The second in a series of interviews with the top-polling contenders for the Democratic nomination for mayor.
Despite never holding elected office before–and in large part because of that fact–former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller hopes to be the political outsider who can help “right the ship” in Baltimore City.
“I think that someone who stands outside the political system that has not delivered for this city for decades, but is inside the city in terms of being a long-term resident and someone who knows the communities and has been deeply involved for decades and has the knowledge of this city and what it needs is what could work here,” she said during a recent phone interview with Baltimore Fishbowl.
Miller spent 26 years at the locally headquartered investment management firm T. Rowe Price, where she started as as a municipal bond analyst and worked her way up to being the director of the firm’s Fixed Income Division.
Then in 2010, as the United States was picking itself up from the throes of the Great Recession, the Obama administration recruited Miller to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Miller became the first female Under Secretary of the Treasury for Domestic Finance and later served as the Acting Deputy Secretary of the Treasury until leaving in 2014.
Now, she is hoping to spark investment in Baltimore’s small businesses, residents looking for work and regional public transportation.
Unlike some other candidates, who have striven to set their crime plans apart from that of the current administration, Miller says she wants to work with current Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and build upon what is being done now to reduce crime in Baltimore.
After this Q&A was conducted, the Baltimore Sun reported that the Citizens for Ethical Progressive Leadership PAC, a political action committee supporting Miller, emailed potential donors about the strategy of targeting white voters and trying to their draw support away from two other candidates, Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott and former Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah.
The PAC’s treasurer, Martin G. Knott Jr., told the Sun that the email had been sent to five people before he realized that it was “poorly worded” and “doesn’t reflect our strategy or my intent.”
Miller, the only white candidate among the Democratic race’s leading contenders, disavowed the PAC’s activities, saying that the statements in those emails do no reflect her values.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Baltimore Fishbowl: You earned a master of City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Can you share how that has informed your understanding of urban development?
Mary Miller: I was fortunate enough to study under some of the best policy people in the fields of housing, public transportation and economic development, which was actually my area of focus when I was in graduate school. It led me to my first job, which was at the Urban Institute in Washington, which is a public policy think tank, and I spent four years there working on public finance, specifically urban infrastructure, finance and public pension systems. So, the degree in city and regional planning really got me interested in cities and how they build themselves, how they fund themselves, how they manage their employees, particularly benefits. We did a big piece of work on public pension systems, which are quite relevant to the city of Baltimore. But I was working on a lot of projects on funding urban water and sewer systems, public transportation, the basic set of building blocks of the city.
I had a job prior to that for just about a year and a half, working in Congress, right out of college before I went to graduate school. That work was working for a congressman who was on the house Public Works Committee at a time when we were passing some pretty massive federal legislation, including the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act in the late 1970s that really defined the environmental agenda for the next coming decades, and we still have a lot of work to do on those fronts. But to put Chapel Hill in context, I was so privileged to work and study under some of the leading thinkers on urban issues.
BFB: And then you worked for 26 years at T. Rowe Price, where you served as the director of the Fixed Income Division and a member of the Management Committee, correct?
MM: That’s where I ended my years there. I started out as a municipal bond analyst in 1983. They were just forming their municipal bond department, they were beginning to bring up municipal bond portfolios, and I was the analyst looking at all the raw material for the investments that they were making.
That included being the analyst for the city of Baltimore, looking at the city’s finances, looking at all the debt issuance from the city, whether it be for water and sewer projects in Baltimore, the stadium authority projects, the hospitals, colleges, universities, educational institutions, any nonprofit or city debt issued in Baltimore within my wheelhouse.
BFB: What was your time like at T. Rowe Price as a whole?
MM: Over 26 years, I rose through the ranks. I started as a very entry level analyst. I ended up running the municipal bond department for a number of years. I then ran the fixed income division, which includes the municipal bond department, but it was all of the investments we’re making in bonds, internationally, domestically, municipal, taxable. Every category of money market fund and corporate bond funds, municipal bonds.
I was the first woman to be put on the Management Committee of the firm. There were six people on the Management Committee and I served on that for five years. I expected that I would retire from that company. It was a great place to work. They gave me tremendous opportunities, and I loved the experience. But the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 really changed everything in terms of the crisis that we worked through, in terms of managing our investments and protecting the shareholders in our firm.
It gave me the opportunity to begin interacting with Washington. Then I was called over to Washington to talk to people at the Federal Reserve and at the U.S. Treasury about market conditions and what we were seeing happening. I was then recruited by the Obama administration to come and work at the Treasury after the financial crisis to work on economic recovery.
BFB: You joined the U.S. Treasury Department as the nation was dealing with the effects of the Great Recession. How did you help the country navigate the economic crisis then? And how would you apply those experiences to improving Baltimore’s economy as mayor?
MM: The first thing I was in charge of was managing the country’s debt, so I was managing all of our Treasury auctions and financing the government during that period. We were spending a tremendous amount to put fiscal stimulus into the U.S. economy because we were in a very deep recession after the financial crisis.
It’s not that different from what we’re facing right now, in terms of a very deep, sharp economic contraction. The federal government does not have to balance its budget and can run a deficit. In an economic downturn, there are a lot of what we call fiscal stabilizers that can kick in where the federal government can increase spending on things like unemployment insurance, can increase spending on aid to state and local governments can increase spending on direct aid to citizens. It’s what we’re doing right now, and it’s what we were doing back then.
We really did not see clear signs of economic recovery until 2012. I arrived at the beginning of 2010. The official recession was ending, but growth was very weak and growth was largely defined by this fiscal stimulus from the federal level. So what I was watching was signs of the private sector coming back and beginning to be part of GDP again.
We were working on some very big programs to help homeowners who were at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure. We were also running around for small businesses where we were putting capital into the banking system to help on lending to small businesses that could not normally get credit through the banking system. And that’s not very different from what’s going on right now as the federal government is trying to reach small businesses with the CARES legislation and the lending capital that they’re putting out there.
I stayed there for over four and a half years until September of 2014. That allowed allowed me to work through the recovery period, but also begin the rebuilding the economy part. After 2012, we were able to see that we were going to make it out of that.
BFB: How would you apply those experiences here in Baltimore as mayor?
MM: We’re in uncharted waters here with the coronavirus, and the speed and depth of the economic downturn that that has entailed. When you shut down business, when you shut down schools, when you shut down arts and entertainment in every venue, you cause a very sharp contraction of activity. What we need to do is build the bridges right now to help businesses and nonprofits and individuals get through this.
I think this city’s role is to make sure that we are accessing every form of aid possible to reach the citizens and businesses and nonprofits in Baltimore to help bridge this period and begin to plan for recovery. I sit on the board of a nonprofit called Baltimore Business Lending that makes small loans to businesses in Baltimore that are usually people of color- and women-led businesses that have struggled to get loans through the banking system. We are giving them loan relief, non-payment relief for a period of months, because we know that they don’t have the revenues right now to repay. And we’re structuring that assistance so that they can come out the other side and get back on their feet.
That’s an example of what I think my background and experience brings to the table right now to think about, How are we going to recover? And very importantly to me, How can we recover not only stronger but also more equitably? Because we have such great divides in the city in terms of communities that have struggled and have never seen the sort of investment they deserve and other areas that have thrived. I think this period gives us the opportunity to come back differently and to say we are going to drive investment into communities that have not had that before, to make sure that they are getting the opportunity, the jobs and the income that we need to restore in the city.
BFB: You’ve had experience in the federal government through working in the U.S. Treasury, but you’ve never held elected office. Why should Baltimoreans elect you to the highest position in the city government?
MM: I think this city needs a very strong leader with a good vision, with a lot of management experience running large organizations. Certainly the budget of the U.S. Treasury is larger than that of the city of Baltimore. I have managed large organizations in the public and private sector, large budgets. I have built strong teams, brought talent in to get things done. I think that is what Baltimore needs right now.
I think that someone who stands outside the political system that has not delivered for this city for decades, but is inside the city in terms of being a long-term resident and someone who knows the communities and has been deeply involved for decades and has the knowledge of this city and what it needs is what could work here. I do think that we’re going to need someone who can right the ship. We’re in a really tough place right now.
I think building the bridges between different levels of government, between the private sector with the nonprofit sector and philanthropists, is going to be key here because we need everyone at the table to help this city. So I would say it’s experience, it’s independence.
I have no baggage, no ties to anyone in the city that’s typically been supporting political candidates. I have a vision for Baltimore that’s different. It’s bigger and it’s more equitable than what I’ve heard other candidates talk about.
BFB: Baltimore mayors have grappled with the city’s violent crime for years and since 2015, the annual homicide rate has surpassed 300 people killed. Why is your plan the best to solve the violent crime in the city?
MM: I would like to see the city bring the same sense of urgency to violent crime that it’s bringing to the coronavirus right now. I have not seen elected leadership bring the sense of urgency and ownership and accountability to violent crime that we need to have here. We have a police commissioner who has a track record of reducing violent crime, settling a consent decree and bringing a much stronger sense of trust to a community. He did that in the city of New Orleans. We brought him to Baltimore. We need an elected leader who’s going to give him the resources and support he needs to succeed.
My plan is to get the best ideas that we have, from every direction, sit down with the police commissioner and every city agency, every state agency and the federal agencies that work in Baltimore on criminal justice, and agree on how we’re going to bring this problem to a halt. We cannot continue to politicize it and to score points by attacking the police commissioner and expect that we’re going to get anything different than what we’ve had.
We are spending in our budget almost a third of our money on something called public safety with very poor results. About $500 million goes to the police department and another $400 million is going to other city agencies involved in delivering public safety. I want to go through that budget line by line and figure out what is working, what is not working, where can we get the dollars to put the resources to bear.
We need to put more bodies in the police department’s homicide division and we need to improve our record in that office with better training of homicide detectives, better caseloads for them, better evidence that we’re giving to the prosecution, to make sure that we are taking violent criminals off the streets. People are just fed up with the lack of progress on this issue, and it is becoming the defining narrative of Baltimore, and we can’t allow that.
I have a great sense of urgency about solving this. I have a record of bringing people to the table and forcing parties to work together and agree on goals and putting the resources in place to succeed. And finally measuring ourselves, holding ourselves accountable, and making sure that we are meaningfully changing the numbers in this area because we can’t continue as we are.
BFB: The current mayor and police commissioner say the Baltimore Police Department’s plan to curb violent crime is working. And yet homicides in 2020 are around the same level as 2019. Do you feel the plan is working?
MM: I don’t think we’re seeing the evidence in the homicide numbers for sure. I think there are some other areas of crime where we’ve seen crime reduction, but there’s clearly more to do. I don’t think the answer is to replace the police commissioner and start a new planning process. We have a pretty good understanding of what works.
If you read all the candidates’ crime plans, there’s a lot of overlapping recommendations and they’re also very similar to things Commissioner Harrison talks about. I think this is more a management and resources issue. I don’t think there are great mysteries about what you need to do. We need to do those things. It’s a matter of execution and support, and making sure that we’ve made it the priority that it is. I don’t think this has been a priority for the leadership of the city. If it were, we would be seeing meaningful progress.
BFB: How would you improve and expand access throughout Baltimore to public transit, bicycling, walking and other transportation options not based around single-occupancy vehicles?
MM: It’s already the case that a third of Baltimore residents do not have access to a car. Our public transit system does not serve them well. I’m on the record saying I think we should move to a Regional Transportation Authority that brings local control of public transit back to Baltimore and the surrounding counties. It is unusual for a state to run a city’s public transportation system, and I think we would have much better agency, much better results, if we took control of the public transportation system in Baltimore.
At the moment, I do not see the prospect of building the Red Line, so I would focus on our bus system and making that work much better for the city. It takes too long to get from point A to point B in the city. We need a complete redesign of route structures, looking at populations, residents and workplaces and making sure that people can get to jobs easily in Baltimore. I’ve taken the bus around Baltimore and it is often ridiculous how long it takes to get from one place to another.
I would advocate the city’s Department of Transportation taking a much stronger hand in running the bus system, creating East-West corridors of bus lanes that are fast and get people from one side of town to the other more quickly, and considering other bus lanes that we could create in different directions in the city.
This is going to take work and study, but I am committing to do that. And while we’re doing that, I think we should really advocate for a Regional Transportation Authority with a sound financial model, so that we can deliver public transportation much better in Baltimore. I think that would have the advantage of improving a number of things like air quality and quality of life for people living in the city.
It can also give people more choices. I talk to parents who can’t send their kids to schools they would like to send them to because they’re reliant on the bus system and they don’t know that their kids can get to school, either in a timely way or in a safe way.
There’s a program called Complete Streets that the city has been working on for a number of years. I understand that there will be a new report this year, which does, I believe, address finality in the plans for biking routes in Baltimore, improving pedestrian access and making the city easier for people to navigate without cars. I think that’s a great idea and I look forward to seeing that and seeing what more we can do to make this a more bike-friendly city and more pedestrian-friendly.
BFB: The area has been transfixed with the “squeegee kid” debate about window washers on Baltimore streets. What would your administration do to connect people who are eager to work with well-paying jobs?
MM: I think the “squeegee kids” are just a good example of the lack of economic opportunity in Baltimore. We have not done a good job in our high schools, providing career and technical education to connect youth to good jobs. That is something that Kirwan Commission recommendations help address. I would like to go back and look at our school system and say, Why aren’t we doing a better job of getting kids into jobs? They would stay in school to finish their studies if they knew there was a promising job on the other side.
That involves investing in apprenticeships and internships in meaningful ways. We can do a better job with that and keep kids from working on the street as window washers. That is not a career. That is not a good job. I think this is really a matter of providing better opportunities to the school system and providing better workforce training and opportunities for people around out of school.
We have a very high unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds. That is explaining a lot to me in that we have not connected people with jobs well enough in the city. I think that’s part of the economic development challenge we have, but also part of the opportunity we have: a huge pool of untapped labor that we can put to work if we can find the right jobs and employers for them.
BFB: The acquisition of Legg Mason by Franklin Resources Inc., and the merger of WillScott Corp. and Mobile Mini Inc., signal the end of two corporate headquarters in the city. While that may not mean much to a lot of citizens, the city’s big companies, as the Baltimore Sun editorial board noted, populated the boards of many city arts, education and charitable enterprises, and had been leaders in the business community. Should the city be concerned by these transactions? And what will your administration do to attract the next Legg Mason and keep it?
MM: It is always bad news when you lose a corporate headquarters. It’s not just the jobs that you may lose–usually the companies are quick to say we’ll keep a local presence. You’ve lost the attention of the management of the company. That matters on so many levels in terms of further investment in your city, but also things like philanthropy, and the gifts that you’re making, the contributions you’re making to nonprofits in the city. It’s pretty devastating.
I think in the first instance, we need to do a better job of retaining the businesses we have in Baltimore. Why isn’t the mayor calling up the heads of local companies and asking, What do you need? How are things going? What can we do for you? How can we be helpful? I don’t believe we’ve built strong bridges with the private sector, and they are employing over 90 percent of the people in this city.
I think we have a tough slog ahead of us to attract companies from the outside to come to Baltimore until we bring our crime problems down. I think that that agenda of you asking a large company to move to Baltimore is probably hampered until we really can change the crime issues in Baltimore and project a very different image for our city.
Finally, I would say that organic growth is a really good avenue to take here. We have a vibrant startup community in Baltimore. These are small companies that are locating here because Baltimore is an attractive place to locate. It is low cost, its location is excellent, and we have a workforce. I want to encourage that much more in Baltimore, and some of that is being a champion for growth, attracting capital to Baltimore that will invest in these companies and help them grow and being a much more hospitable city for growth.
We have a small, small business resource center. Too small. I think it could be a much bigger operation to offer services to small companies that want to grow here: technical assistance, licenses and permitting, tech help, capital assistance, finding financing for small businesses. We could be much more supportive of that part of the economy. I look at those small companies and think, Which one of those could be the next Under Armour? Which one of them is going to be the next technology company we want to have here? There’s so much potential there, but the city could be much friendlier to that and I think could provide more resources.
BFB: While many major cities have seen population growth in recent years, the number of people living in Baltimore continues to decline. What are your main strategies for building healthy neighborhoods throughout Baltimore and making sure that investment is not concentrated in just a few areas so that current residents can participate in any resurgence.
MM: I like to talk about greenlining in Baltimore. We have a very bad history on redlining, which was a practice of not allowing loans and credit to go into certain areas of the city, and I think that vastly contributed to the disinvestment and deterioration of neighborhoods and communities in certain parts of Baltimore. We’re going to have to overcompensate by driving investment into those areas disproportionately because we need to bring the whole city back and we need to give opportunity much more equitably across the city.
I would take a program like Vacants to Value, which is designed to allow a small developer to buy a vacant home at a very low price, invest in it, improve it and put it back on the market. I would do that at much greater scale because I think it has a number of benefits. We could design the program very strategically to work in neighborhoods that are priorities to bring back. We could give jobs to people who live in those neighborhoods or near those neighborhoods who want to work on those houses and give them the construction trade skills to do that.
Then we can put those houses back into the market for people who want to live and work in Baltimore. That is the key, I think, to retaining population, giving people jobs, giving people an asset, a home that they can own and hand on to their children and the next generation. It’s a win-win for the city and one way that we can stem the population losses.
I’ve also talked about finding a responsible path to lowering the property tax rate in Baltimore, so we are less uncompetitive with the surrounding suburbs. Again, that comes back to a careful analysis of growth: growing the tax base, becoming more reliant on the income tax as a source of revenue because we’ll have more jobs. That will allow us to lower the property tax rate. I think that would be helpful.
But we’ve also got to make that investment in our public schools. That is another reason why people leave the city of Baltimore. We have to make public school educational outcomes much stronger, so people have confidence in the school system, want to live in the city, are happy to send their kids to school here. This is a multifaceted investment but one that we can’t afford not to make.
BFB: A bill to build new facilities at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park recently became law. Aside from keeping the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, what, if anything, should the city push for when the new penal code is being developed?
MM: I’ve looked at the Pimlico plan and I think it’s a good one. It refreshes a very tired facility but does it in a much better way for the community in terms of the range of services that will be there and the commercial investment and the Enoch Pratt library site that’s going to be there. I think that the plan is a good one, and the way it incorporates Sinai Hospital, Lifebridge, and the work that they’ll do right next to it. I think it’s a good plan for the area and I hope that we will be able to deliver on that.
I’m worried about the current economic environment slowing things down, but Pimlico’s certainly a part of Baltimore that deserves investment. I think that’s a good example of a number of parties in the city, the Baltimore Development Corporation, and the state all working together with the Stadium Authority to put in place the full package of a financing plan to do that. So I’m a fan. My only worry is whether it will get slowed down by this economic downturn, but I think it will be good for that part of the city.
BFB: We just passed the five-year anniversary of the Baltimore Uprising? What lessons did you learn from that?
MM: I think it brought to the fore the problems in our police department in Baltimore. It was the reason for the Department of Justice investigation and issuance of the consent decree because they showed that we had very biased, unconstitutional police practices in Baltimore.
I think that as tragic as the loss of that young man’s life was, it was a turning point in terms of exposing the problems that have grown in the practice of policing in Baltimore, the distrust in the community of our police system, and the beginning of the road to rebuilding that and rebuilding trust in the police department. That is not an easy process or a short process, but I think that it’s absolutely critical if we’re going to restore trust in public safety.
Secondly, I’m disappointed that it did not do more to change the economic situation of the city. We have almost a quarter of our citizens living below the poverty line. What has happened since then is very meager in terms of investment or changing the symptom of racism in the city. I hope that we’re in a moment where people are just done with not making progress on those fronts.
That’s why I think, in some measure, the pain we’re suffering right now with the health care crisis and a sharp economic downturn, will give us the impetus to finally begin to make changes in a much more urgent way. Because I don’t think we’ve changed much at all since the Freddie Gray unrest. It’s one of the reasons I jumped into this race because I’m so tired of not seeing progress on these issues.
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