Crab cakes, a pleasant waterfront district, and a Super Bowl title aside, few Bostonians probably want their city to be like Baltimore. Boston’s murder rate is much lower than Baltimore’s, our innovation industry is enviable, and our efforts to turn around public schools, however faulty and incomplete, are much farther along than those of most cities our size.
But the compass of Boston’s mayoral candidate Marty Walsh is curiously pointed south. At a forum on Thursday, Walsh was asked, “Which mayor would you call up to say I want to run my city the way you run your city?”
Martin O’Malley, the former Baltimore mayor who is currently the governor of Maryland, Walsh responded. He said it was because O’Malley, a white politician, won in a city where the majority of voters are people of color and faced many of the issues Walsh would face, such as “a declining school system, some violence in the street, lack of opportunity.”
Walsh said he would ask O’Malley how he “put in his policing plan, which is very successful. How did he turn the schools around? What collaborations did he have?”
This was not the first time Walsh invoked the name of O’Malley. In a September Globe questionnaire asking the 12 candidates in the preliminary election which municipal leader they most admire, Walsh said O’Malley, because he “reached across lines, talking with the ministers and other folks. I think that is one of the things in Boston we have to work on.”
At the moment, it appears Walsh is doing quite the job of reaching across lines, piling up the endorsements of the top former candidates of color and the backing of a slew of other community leaders concerned with schools, violence, and equal opportunity. Perhaps they sense what Walsh offers to Boston is what O’Malley once gave to Baltimore. The point is certainly not that O’Malley delivered a better city than Boston. It is more about how much a mayor rolled up his sleeves against adversity in a city so gritty that it was the subject of “The Wire,” the acclaimed HBO series about drug gangs.
When the Baltimore Sun endorsed O’Malley, a Democrat, to unseat Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich in 2006, it said, “When he was first elected mayor in 1999, the former two-term city councilman inherited a city of rising crime, failing schools, and shrinking economic prospects. He was able to reverse course in all these areas . . . There are still too many murders, too much poverty, and too many failing students . . . but the progress under the mayor’s tenure is clear and irrefutable.”
Though The Washington Post endorsed Ehrlich instead of O’Malley, the newspaper said the mayor took on “one of the toughest big-city mayor’s jobs in the nation” and made progress in “stanching Baltimore’s outflow of population . . . Mr. O’Malley did not solve the problems of rampant crime and rough schools in Baltimore, but he put a dent in them.”
O’Malley reportedly made that dent by instituting tracking systems to make government and school performance more transparent and policing more effective. Larry Young, a leading black radio host in Maryland and a former state legislator, told The National Journal that O’Malley struggled early, as some African-Americans claimed that certain police efforts were too aggressive. But Young said the mayor came to be respected “as somebody that’s got guts. Somebody who’s an overcomer, not a quitter.”
After Thursday’s forum, I asked Walsh why O’Malley has his attention. He said O’Malley demonstrated that change can occur if a mayor can build up trust. He also cited other cities that are doing things “a lot better than we do.” He praised New York and Chicago on parks, Seattle and Portland on environmental issues, and Cambridge on bicycles and clean energy.
“I’m not afraid to ask and take ideas,” Walsh said. The idea that a primary source of inspiration comes not from glittering cities but instead from grittier streets is an intriguing sign that Walsh, like the union man he is proud to be, will roll up his sleeves for the issues that still trouble Boston.Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.