The 2011 Mayoral contests represent a unique opportunity to make American cities work again. Cities have already begun an inexorable return to relevance as refuges from crushing commutes, and as havens of culture and innovation. Our economy is increasingly hitched to our ability to develop and capitalize on innovative ideas, and that innovation can’t happen when folks are trapped in their cars and isolated in the matrix of suburban sprawl. Cities are the American future.
But in the early 1970’s, they were left for dead: victims of race and class warfare, they became abandoned places – a place where people work or would go to the symphony, but not places to build a life or raise children. Formerly walkable, livable cities degraded into a-la-carte destinations you could get into and out of quickly as 1950’s visions of suburbia gained dominance.
With this shift, cities’ political influence waned, and city politics evolved into a top-down enterprise. Power brokers, political clubs, and church groups conferred power on those who would play the game and wait their turn. In Baltimore, city politics became either a launching pad for state office, or a refuge of scoundrels whose city fiefdoms became ends in and of themselves. Instead of working for Baltimore, all too often our politicians have tried to enrich themselves at its expense. With minimal popular interest and the atrophy of the press, there has been increasingly less oversight. So the machine has lumbered on – unencumbered by the tempering force of investigation, new blood, or real political imagination.
In other contexts, leaders are judged on their ability to lead and deliver tangible improvements. But in our cities, it has become enough for our politicians to just not screw things up even worse than they found them. Enough. It’s time to move forward again.
In 2010 we saw some new trends: long-term incumbents who fit the old standard – of merely not being demonstrably corrupt or incompetent – were booted out. And not because of typical anti-incumbent anger, but because people saw something else: that maybe we could demand better.
In Baltimore, 27 year-old newcomer Bill Ferguson delivered a decisive blow to 27-year incumbent State Senator George Della. Gregg Bernstein defeated long-time incumbent Baltimore City States Attorney Patricia Jessamy. These races shared two things in common: no one thought they could upset the machine, and they used the Internet to organize financial and ideological support.
The simultaneous rise in the demand for urban living along with the use of the Internet for political and community organizing will usher in an era of unprecedented change in American cities. With the 2010 races, the old system was put on notice; in 2011 it will begin to be dismantled.
I support Otis Rolley in his candidacy for Mayor of Baltimore in 2011. At 36, Otis is part of the new guard. He’s qualified – he has a masters’ degree in City Planning from MIT. He has been in Baltimore since 1998. He served 10 years in the public sector and two in the private sector. As an executive, he led the Baltimore City Department of Planning and – shockingly – produced the city’s first actual master plan in 39 years.
In his time at Planning and as a Chief of Staff, Otis was struck with one question: can’t we do better than this?
Indeed we can. Leadership is about creating a culture based on shared values. We need a leader who is willing to stand up for his values and the values of people who care and work hard, and not allow entrenched career “slugs” to dilute those efforts. He proved he could do this at the Department of Planning, empowering those who had a vision for the city, pushing out those that did not.
But while Otis was able to turn around a non-performing department and produce a workable plan for the city, he ultimately realized that the only way to see its recommendations executed was as Mayor. We should give him this opportunity.
Otis can turn around our city the same way he turned around a department: by creating a new culture. Frankly, there are a lot of people in city government who should be looking for other kinds of work. We can start there.
Otis understands that we need to start allocating our resources differently. Economic development has for too long been about big projects, like the currently proposed $900 Million Baltimore Arena redevelopment. While this plan would assuredly enrich some developers and provide ample future backing for political operators looking to entrench themselves for a lifetime in Maryland politics, we should instead be thinking about new ways to capitalize on Baltimore’s biggest economic development assets: its people and its fortunate geography.
If instead we were to invest $900 Million in the infrastructure to support entrepreneurial enterprises and startups, we could potentially create tens of thousands of jobs across a wide range of income levels. A new startup-friendly Baltimore could outperform other regions in terms of standard and cost of living as well as access to a world-class workforce. A strategic focus on manufacturing, both large and small using the latest technologies, could restore what was once a thriving middle class. Arenas, convention centers, stadiums and hotel subsidies just deliver more jobs that don’t even pay a living wage. Otis knows we can do better.
In 2011, we have a choice: do we want to be a good city, or a great city? Otis has a vision that he will articulate over the coming months as part of what should be an open and healthy debate around the future of our city, and not about personal politics. As I have come to know Otis over the past 14 months, I am confident that he is the right leader for Baltimore’s future. If you give him an opportunity to serve, you will not be disappointed.
Baltimore is Otis’ first priority. He has no aspirations for higher office. He wants to work for Baltimore and for all of you. In 2011, we have the wind at our backs – cities are on the upswing, and the Internet is connecting us in unprecedented ways. It’s time to take back our cities and make them the vital, beautiful, functional, and inclusive places we all know they can be. Otis Rolley can help us do that. This is Baltimore’s moment; let’s seize it together.
You can support Otis Rolley in 2011 by visiting his campaign website (http://otisrolley.com) and by attending the January 11th performance by Bill Cosby in support of his candidacy. Follow Otis on Twitter at @otisrolley and on Facebook at http://facebook.com/otisformayor.
Also check out Otis’ talk at TEDxMidAtlantic on November 5, 2010: