Baltimore’s Next Mayor Doesn’t Want to Talk About Racism

Originally published in Slate on April 29th, 2016.
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Following Tuesday night’s primary, Catherine Pugh is now the presumptive next mayor of Baltimore, having captured 37 percent of Democrats’ votes. Hers is a city that remains deeply impoverished and racially segregated, and in the wake of the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray it has become central to the growing national focus on police violence. Yet race is the one topic Pugh has shown herself strangely hesitant to talk about.

Last month, Pugh’s campaign released an ad featuring a supporter—Francis X. Kelly, a former Maryland state senator—discussing why Pugh would be the best candidate to lead the city. Kelly enthused about Pugh’s ability to bring people together. “There’s too much talk of racism going on now,” he told voters. “The word racism has got to be erased from our vocabulary.”

Pugh’s campaign was criticized for the ad—including by upstart mayoral candidate and Black Lives Matter figure DeRay Mckesson, who asked Pugh on Twitter if this meant she was afraid to talk about racism. Whether or not she fears it, over the course of her campaign, Pugh, who is black, demonstrated clearly that she has little desire to directly confront the racism afflicting the city. While other candidates spoke about the need to reduce racial bias among Baltimore’s police force, Pugh’s policy platform was filled with platitudes like “recognize the uniqueness of each community and provide strategies for reducing crime that offers results.”

Aside from being a Maryland state senator, Pugh leads a public relations consulting firm and has said one of her top mayoral priorities is to improve Baltimore’s image. She’s advocated for a marketing campaign to “Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate the greatness that is Baltimore.” She wants to “help us understand” that every neighborhood and person matters. She wants us to champion the city’s “diversity.”

There’s a lot that’s wonderful about Baltimore, but the fact is that almost every major issue facing the city today is a racial one. Not even a PR professional like Pugh can expect to avoid that. When she likely becomes mayor of this heavily Democratic city—where being born black correlates with significantly worse life outcomes—she’ll have to contend with the growing anger and frustration that’s been percolating across the city.

Baltimore’s not an outlier, but in some ways it experiences economic inequality and racism more dramatically than other cities in the United States. More than 7 percent of the city is unemployed, but for young black men, that figure hits 37 percent. Baltimore had a per-capita record of 344 homicides in 2015, one of the highest murder rates in the country. New research released last spring by Harvard economists found that of the nation’s 100 largest counties, Baltimore ranked dead last when it comes to facilitating upward mobility. For every year a poor boy spends growing up in Baltimore, the economists said, his earnings as an adult fall by 1.5 percent.

This week, Baltimore commemorated the one-year anniversary of Freddie Gray’s funeral, and the notorious riots that scarred the city that very same night. The criminal trials for the six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray are set to resume next month and continue until at least October. There will likely be more protests if locals feel justice hasn’t been sufficiently served in the courtroom. If ever Baltimore needs leaders who can talk frankly about racism, it will be when those verdicts come down.

As Baltimore faces a critical juncture, with residents still reeling from the riots last spring, Pugh has largely ignored these realities. She claims running for mayor is her “calling”—but her campaign platform is vague, her political record is unclear, and her notable lack of interest in reckoning with racism is worrisome. It’s a trait that won’t just hamper her on highly visible issues like police violence.

Pugh had few words to say on the campaign trail about the abandoned light rail project that Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, canceled last summer—a mass transit initiative that was widely anticipated to improve mobility for some of Baltimore’s most poor and isolated residents. In December, the NAACP filed a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that canceling the light rail was racially discriminatory, as the governor diverted funds intended for the project to roads and bridges elsewhere. But Pugh has said she wants to “take the politics out of transit funding”—which has never happened for Baltimore and probably never will.

Catherine Pugh wants to make Baltimore a more “business-friendly” place and “promote [the] downtown core”—the same downtown core that has benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies over the decades, with little profit trickling back into Baltimore’s black and beleaguered neighborhoods. Thus far, Pugh has not demonstrated that she plans to alter the city’s inequitable approach to development, which matters as city leaders will soon have to decide if they should issue more than half a billion dollars in tax increment financing to apparel company Under Armour, which wants to construct new headquarters in the city.

There are still seven months before Pugh is expected to win the general election, and one hopes she will continue to face pressure from voters and the press about her record and her intentions. Does she really think we should “erase racism” from our vocabularies? Was it ethical to collect campaign contributions from lobbyists who appeared before her as she served on the Senate Finance Committee?

A year ago, Baltimore’s current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, called those protesting Freddie Gray’s death in West Baltimore “thugs” who were “trying to tear down what so many have fought for.” Catherine Pugh hasn’t used such explicitly ugly rhetoric, but she also she hasn’t convinced the public that she wouldn’t.

For a country that has been largely absorbed in presidential politics over the last 15 months, paying attention to a mayoral race in a midsize city might not seem so important. But if inequality is one of the most significant issues facing America today—and 75 percent of voters who lean Democratic say it is—and if concerns about racism and race relations in the U.S. are rising—which they are—then there may not be a city more important to watch than Baltimore, Maryland.

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Why DeRay Mckesson’s Mayoral Candidacy Will Be Defined Far More By Education than Policing

Originally published in Slate on February 12th, 2016.
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N
ews of mayoral runs usually don’t merit the attention that Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson got when he announced his candidacy for Baltimore’s top job last week. His campaign had leaked the story to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian in advance, and within 24 hours, he had already crowd-funded $40,000.

National publications began speculating how Mckesson’s candidacy would elevate police reform onto Baltimore’s political agenda, the implication being that it wasn’t already a top priority in the race. It absolutely is: Nearly 10 months after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody, and after one of the most crime-ridden years Baltimore’s seen in decades, few topics are more prominent. So what, exactly, will Mckesson bring to the election?

Mckesson joins 12 other Democrats competing in April’s primary, the winner of which will almost certainly go on to win in November. But though Mckesson’s large Twitter following may be eager to see how he’ll carry his national Black Lives Matter work into Charm City, I suspect they’ll be in for a surprise. What’s going to distinguish Mckesson probably won’t be policing and criminal justice at all—it’ll be education.

Nationally, school reform is an issue that confounds political partisans, opening fault lines among progressive allies and uniting constituencies that typically never agree. Reform is even more complicated in Baltimore; the city stands as a distinctively unusual landscape for education politics next to other, similar urban centers.

Already, Mckesson has signaled that he plans to campaign on education, which isn’t surprising since that’s where the 30-year-old cut his professional teeth. After graduating college, he spent two years teaching sixth graders in Brooklyn followed by several stints with education nonprofits, reform organizations, and administrative district jobs. But Mckesson brings to the race some national baggage, which he’ll have to confront as he tries to make his case to Baltimore voters. Specifically, residents have already raised questions about his ties to national reform groups like TNTP and Teach for America, as well as his enthusiastic support for charter schools.

So far, Mckesson has largely dismissed these concerns. He’s reminded the public that he’s spent several years working with the Baltimore school district as an administrator focused on staffing personnel. Still, he’ll have to reckon with local education politics that have changed substantially since he left his job back in 2013.

For example, a few months ago a coalition of charter operators filed a lawsuit against the school district over funding—a highly controversial move that’s divided Baltimore public school families. The city is also in the midst of closing down more than two-dozen schools, and the next mayor will need to determine what becomes of the vacant buildings. Will they be sold off? Will they be leased to charter schools? Will they be repurposed into some other civic entity? These decisions are sure to intensify an already-fraught K-12 landscape.

The main thing to grasp about Baltimore’s education environment is that it’s pretty unique. All charter teachers are unionized, unlike most charter employees in other states. Moreover, Maryland charter schools—which are predominately mom-and-pop institutions, not larger charter-school chains—are subject to more oversight and regulation than charters elsewhere. While reformers say they’d like to see Maryland charters freed from these legal constraints, supporters of the status quo say that tougher oversight explains why Maryland charter schools have never wrought the kind of fraud, mismanagement, and abuse found in other jurisdictions.

What Mckesson will soon have to decide is whether he is committed to keeping Baltimore’s charter sector as is—with unionized teachers, a close relationship to the school district, and substantial oversight—or join the coalition of charter operators and national education reform groups that seek to significantly revamp chartering in Maryland. That decision may also force him to choose between competing groups that may try to back him. Some national charter networks have expressed disinterest in setting up shop in Baltimore, namely because they don’t want to work within the school district and employ unionized teachers. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a D.C.-based organization, consistently ranks Maryland as the worst charter school state in the country, largely for these same reasons.

Yet within Baltimore, both traditional teachers and charter teachers alike strongly support Maryland’s charter law—and rallied together last year to protest reformers’ attempts to change it. The Center for Education Reform, another national group, hired lobbyists to push for loosening Maryland’s regulations. They were ultimately unsuccessful, but the fight is expected to resurface again soon.

On Friday, Mckesson released his education campaign platform—a substantive list of proposals ranging from expanding early childhood education to strengthening college and career readiness programs. He calls for increasing the school district’s transparency (a common theme among all the candidates) and more equitable state financing. He notably doesn’t mention anything about unions or charter schools, but Mckesson won’t be able to shy away from that charged debate for long.

When news broke that Mckesson would be running, some Baltimore activists, particularly those who have been fighting for police reform, protested on Twitter—a surprise to some outside the city, given his national stature within Black Lives Matter. Among other things, locals argue that Mckesson lacks sufficient relationships with the communities he now seeks to lead.

In many ways, their critiques mirror those that veteran public school educators level at Teach for America—that outside young teachers without roots in the cities they work in displace those who have more of a right, and need, to be there. And despite Mckesson’s early campaign efforts to brand himself as a “son of Baltimore,” some local activists have said they’ve rarely seen him fighting alongside them in the causes they’ve been invested in for years, like building independent black institutions and weakening the Maryland police union. (Mckesson defended himself against these charges, saying “there are many ways to engage in the work.”)

A few weeks ago, 11 Democratic candidates gathered together for a mayoral forum to discuss their political vision for Baltimore. One audience member asked the candidates, “How will you stop police from killing black people?” Answers varied somewhat, but all in all, they were broadly similar. The candidates spoke of strengthening civilian review boards, getting body cameras on all police, transforming the way Baltimore recruits and trains officers, establishing more transparent accountability systems, pushing for more police to formally live within the city, mandating cultural diversity training and regular psychiatric evaluations, and calling for convictions for those who break the rules.

In other words, Mckesson is entering a crowded field of candidates who likely share many of his police reform policy goals. Some hope that Mckesson’s candidacy will encourage others to articulate even sharper campaign proposals. Perhaps, and that would be a good thing. But it was already an issue that no candidate was really ignoring—and certainly one that no future mayor can expect to avoid.

So despite to Black Lives Matter’s national work, that aspect of his candidacy is unlikely to be too disruptive in the race. It’ll be where his campaign intersects with the school-reform movement, and specifically how local education politics rub up against his national ties, that could really shake things up.