Guest Commentary: Nothing Has Changed in Baltimore — Yet
By Dan Sparaco
A young son challenges his father to a foot race. He thinks he will best the old man easily. But the young son doesn’t know about dad strength. Dad is old but time has made him salty and strong more than the young son understands. And when Dad whoops his young son’s behind, an important lesson is taught, and a simple message sent: you may be younger, but I am tougher, and you are not ready to take me.
This was the message being sent by the elders who descended upon Baltimore City Hall in late July to defend their friend in her time of need — Mayor Catherine Pugh, struggling to gain a foothold on a crime problem that, having won the office nine months ago, is hers alone to own.
It does not normally happen that state senators and delegates are given unlimited time at the City Council chamber to comment on a bill it’s not their job to vote on, but that’s exactly what happened on July 25. The elders rose in defense of a controversial gun bill creating a one-year mandatory minimum for those convicted of gun possession in the city.
It’s old wine in new bottles, this proposal, but there’s an undeniable common sense to the idea that people with illegal handguns should be taken off the street. Except that some of the new members of the Council, and two of the old, deny it vigorously.
The young guns have taken the lead in assailing the bill and the mayor who demands that it be made law, teeing up a political and generational conflict born of our post-Ferguson, post-Freddie Gray moment, between established political figures who have with fair consistency chosen a lower crime rate over all other outcomes no matter who gets put in jail, even their own constituents, and the newer voices who are struggling to stay true to their critiques of police misconduct and mass incarceration in the face of all neighborhoods begging for more police protection, not to mention all the people in the corner of isn’t-it-better-to-do-something-rather-than-nothing in the absence of a better idea.
Bringing to bear the weight of age and experience — the power of the passage of time itself, able to turn common sense into wisdom the way time turns a cheap pocket watch buried in the ground for a century into a priceless artifact — the elders provided for the young Council members the head-to-head matchup with the past that almost none of them had to face in their own elections last year. They carried a message not just for those in the Council who would attack their friend the mayor, but for the friends of these young Council members, many of whom have designs upon the seats these elders have held for a very long time.
These incumbents are as tough and salty as the old man the young boy expects to outrun. A 78-year-old senator stares down a young delegate at his own fundraiser, daring him to say out loud and to her face what had been, up to that point, only rumored and intimated — his intent to take her seat. Another senior delegate, who plans to carry the senator in her district to re-election knowing his retirement is not far away, and knowing she can inherit that seat if only he wins one last time, uses her own fundraiser to publicly shame anyone who would dare to upend this pecking order, barely able to resist naming the young delegate who plans to do just that.
It should be obvious that not only dad strength, but mom strength too, should be feared.
This generation of incumbents carries with it something much more than just age and experience, however, something lost in the shuffle of the city’s 2016 election that delivered to us our “new City Council.” It’s been a little too easy to forget that, while there were hard-fought victories, 2016’s turnover in the City Council was primarily a gift of pension eligibility. Nobody had to beat Helen Holton. Nobody had to beat Agnes Welch. Or Carl Stokes. Or Bobby Curran. No one had to beat Rikki Spector or Jim Kraft, either.
The young sons now making videos, wearing hoodies, and grandstanding at Council hearings never had to outrun dad because dad retired. Only the daughter can say otherwise. And having gone head-to-head with a long-time name-brand old-time incumbent and won, it only makes sense that it was Councilwoman Shannon Sneed’s rhetoric — earnest, direct, and clearly forged from the ground up during her win over Warren Branch — that provided the most effective gun bill opposition.
What the older generation carries with it is a historical legacy of black political power long denied and finally achieved, a legacy that weds them to an entire generation of voters, and their children, all of which led a supermajority of city voters to choose that generation for mayor last year — whether they voted for Cathy Pugh or Sheila Dixon or Carl Stokes.
That legacy cannot be taken from these incumbents, and does not evaporate simply because they are old any more than it can be donned by the new generation simply because they are young, and this is why the old generation demolished all mayoral challengers, winning 75 percent of the vote. (White voters, by the way, may not have been particularly invested in this legacy themselves, but white voters in Baltimore do not vote for what they want, but for what they imagine black voters want, and what they, the white voters, are willing to live with.)
The legacy carried by these elders is that of a 100-year storm, whose swells washed wave upon wave of people onto the shores of cities like Baltimore. It was the Germans, then the Irish, who animated the post-Civil War political machines that delivered Baltimore’s gentry to power.
Later in the 19th Century came the Eastern Europeans and the Russian Jews. And then came the Appalachian whites looking for work during World War I. And then came the blacks in the first Great Migration looking for the same. Then came more Appalachians, sucked into Baltimore by jobs supporting a second Great War, and more blacks delivered by a second Great Migration.
These flows coupled with a booming private enterprise that was buttressed and bankrolled, as private enterprise always is, by piles of government money — money that funded the wars of course, but also built a sewer system and the infrastructure we now take for granted, and generated urban renewal cycles of development, demolition, and redevelopment. All that money called forth political machines made of men who would mediate between the government spending this money, the businesses who hoped to receive it, and the waves of unwashed migrants who would, on the promise of a job or food to eat, vote for the men blessed by the bosses to decide where all the jobs and money would go.
It was these waves of hungry and dispossessed, here to work and save themselves from the famine, the pogroms, and the lynchings that awaited them from whence they came, that built Baltimore and fueled its politics. Those who romanticize the old days tend to remember only the bosses — Rasin, Gorman, Mahon, Curran, Pollack, Kovens, Adams, etc. But these men were merely clever brokers between the public sector, private industry, and the waves of ethnic masses who embodied forces that far exceeded the grasp of any boss, and who determined the ethnic rotation of power revealed by the names on plaques in the rotunda of City Hall — from the Protestants, to the Catholics, to the Jews, and eventually, to black people.
The generation still in charge of Baltimore is inexorably tied to the deliverance of the last wave of refugees to power, and to the politicians and political machines that fought for Black Baltimore — that did battle with racists who would not let them on their all-white political tickets, and that made deals with the racists when the racists were outnumbered by an increasing black population. Those members of the black political establishment who can claim ties to that fight carry with them a special legacy — the righting of wrongs that was a long time coming.
It took longer for Baltimore to get a black mayor than any other American city that turned majority-black, and it took longer than that for them to gain a majority on the Council. The latter only happened when it did because in 1991 then-Councilman Carl Stokes grew impatient with Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s delicate dance of redistricting. The first black mayor tried to redraw the lines of the city’s then-six three-member Council districts in a way that would finally increase black representation on the Council, but also not upset too many white people.
To do this he struck a balance by drafting three majority-black districts, two majority-white, and one that was 50/50. The Stokes alternative, in lieu of careful negotiation with white political powers in the south, southeast and northeast, simply disemboweled them, with a plan that made black voters a clear majority all but one Council district. The shoe was decidedly on the other foot, and then-Councilwoman Sheila Dixon said as much, taking off one of her pumps at a Council hearing and shoving it in the face of the majority-white Council to make the point.
“You’ve been running things for the last 20 years,” she said. “See how you like it.” Old white Mike Curran from the northeast said, “I made a commitment to put a black candidate on our ticket, but apparently that’s not enough.” And it certainly was not enough.
The 1991 redistricting was a watershed event not because it immediately delivered black representatives to power but because it confirmed that they were the indispensable party to all future negotiations about the city and its direction. Black politicians had the leverage to squeeze a veto-proof majority in support of the Stokes plan out of a Council in which they had only seven seats. The seven black politicians in the 18-member Council elected in 1987 became eight in 1991, and then 10 in 1995. The winners of last year’s mayoral race, the City Council president, and all but one of the city’s state senators are linked in some way to this watershed.
But those who had at long last had gained control of the mayor’s office and the Council were deprived, by this delayed ascent, of energizing forces. Their machines and bosslets were deprived of the long-outlawed lingua franca spoken so freely by white bosses that preceded them decades before — bribery, no-bid contracts, jobs for all your friends and lackeys. (That some councilman might get his cousin a job riding the back of a garbage truck was just picking up scraps falling from the table of the civil service system, not an exercise of power.)
But far more important, the tide that had risen decades earlier with the Great Migrations, and that rose higher during the Civil Rights Era, had receded. That wave of black people who demanded equal rights and a job years before still went to church in the neighborhood, but now increasingly lived and voted and paid their taxes in Baltimore County. And the money that once flowed to build infrastructure, fund urban renewal, and bankroll the Great Society and the Civil Rights agenda had long, long since dried up.
Without the animating forces of population growth and federal government commitment, the city and its ascendant generation of politicians have slouched through mayoral succession. When the Schmoke administration reached a cul-de-sac in 1998, Schmoke decided not to run again, but left no viable successor, and thus allowed a white man to succeed the first elected black mayor. But this was no new era, and there was no chance whatsoever of an acolyte of O’Malley or any other white man getting the job after O’Malley himself left for Annapolis.
When he did, the City Council president inherited the job and then won re-election virtually unchallenged. After her, another Council president inherited the job and won reelection virtually unchallenged. Then when she, like Schmoke, decided she didn’t want to do the job anymore, she moved on to oblivion, and gave us the first meaningfully contested election in a generation. But the energy of the 2016 mayoral race was really just churn, and the numbers now show that during that churn we were sliding towards a calamitous milestone — a population drop below 600,000 people for the first time in a century.
We find ourselves still standing at a low tide getting lower, in stagnant pools on the shoreline watching the fish that could not escape to sea die. Sometimes we dream of a moonshot mayor, someone whose presence or personality can create the wave that does not exist. But this is just a chimera.
Kweisi Mfume has been the perennial answer for his generation’s failure to produce a visionary mayor, and is still as smooth as Billy Dee Williams, but Billy Dee is old now. New options like the author Wes Moore are pretty and pedigreed, but there’s no way to know whether they can take a punch, or have the grit to do the job. These and other fantasies will persist though, because whatever their complaints about the person currently occupying the mayor’s chair on second floor of City Hall, the current elected officials that might claim the seat on behalf of a new generation probably couldn’t win it, and aren’t qualified to sit in that seat if they could.
In the absence of new people or new money, and given the unlikelihood of a messianic savior, we remain hungry for at least a vision, one that might reconstitute our city’s existing parts into a new more viable whole. No city more than Baltimore is in need of an alternative to the ethnic game of thrones that has marked the past century-plus of municipal politics, particularly since we have no race or class or tribe or religion capable of galvanizing a movement all on its own.
Before, it took no particular vision or genius to unify and galvanize the Catholics who endured a generation of exclusion, or Jews who endured the same, or blacks who endured it longer than anybody. When his time came to try and become the first black mayor, no one asked Kurt Schmoke for a vision, because he was the vision. But this cannot work today. We seem to require something that has never really happened — a multi-ethnic, multiracial coalition, on a city-wide basis, sustained by a sui generis vision that can galvanize and unite a fractured city, even as our population falls and our resources are strained.
The elders who came to the gun bill hearing to circle the wagons around our current mayor don’t particularly have a vision for their continued governance of the city, but they don’t need one, because they carry with them the weight of time, legacy, and biography. They may yet be displaced, but the question is by what countervailing force, what new people, what alternative vision. If our New City Council was supposed to offer a progressive alternative, then it is currently 0 for 2, having lost the fight for an increased minimum wage, and is about to lose the fight against the gun bill because half of them will vote in favor of it (just as their elders told them to).
The New City Council, and their friends who will run in 2018, are up against a conservatism born from the urgency of life lived in Baltimore, a day-to-day urgency that forgives the older generation for not having a vision, and makes it that much harder to formulate one. Those who vote in favor of the gun bill take no great political risk, because we in Freddie Gray’s Baltimore, in the absence of a meaningful alternative, and although we live in this Black Lives Matter moment, are still willing to support Reagan-era criminal justice policy if we think it will keep us from getting shot.
There is after all a certain luxury to liberalism. The New City Council and their friends might want to dismantle the New Jim Crow, but they are up against a Reagan-era generation espousing a “tough on crime” approach to middle-aged black voters who need answers, not a pie in the sky, and who in particular don’t have time for a candidate crowing about “structural racism” and “white supremacy,” which they already know all about. That’s stuff only white candidates in white districts can get away with — although there’s really no proof that they can, so we’ll just to wait for 2020 to know for sure.
Perhaps this is how Councilmember John Bullock sees it. Perhaps he amended the gun bill into something he could vote for, and did vote for it, because his district just isn’t there yet on the rhetoric against mass incarceration, or doesn’t have the patience for a discussion of root causes when so many are being killed right now. And that’s entirely fair. For now.
For the future, perhaps we can hope for a vision and a coalition and a mobilization that can deliver to us something more.
Dan Sparaco is an attorney and recovering bureaucrat in Baltimore city. He can be reached at dansparaco@gmail.