Cities don’t need Congress to move forward: A conversation with the mayor of Baltimore

Last week, the nation's mayors gathered in Washington to cheer for their cities and check in with an administration that's long professed its commitment to cities (even if the entity set up to look after them has proven less than aggressive). Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who's served as the mayor of Baltimore since 2010, governs a city that's as closely tied to the federal government as any besides Washington itself. We sat down to chat soon after the mayors had met with President Obama himself. 


Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake campaigns with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Lydia DePillis: What were your big takeaways from the conference and the meeting with the president? 

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake: In the meetings that we had with the president, and with the members of his administration, it is very, very clear that they want 2014 to be a year of action, and that the president has grown impatient with Congress, and he seems to have given the directive to his Cabinet to find ways to work more closely with mayors on the ground getting things done for Americans, day in and day out. We're not threatening to shut down our city government over politics, we're not grandstanding. We're getting it done. A lot of the innovation that's sparking our economy, that's coming out of metros.

LD: So it's kind of an end run around the difficulties of working with Congress? What are the ways in which the administration could help cities more directly?

SR: Let's say transportation funds. So much of that money is wrapped up, I think by statute, and goes directly to the states. But with the other billions of dollars, we're trying to figure out how we can work together to build transformational projects that can do double duty or even triple duty. One,  it's infrastructure that we need, whether it's roads, bridges, rail, to continue to be competitive on the global market. But it also puts our residents to work. The president's been talking a lot about income inequality and those that were left behind in the recovery. I think it's critical for mayors and for the president's administration to look for ways to connect them with opportunities.

LD: One of those projects that's long been contemplated is high-speed rail.  

SR: Yeah, I'm all for that.

LD: Do you see any kind of action on that anytime soon? 

SR: So, I think if that kind of thing were to happen -- we were talking about innovative ways to get things done -- I think the better way to go would be to look for a public-private partnership. Look for outside investors that want to make it work and be partners with willing local governments. I don't see that coming out of Congress.

LD: So, private investment is the answer?  

SR: If I were a gambling woman, I would say that the odds would be on that as a path forward.

LD: One of the things I noticed at the conference is a lot of chatter about the return of manufacturing. In Baltimore, though, it's been a story of long decline. Is that for real? 

SR: Oh, I forgot about that. That's something that we've talked about and I'm very excited about. Baltimore's a blue-collar city, has a manufacturing history. And because of where we're sitting, we're poised to take advantage of the growth in manufacturing. I've been working with the conference of mayors and looking for ways to connect with those opportunities and employers that are looking to locate and have a ready-to-work workforce.

LD: The thing that seems to happen most often, when a company is looking for a place to put a new factory, is that cities get played against each other for subsidies and incentives. Is that healthy? 

SR: No, I think they should all just move aside and let Baltimore get it all.

LD: Well, that's one approach. Really though, what's your philosophy of competing for new business? 

SR: I think it's the game that is played. If we have an incentive that we can use to bring jobs to the city, I'm all over it. I don't think that's gamesmanship. I don't think it's playing one city against the other. I think it's using the tools that you have in the toolbox to do what your constituents want you do do.

LD: A lot of those manufacturers are looking for right-to-work states with low minimum wages where they won't have to deal with unions or pay much for labor. Neither of those things are true of Maryland. Is that an obstacle? 

SR: Yes, some companies look for that. But some companies also look for location, good access to rail infrastructure, good access to ports and the potential for high-quality employees, and that's what they'll find in Baltimore. They have to do their own cost benefit analysis. People who have long histories with labor know that unions have evolved, just like companies have evolved. And we have a strong history in Baltimore -- yes we're a strong labor town, but we're also a very pragmatic town. And I can give you example after example of unions and management coming together to move companies forward. Look at the story of Domino, which is growing again, growing jobs, and it's because union and management worked together.

LD: One of the biggest new successes for Baltimore has been Under Armour. What role did the city play in their success? 

SR: It played a lot. They've benefited from some state grants, and we've had to work very hard with them on their expansion plans to make sure everything was smooth. So when you're growing jobs as fast as Under Armour, it behooves the city to make sure we're a good partner, to make sure they cross all their t's and dot their i's. But if they're going to grow jobs, we're going to work with them to find a way to make that happen.

LD: I think it's fair to say that Detroit's bankruptcy was the biggest urban affairs story of 2013. Did that affect the tenor of the conversation at all at the conference? 

SR: I think it did. In our last big meeting at the conference of mayors, that was looming over. But for me, I tackled that issue before Detroit went bankrupt. I wasn't going to wait for Detroit. You could see the handwriting on the wall, and you have the opportunity to put your head in the sand and pretend like it's not gonna happen. I leaned in, and we had the fiscal health of the city evaluated by outside financial experts. They determined that we had a long-term structural deficit of $750 million, and we set about the business of correcting that structural deficit. It's been hard; it's been politically challenging and, you know, personally. These are tough calls that I've had to make with groups of people -- whether it's the unions, who I have a great relationship with and a lot of respect for -- but I cannot shirk from making the tough call. Just the work we've done in the first year and a half -- we've cut half the structural deficit. So I'm very proud that I didn't wait for Detroit's fate before I took action.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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