers with a kitchen sink of wrondoing.

Winning convictions may prove infinitely harder, though, which could color the public’s perception of Mosby in the months ahead.

Former Mayor Dixon looms as a potential contender, too.

Clearly, Rawlings-Blake has some serious repair work to do politically, once things return to normal in Baltimore, if she hopes to remain in the mayor’s office for another term.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.

Puzzling Choice in Baltimore City

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 2, 2014 — WHY IN THE WORLD would Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pick a small-town official to run the city’s 3,700-member Fire Department, an agency that has been beset by tensions and controversies?

The new fire chief, Niles Ford, may turn out to be a great choice but his resume suggests otherwise.

He’s only run one, 300-member fire department — in Lincoln, Nebraska, a college town that doubles as the state capital. Lincoln is less than half the size of Baltimore. He did win praise for his budgeting skills and bringing calm to a troubled department.

City Manager in Georgia

Ford left his last post as city manager of Chamblee, Georgia (population: 15,500) under political pressure. The town’s African American population is just 7 percent (Hispanics constitute 60 percent of residents). Chamblee’s median household income is $55,000 — versus $40,800 in Baltimore.

Niles Ford, new Baltimore Fire Chief

Niles Ford, new Baltimore Fire Chief

The entire budget for running Chamblee, a suburb of Atlanta, came to $14 million. Baltimore’s Fire Department budget alone is $223 million.

Ford’s doctorate in management comes from an online, for-profit institute. He gained his master’s degree from a Christian university in the Deep South. His bachelor’s degree is from an upper-level state institution in Alabama.

All that may become irrelevant if Ford has the smarts and people skills to navigate the dangerous shoals of Baltimore’s City Hall and its Fire Department. He did it in Lincoln but not in Chamblee.

About the only thing that seems apparent is that Rawlings-Blake got what she wanted in picking an African American for the post.

But she is placing Ford in a difficult situation.

What Awaits Ford

Two of the rejected candidates are deputies in the Fire Department. That’s not going to make for calm seas.

The last fire chief, james Clack, ran into a storm of controversy when he sought to initiate reforms and was forced to impose budget cuts.

Clack didn’t understand the dynamics of this large East Coast fire department with long-standing racial and labor-union issues.

Even worse, the department is in the midst of painful downsizing and a king-sized pension fight with the mayor.

Clack hailed from Minneapolis, which doesn’t have much in common with Baltimore. The Upper Midwest ethos is quite different from Balmer’s, hon.

Fire Chief Ford at Lincoln, NE, blaze

Fire Chief Ford at Lincoln, NE, blaze

Charm City’s unique ethos is even more foreign for someone like Ford, who is coming from jobs in a Plains State community like Lincoln and then a Southern town like Chamblee, where three folks conversing on the street is a crowd.

Running a large fire and EMS department in an aging but dense Eastern urban city differs dramatically from the fire-fighting demands of a community in the middle of the nation’s sparsely populated  Farm Belt.

Mayor Favors Outsiders

Rawlings-Blake apparently is persuaded that outsiders do a better job running Baltimore than insiders. She consistently has ignored internal candidates in favor of national searches.

That doesn’t always turn out well.

Indeed, the best mayoral selection of recent vintage for a top post was a home-grown product — Fred Bealefeld, who understood how to pull the right strings to bring about reforms and a lower crime rate as police commissioner.

Clack left Baltimore with a mixed record. Ford already is under suspicion as a small-town official from outside the region with a modest record.

He has much to prove, which doesn’t say a lot for the mayor’s insistence on filling key posts with people who know little about the way things work in Baltimore.

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