Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Star-Crossed Mayor

He was a charismatic, ambitious Irish-American politician who first gained notoriety when he was elected mayor of one of America's largest cities while still in his mid-thirties.  His mayoral administration was dedicated to improving the quality of life in his city and increasing the effectiveness of the police department.  He made efforts to address persistent problems within his city's large black population.  Many people compared him to John F. Kennedy, and some pundits declared him a rising star in the Democratic Party who might one day become President of the United States - the first President to have served as a big-city mayor since Grover Cleveland.
Unfortunately, a riot stemming from a heavy-handed policing incident in a black slum neighborhood doomed his ambitions for higher office.
No, I'm not talking about Martin O'Malley of Baltimore . . .

. . . I'm talking about Jerome Cavanagh, who served as mayor of Detroit from 1962 to 1970.
The resemblance between the two is striking, though, to say the least.  Both Cavanagh and O'Malley set out to prove that a major American city could still be governed competently in spite of systemic machine politics and continued middle-class flight to the suburbs.  Cavanagh was quick to reform the Detroit police and push affirmative-action programs to get more blacks in municipal government, even as his Newark, New Jersey counterpart, Hugh Addonizio, did little to involve blacks in his administration, and Richard J. Daley ignored the need for urban-government and civil-rights reforms as mayor of Chicago.  As mayor of Baltimore in the post-civil-rights era after Baltimore became a black-majority city, O'Malley concentrated on using the CitiStat management program to improve city services and to pinpoint violent crime to get as many criminals off the streets and make black as well as white neighborhoods safe.  The program also helped to spur investment in Baltimore and get people to move there.  O'Malley later claimed that he had reduced violent crime in Baltimore by 39 percent by the end of his two terms, though some crime reporters and O'Malley's political opponents found his methodology to be flawed.  But both men established themselves as mayors who could get things done.
In addition to his reforms, Cavanagh was quick to make Detroit a showcase for smart urban renewal by getting his city to participate in the now-defunct Model Cities program.  This program was an initiative set up by President Lyndon Johnson's administration to find ways to fight urban poverty and improve infrastructure while promoting new development in the form of new skyscrapers and public buildings. Cavanagh secured money to aid economic growth for the city and promote downtown property values.  
It was the bugaboo of race, however, that cast a shadow on their respective careers.  Cavanagh's policies in Detroit failed to address the growing disparity between the city's poor black residents and the number of jobs in the auto industry, as the automakers were beginning to invest more in the suburbs, to which many of the city's white middle class residents were relocating.  The Big Three needed more lateral space than what was available in Detroit proper, and middle-class whites simply wanted lower taxes, better schools and bigger lawns.  Also, affordable housing got short shrift at the expense of the mayor's grandiose plans, and Cavanagh failed to see the growing resentment of the black underclass - this at a time when Detroit was hailed as a model for urban racial harmony.  The 1967 riot dispelled that.  As for O'Malley, his zero-tolerance criminal-justice policy was seen as a contributing factor to the 2015 death of criminal suspect Freddie Gray while in police custody, and the riot that followed Gray's death adversely affected O'Malley's presidential ambitions before he even announced his candidacy for the Presidency.  When the Freddie Gray riot started, O'Malley immediately returned to Baltimore from a vacation in Ireland to stand with black residents in the city's riot-torn neighborhoods (below), despite the fact that he was no longer mayor, but many of the residents refused to interact with him and some of them verbally and virulently scorned those who did.  O'Malley's reconciliatory efforts satisfied few if any Democrats looking for an alternative to Hillary Clinton as the party's 2016 presidential nominee.

The taunts against O'Malley came swiftly and quickly, especially from black figures.  Baltimore City's state attorney, Marilyn Mosby, squarely blamed O'Malley for Gray's death and the subsequent riot in spite of the fact that he had left the mayor's office eight years earlier, and professor and pundit Michael Eric Dyson laid into him, declaring that O'Malley had a lot of explaining to do for what Dyson judged to be a racist criminal-justice policy.  Dyson later endorsed Hillary Clinton for President, insisting that she could deliver on the promise of civil rights where Barack Obama had failed.  (Yeah, right.)  But "Daily Show" host Trevor Noah may have given O'Malley the ultimate kiss of death when he had O'Malley on his show: "I loved you in 'The Wire,'" he said to him.  Noah, of course, was referring to the fictional Baltimore mayor Tommy Carcetti on "The Wire," the crime series developed by O'Malley critic David Simon; Carcetti was a composite of real-life Baltimore politicians, including O'Malley.
However, and this is crucial to remember for those of us who may be pessimistic about O'Malley's future presidential ambitions, there are differences between him and Detroit's Cavanagh.  The 1967 Detroit riot happened on Cavanagh's watch, and he was ultimately responsible for failing to handle it, which Cavanagh himself acknowledged; as noted, Freddie Gray's death and the subsequent riot in Baltimore occurred long after O'Malley had left City Hall, which begs the question as to why his successors as mayor weren't able to correct his criminal-justice policy's shortcomings.  Cavanagh had had the federal government invested in his mayoralty; O'Malley had no such support.  Cavanagh failed at his later bids for U.S. Senator and governor of Michigan; O'Malley became a successful two-term governor of Maryland.  One key thing they both have in common, though is this:  Cavanagh (who died in 1979) was not and O'Malley is not racist.  Both Cavanagh and O'Malley did the best they could to ease urban racial animosity, which is like sweeping back the ocean with a broom.  And Michael Eric Dyson, like so many of O'Malley's critics, is guilty of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good by shunning O'Malley, a civil rights supporter and a tireless advocate for the rights of Hispanics, Muslims, and immigrants, in favor of the utterly clueless Hillary Clinton, whose nomination for President by the Democrats led to the election of Donald Trump. Oh, that's better.  
While O'Malley, like Cavanagh in Detroit before him, didn't have the sort of tension with his city's black population as mayor of Baltimore like Daley in Chicago and Addonizio in Newark did, I must admit that fear his compromised reputation among blacks in his adopted hometown will always be a problem.  Case in point:  When John Lewis, the civil rights icon and Georgia congressman, said in January 2017 that Trump was an illegitimate President because of Trump's possible ties to Russia, O'Malley tweeted support for Lewis, saying, "John Lewis is right. Trump wasn't popularly elected. A fascist candidacy based on racist fears [and] Russian help should never be legitimized."  I kept waiting for someone to go after O'Malley by saying that someone who, as mayor of Baltimore, disregarded civil rights by having so many black men in that city arrested by the police (many of the arrests under O'Malley's mayoralty were in fact repeat-offense arrests) had no business expressing solidarity with Lewis.  To the best of my knowledge, that did not happen.
On balance, though, O'Malley is in better position for a comeback than Jerome Cavanagh ever was.  He has a more solid record for getting results and for being committed to public service as a vehicle to advance the greater good.  His leadership qualities are bound to be reappraised and positively appreciated.    

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