Martin O’Malley, the mayor of Baltimore, admires the job he is doing. A few hours before the city’s police commissioner departed after just 57 days on the job, the mayor gave himself a rating of “B plus” for his first 100 days in office. The mayor also inaugurated a city Web site with the slogan, “Baltimore, The Greatest City in America.”
Much of this hype is reminiscent of the Baltimore “renaissance” ideology that dominated the city a couple of decades ago, and Mayor O’Malley has in fact stated that he wants to lead a “second Baltimore renaissance.” Baltimore Sun reporter Fraser Smith, in a new biography, sings the praises of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, leader of the first ostensible renaissance, and Sun columnist Michael Olesker sings the praises of both Messrs. Smith and Schaefer. On the other hand, David Tufaro, the defeated Republican mayoral candidate, linked Democratic control over the past 32 years to the city’s continued decline. How, then, should we look at Baltimore’s history over the past few decades?
To many Baltimore-area residents, the question is a no-brainer. Mr. Schaefer, so the belief goes, engendered a great renaissance in a downtrodden city; he “turned the city around” and gave it a “new sense of pride.” Michael Olesker almost echoes the biblical account of Lazarus: Mr. Schaefer “willed his city back to life.” If all of this were a reasonably accurate portrayal of what took place, Mr. O’Malley would have every reason to want to emulate Mr. Schaefer. Success is certainly worth emulating.
But take a moment to reflect on the question of what actually constitutes successful leadership. No doubt we would consider a CEO a success if he or she took over a company that was losing money and market share for many years, halted the decline in market share, and restored the firm to profitability. If a high school principal took over a school with many disciplinary problems and a low graduation rate, a marked decline in the number of disciplinary problems and a strong increase in the graduation rate would quite justly be seen as evidence of success for the principal.
Suppose the number of disciplinary problems and the low graduation rate remained unchanged but the school had attractive new landscaping and a refurbished auditorium for periodic events. Suppose the company in question continued to lose money but constructed a handsome new headquarters where visitors had the chance to throw coins in the fountain. Would these developments be regarded as evidence of successful leadership? Hardly. Should the criteria for Baltimore be any different?
Consider a municipality’s economic and tax base. A city cannot prosper if individuals and families keep leaving. Yet that is exactly what has happened here under both William Donald Schaefer and Kurt Schmoke. In 1970 the city had 480,000 white residents; 170,000 had left by 1986. Most of these departing residents no doubt believed that Mr. Schaefer was terrific, but not terrific enough to prevent them from leaving.
The most stunning statistic pertaining to Baltimore’s “renaissance” years comes from the study, “Baltimore 2000.” Peter Szanton, the study’s author, reported that “while the region’s property tax base had increased (in constant 1980 dollars) by some $430 per capita between 1970 and 1984, the city’s base had fallen by an astounding $1,640.”
Why should the Schaefer years be regarded as a period of renaissance if people who had the opportunity to do so left the city in droves and the tax base plummeted? Could it be that Baltimore’s readiness to glorify a period that was actually one of considerable deterioration may shed major light on what is awry in the city’s perception of reality? Is it possible that people in Baltimore have been so hell-bent on “making a good impression” on nonresidents that they are all too willing to overlook and belittle important facts?
Fraser Smith’s biography of Mr. Schaefer could have been a vehicle for subjecting these issues to rigorous debate. Unfortunately, Mr. Smith has sacrificed critical analysis to sycophancy and hagiography; he has not come to examine Mr. Schaefer but to praise him. For example, Mr. Smith does not even begin to question the hero status that has been bestowed upon the late James Rouse. He does not ask why, if Mr. Rouse was so concerned about the city’s revitalization, he undermined it by construction of suburban shopping malls and Columbia or why he neither lived in the city nor paid the profit-sharing on Harborplace that was stipulated in the 1978 lease agreement.
At one point in his book Mr. Smith claims that former Mayor Schaefer worked hard to improve the city’s schools, yet at another point he concedes that the former mayor didn’t even try to do so. Mr. Smith has numerous pages about stadiums, but he never even mentions the Enoch Pratt library and its well-documented decline during the Schaefer years.
Does Martin O’Malley really want to preside over a city with badly deteriorated school and library systems, a declining population, and a shrinking tax base? If he does not, why should he regard an era marked by such events as a model for his own administration?
Longtime political analyst Frank DeFilippo has stated that “Schaefer’s great skill is to distract us from our real problems, to numb us into believing we live in a giant theme park.” Is Mr. DeFilippo right? As a new mayor takes over, a strong and robust debate about the Schaefer years a debate that has never occurred should prove far more valuable to Baltimore’s future than an uncritical idealization of the past.
Christopher Muldor, who lives in Baltimore, writes on public policy issues.