Big Fish: Carl Stokes on His Run for Mayor, Development, and Baltimore’s Demographic Divide

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Carl Stokes
Photo by Keston De Coteau

Councilman Carl Stokes was first elected to Baltimore City Council in 1987, where he served until 1995, the same year he accepted an appointment to Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners. In 1999, he ran for mayor of Baltimore but lost the Democratic nomination to Martin O’Malley. Since then, Stokes has helped to found two public charter schools in the city (each offer year-round study and three meals a day) and returned to the City Council, where he has been a critic of Baltimore property tax rates and utility fees.

In the wake of the Freddie Gray protests and riots, Stokes made national headlines for venting his frustration at the use of the word “thugs” to describe black Baltimore youth to CNN’s Erin Burnett. I asked Stokes, who is again seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor, about the divide in public opinion over that statement; the relationship between public safety, education, and employment opportunities; and how a Stokes administration would tackle the city’s most deep-seated issues.

Baltimore Fishbowl: What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?

Councilman Carl Stokes: Take care of your family.

BFB: In a recent interview, you said that improving public safety requires not only investment and improvements in policing but also in education, recreation, jobs, and after-school activities, among other things. When an issue like public safety is determined by so many direct and indirect factors, how do you, as mayor, actually decide how to prioritize spending to achieve the greatest impact?

CS: The best practices and statistics before us inform us on how to proceed. When a community’s adult population is gainfully employed at wages that allow them to sustain themselves and their families economically, we know that crime is much less.

My administration will dedicate resources to creating pathways to career job training, education, and preparation. We will move funding from police to youth, school programs, after school (4-7 p.m.), which is the most critical of times, recreation, and art and cultural enrichment. Add to that, resources to support our families in their community with medical, mental health and social services and support for the growth of community-owned small business. Small business provides nine out of 10 jobs in Baltimore, according to the Baltimore Development Corporation. When we move with urgency to the matters mentioned, the cost needed for policing drops dramatically.

When we do not prioritize spending to the aforementioned matters, policing costs rise dramatically, as evidenced by Baltimore’s experience over the last 16 years. The city spending on police is at an all-time high, spending on education and youth is at an all-time low. We have our highest crime statistics and our greatest achievement gap among our students. This will change under my administration.

BFB: In your speech announcing your candidacy you presented dilapidated housing, a skyrocketing homicide rate, education deficits, high property tax rate, and high water bills as symptomatic of “the priorities of the past,” namely lucrative development deals concentrated downtown that offer “no benefit to the community.” What are the structural reasons for this pattern? Is there a permanent way to reverse the city’s priorities that would extend beyond the tenure of a Stokes administration?

CS: At times, the city seems to be governed by an oligarchy that is run by the wealthy. The wealthy pay little to no taxes while the low- to middle-income have their houses foreclosed for not paying exorbitant water bills. I have stood virtually alone in saying no to wealthy developers receiving huge tax breaks with no direct benefit to the communities only blocks away. From this point on, as Chair of the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, no TIF or similar tax incentive will move favorably by the committee unless tangible and direct resources are provided to the most vulnerable communities around these developments. As mayor, no tax break will be introduced that does not include a Community Benefits Agreement. I will make it so by executive order and ask the city council to enact legislation saying the same. Citizens should be treated equally, and property taxes for all must be dramatically reduced. Lastly, sharply changing the budget priorities for four years will be enough time to see the rewards to public safety, education, jobs and neighborhood services. By then, it would be very difficult to reverse the budget priorities in future years.

BFB: The unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral showed mayoral leadership includes the ability to navigate a crisis. What is the most important thing for a mayor do in that situation? What would you have done differently if you were mayor on April 27?

CS: I would have been on the streets meeting with the community, talking to the frustrated, the angry, the peacemakers. I will hire professionals in my cabinet who can carry out crisis management logistics and put forth and implement a sound strategy. My role is to trust them and be available to give approval for next steps. The mayor elected by the people needs to be with the citizens assuring them that due process will be guaranteed. The mayor should not be waiting to see what happens next.

Through the years, I have walked the streets as a matter of course to get to know my city and our citizens. I feel strongly that being present in the community, assuring the community that their voice is being heard and that their safety is my highest priority is the immediate role of the mayor in this type of situation.

BFB: After you voiced your frustration over the media’s use of the word “thugs” to describe black Baltimore youth on CNN, you were chastised for your use of a taboo word by an anchor who seemed to have completely missed the point of your original statement. Do you see a similar “communication barrier” across race in Baltimore itself?

CS: The divide is more generational. Non-African American millennials told me that they understood and supported my pushback. Some older citizens of both races were not so sure what I was saying. There is a great divide in our city because we are not in relationships with one another based on both race and generations. Where communities are integrated this divide is minimized; when you segregate neighborhoods the divide is wide and vast.

We are an intentionally racially segregated city regarding housing and communities. As an example, a year or more ago, when I would ask my white friends how they thought we all should respond to some police officers brutalizing so many black citizens daily, they were incredulous that I would say such a thing. “You mean beating up criminals?” NO, I would say, innocent people. Their response was, “that can’t be true,” proving we have a gap in racial knowledge of what happens in this city.

I said this city is a moment away from an explosion, with the actions of a few officers and the neglect of our communities by current and former leaders. Because so much of the city does not recognize the deep poverty, pain and stress of such a large segment of the black population — 44 percent of all black children in Baltimore live in poverty — we are stymied in our efforts to create pathways for all people to better opportunities for their families. Leadership cannot, and should not, dance around straight talk on matters of racial intolerance and neglect according to race, even if such neglect seems unintentional.

BFB: The Democratic primary is crowded with candidates, how do you stand out from your rivals?

CS: I have shown my willingness to take on and speak to the less-than-popular positions. I am a business person with public service experience. I know management, and I know governance, and I can fuse them with political will and acumen to get the best results for our city as a whole, but particularly for the most vulnerable of our citizens and neighborhoods. I co-founded two public schools for middle school boys to give them a quality education and start for a quality life. I am a proven leader with many skills through my extensive experience. Finally, and most importantly, I believe in the people of this city and in their strength and perseverance to work together. Now, they need a leader who is not afraid to start that conversation.



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