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    Baltimore Election 2011: Lessons Learned

    For the many of us who are anxious to move beyond the broken status quo in Baltimore, yesterday’s primary election was disappointing and frustrating.

    Still, there’s a lot of valuable information to be gleaned that helps us build a better map of Baltimore’s electorate – from its many problems to its deep divisions.

    • Turnout was pathetically low: 70,416 of 380,000 (18.5%). Some have said that “the issues didn’t resonate with voters,” and that could be true. However, a bigger trend to watch for is the decline of turnout generally. Many “seniors,” who made up the core of the voting population, are now dead or dying. How will we address this trend?
    • Voters are either displeased with, or not sure about, Rawlings-Blake’s leadership. 48% of voters felt we are definitely on the wrong track with Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Many more aren’t sure, but wanted to give her a chance with a full term in office. And there are 310,000 other voters who must feel so disconnected that they declined to express any opinion at all. There is no mandate here.
    • Otis Rolley swept the online progressive community. Any observer of the online world would have told you that Otis would have won in a landslide; his supporters kept a steady drumbeat on Twitter, Facebook, and on blogs throughout the campaign, and especially election day. But however strong he may have been in that community, he garnered just shy of 9,000 votes. No other candidate received any measurable online presence. This is further proof of Baltimore’s deep digital divide.
    • Too many candidates spoil the race. This would have been a very different race if Rolley, Pugh, Landers and Conaway had teamed up to challenge the Mayor. Pugh had nothing to lose by running; she keeps her Senate seat. Landers could have assisted Rolley with his tax plan. Conaway had no business being in the race at all. A two-way race between a Pugh-endorsed Rolley and Rawlings-Blake would have had a very different donor make-up, would have told a different story in the press, and would have had a different outcome.
    • Name recognition still carries weight. Dithering City Councilman Carl Stokes won again in the 12th district, despite a strong and credible challenge from the earnest and organized Odette Ramos. “Pistol Pete” Welch held his (inherited) seat, despite challenges from Abigail Breiseth and Christopher Taylor. These were both split-field races against “name brand” incumbents that also demonstrated the persistent racial divides in Baltimore.
    • Foolishness and incompetence will eventually get you booted. In a bright spot, it was nothing short of refreshing to see that Belinda Conaway was ousted from her seat by newcomer Nick Mosby. Conaway, in suing blogger Adam Meister for $21M (for his factual articles about her place of residence), spurred Mosby to run, and he won – 2,747 to 2099. One bear down, two to go.
    • City Council is broken. Baltimore’s system of government has a strong executive (Mayor) and a weak legislature (City Council). The City Council has been such a refuge of scoundrels that few want to be associated with it. Some suggested that Landers or Rolley should run for City Council president as a way to some day be mayor. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust a Mayoral candidate that was coming from City Council. There’s too much incompetence and corruption.
    • Our elections are broken. It’s ridiculous that our choice of Mayor would be made in a September primary, but with no viable Republican or Independent candidates, it’s the way things are. We need to get open primaries, or hold a run-off in November. My understanding is that this can be changed via petition and referendum, which means it is doable outside of the current political structure. This needs to be pursued immediately. Too many voters were disenfranchised in this process, and it’s unreasonable to ask people to switch parties in order to vote.
    • The Mayor spent (wasted?) roughly $2 Million on just 37,000 votes. In an election with just 71,000 votes cast, nearly $4 Million was spent. In a real way, the Mayor (and her tax-break seeking contributors) bought the election. The cost in the end to her was roughly $54 per vote. In a city with so much pain and brokenness, I find this morally repugnant. It’s worth nothing that Otis Rolley also spent roughly $50 per vote, so this metric is not a coincidence. It’s the “acquisition cost” of a vote in a top-tier modern Baltimore City election. We need to focus on lowering that cost.
    • The incumbent Mayor always wins. This is because the incumbent Mayor influences city business, and city contractors and developers know Baltimore is a “pay to play” town. They pay, they get favors. This allows the incumbent to buy votes – for $54 each.
    • Kiefaber was the favorite protest vote. Tom Kiefaber, the embattled former owner of the Senator Theater, who has been raising red flags about Baltimore Development Corporation (and interrupting City Council meetings) was the runner-up protest vote in the contest for City Council president with 5,390 votes. While Jack Young won in a landslide, the fact that a candidate like Kiefaber could get any traction at all shows just how deeply folks distrust – and ridicule – that body and its leadership.
    • The Sun missed a chance to create a better horse race. Jody Landers was right to complain that only 2 of the 5 members of the Sun Editorial board live in the city; there is also only one African American. If the Sun is going to pretend to have opinions relevant to city residents, those ideas should come from people that will have to live with the consequences. The editorial bent of the Sun’s coverage did not develop any kind of horse race between candidates, and frankly seemed to be pushing for the incumbent all along. In my opinion this was not just bad for Baltimore, but bad for business for the Sun. How many more papers could they have sold by developing a more compelling narrative?

    Those of you that know me know that my support for Otis Rolley was born out of a belief that Baltimore is worth fighting for, and that Baltimore deserves better. I share that belief with Otis, and with Tom Loveland, Aaron Meisner, Brian LeGette, Terry Meyerhoff Rubenstein, and so many others who supported his campaign. I supported Otis because of my beliefs; my beliefs are not shaped because of my support of Otis.

    This is an important distinction. Too often when folks think “politics” they think it’s about pitting candidates against each other, and insider interests and gaining financial advantage. But in this case, that has nothing to do with it. I simply believe that we are on the wrong track and that we can do better. I have nothing to gain in my support of Otis – unless you count living in a city that might have a shot at being strong again, and one where its leaders listen to citizens.

    But we also learned something else. It’s tempting to think that real change can occur through online organizing and Twitter and Facebook and the coming-alive of the “new” Baltimore or the youth vote, or via SMS messages or what have you. And sure, those things will play a part in any election going forward.

    But the most important lesson is that Baltimore is a city of tribes: poor, rich, black, white, Hispanic, digital, homeless, addicted, corrupt, idealistic, and blue-collar – to name only a few. Few of us ever break out of our own tribe. We surround ourselves with our own points-of-view and hear what we want to hear.

    For Baltimore to grow, we need to break free of our tribes. We need to be occasionally uncomfortable. We need to do real public service, and build up the kind of roots in our community that ultimately allow meaningful change to occur.

    As Otis said last night, this is just the beginning of a campaign to take back our city and stand up for Baltimore’s future. But that won’t be easy. Done right, it will make us uncomfortable, as we reach out across tribes. It will take serious commitment, and much more than “Likes” on Facebook.

    In the end, it will require our full and unconditional love – of our fellow citizens, and our city.

    Time to Break Free: Baltimore Votes

    I’ve been vocal about the 2011 Mayoral Race in Baltimore. It’s an opportunity to break free of the machine and finally put the city first.

    But there’s a sorry timidity in Baltimore politics. Everyone agrees we need change. But too many are resigned to the way things have been, and whose “turn” it is. Who owes who favors. But this is a democracy, you say. Every vote counts, right?

    That’s not how things have been. In Baltimore, the fix has always been in. However, last year we started to see the machine creak. Upstart young candidate Bill Ferguson unseated 27-year incumbent George Della. Gregg Bernstein defeated long-time incumbent Pat Jessamy. Cynics would point out that Ferguson was adopted by a clique of developers, or that Jessamy ran a horrible, entitled campaign. But still, this wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

    There is other evidence of the decline and fall of the system. Ridiculous and incompetent Belinda Conaway filed a $21M suit against a blogger – which backfired. Now her challenger Nick Mosby has a real shot at upending the ludicrous and long-time Conaway “three bears” platform. And her father Frank appears more ridiculous every day.

    I want more for Baltimore. That’s why I’ve supported Otis Rolley in his campaign for mayor. I’m simply tired of business-as-usual in Baltimore.

    Specifically, I’m tired of developers being offered tax breaks in exchange for campaign contributions. I’m tired of city contractors being given lucrative no-bid contracts in exchange for campaign contributions. I’m tired of the same old tribe of corrupt, cynical power brokers doing what they have always done.

    A vote for Otis is a vote for new blood – and for entirely different people. Don’t kid yourself. When you vote, you’re not voting for policies or a platform. You’re voting for a power structure. You’re voting for a group of people.

    • Stephanie’s people: out-of-state contractors, developers, city contractors, democratic party operatives, county-based people with interests in the city, friends of her father’s, the Governor, the Governor’s brother, attorneys, KAGRO (the trade group that represents the Korean corner-grocers profiting from Baltimore’s food deserts), casino operators, scrap metal dealers, city employees. These people have either “paid to play” or are actively benefiting from the decline, fall, and eventual ruin of Baltimore – or want to have a finger on exactly how Baltimore is run.
    • Otis Rolley’s people: real citizens of Baltimore (rich and poor; more individual donations than any other candidate); tech people, urban farming people, entrepreneurs, designers, patrons of the arts, folks from ALL of Baltimore’s neighborhoods.
    • Catherine Pugh’s people: contacts from her work in Annapolis, aerospace contractors (?), some decent and concerned folks throughout Baltimore, a computer repair shop on Fayette street, Scott Donahoo (used car dealer).
    • Jody Landers’ people: folks primarily concerned with the property tax issue, strong base in NE Baltimore, realtors, and many individuals associated with real-estate issues and encouraging residency in the city. (Ed. note: this post previously made reference to Live Baltimore, on whose board of directors I serve. There was no intention to associate Live Baltimore with any candidate or agenda.) Not many others.

    I like and respect Jody Landers and Catherine Pugh. However, I had hoped that Jody would weigh his chances, drop out of the race, and back Otis. I, and others, asked him to do just that. And I think Catherine Pugh can do more for Baltimore by continuing to serve as a State Senator in Annapolis. She had nothing to lose by running for Mayor.

    The conventional wisdom (The Sun, with its one poll and its feeble, lackluster endorsement of Rawlings-Blake) says that the fix is in, and we should just accept our fate.

    There is one way that this race can end differently, and that is to turn out votes for Otis Rolley tomorrow.

    The same set of jaded old political pundits (Barry Rascovar, Frasier Smith, Matthew Crenson – I’m looking at you) who will tell you that the “race is in the bag” for Stephanie are the same ones who also predict that turnout will be atrociously low on Tuesday.

    Wonder why that would be? Maybe folks are tired of being told how to vote, and that races are over before they start.

    It’s true. The internet and social media are not the drivers of voting behavior in Baltimore yet. But the Ferguson, Bernstein, Mosby, Ramos, and Rolley candidacies have received a boost from discussion by “networked citizens” that is unprecedented in Baltimore. And that’s something that the Sun’s lone pollster and our 1980’s era political pundits seem incapable of understanding. And the sentiment on Twitter has been overwhelmingly in favor of Otis Rolley (with almost no mention of Sen. Pugh, and few positive comments for the Mayor.)

    It’s impossible to predict the outcome of tomorrow’s race. But know this: YOU can change it. You have a voice. Go vote. Get others to vote. Baltimore deserves that.

    And beyond tomorrow, there’s another truth: 5th most violent, the 6th dirtiest and the 7th most murderous is no longer good enough for Baltimore.

    To all those who say “stay the course,” please get out of the way. Baltimore deserves the best. We’re done waiting.


    Check out Tom Loveland’s insider view of this election (and accompanying post). The reality will surprise you.

    Otis Rolley delivers this powerful “closing argument” on why you should choose him as your next Mayor.

    Otis shows his deep love for Baltimore, and understanding of cities, at TEDxMidAtlantic 2010.

    Is Baltimore’s Mayor Corrupt?

    A public official is said to be corrupt when they place their own personal gain ahead of the people whom they are supposed to serve.

    I have come to believe that, based on this simple definition, Baltimore’s interim Mayor is corrupt. Here is why.

    In the 2007 Mayoral election, there were just 86,125 votes cast, in a city of 640,000 people. Sheila Dixon won that election with 54,381 votes, a majority and 63% of the vote.

    It’s quite likely that turnout in the September 2011 primary will be comparable. Early polls indicate that in the current four-way race between Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Otis Rolley, Jody Landers, and Catherine Pugh, the winning candidate will need just over 30,000 votes.

    Reports indicate that Rawlings-Blake has raised and will spend close to $2 Million in her attempt to capture that pool of about 30,000 votes.

    That’s $67 per vote.

    Under pressure to compete with her, the other candidates will, combined, likely raise another $1 Million or more. That means that in total, over $3 Million will be spent on this election. Overall, that’s about $37 per vote.

    If Ms. Rawlings-Blake has such a knack for fundraising, perhaps she should be out rounding up money to keep rec centers and pools open.

    If she had said that she was capping her total fundraising for this election at $500,000, and devoting her time and energy to working for the city she professes to love, that would have been a tremendous gesture. And it would show true magnanimity, and foster a renewal of public trust.

    Instead, she has abused the power of her office to aid her campaign fundraising. To me, gift cards or not, that is corrupt behavior. I want a mayor that’s out working for my city, striking imaginative deals that shape our future in a meaningful way, and creating a real dialog with citizens. Instead, we get a Mayor that hides from candidates forums and refuses debates, but finds time to play I-Spy as part of a campaign stunt.

    I want a mayor that’s learning from best practices from all over the world instead of mired in local political drama and grooming her enemies-list.

    It’s not time to “give her a chance,” it’s time for her to find a new gig. She’s been in office for 17 years. She’s had her chance. If you want someone to preside over decline, she seems to be capable of doing a middling job of that. If you want someone to lead the city into the future, we need someone who can lead, and who thinks about the future.

    As Baltimore’s Grand Prix fiasco approaches (brilliantly, comically placed and timed in a tidal basin at the height of hurricane season), ask yourself if it represents meaningful leadership. Ask yourself if it is corrupt leadership.

    I believe it’s bread and circuses. I believe it is rule by cronies and developers. And I believe it is political puppetry of the highest form; the Mayor is wired to do the bidding of Governor O’Malley. I don’t want four more years of that. I want out. What’s best for the Governor may or may not be best for Baltimore. That should be self-evident to any thinking person.

    You may know that I was an early and vocal supporter of Otis Rolley. And I stand behind Otis today. We can debate the specifics of his plans, but at least he has real plans and ideas, and is open to input and discussion. And he will put Baltimore and its citizens first.

    So when you vote on September 13 (YES, September 13 – it’s the primary that will decide this election, not the General) ask yourself whether you’re going to let the Mayor get her money’s-worth.

    Will you let your vote be bought for $67?

     

    A New Leader for a New Baltimore

    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.

    Otis Rolley

    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: