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Late April in Baltimore: The Aftermath

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Crises happen in the lives of chief executives that wipe their calendars clean and shove everything off the desk.

That’s what happened the last week in April for Gov. Larry Hogan, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and a host of elected and appointed officials who were confronted with protests that turned into riots, looting and arson.

The sorry images of Maryland’s major city, out of control and in flames, went national and international. They made the political arguments about Hogan’s action on the budgets and the tiff it caused with the Democratic majority in the legislature seem just a minor spark compared to a city ablaze.

President Obama, like most presidents, is always fitting the crisis of the day into his long-term plans. Not only did he talk on the phone several times with Hogan and Rawlings-Blake, he took 15 minutes out of a press conference with the prime minister of Japan to give a six-point, complicated response to a question about Baltimore. He apologized to Shinzo Abe, “I’m sorry, Mr. Prime Minister, but this is a pretty important issue for us.”

The riots reopened long-standing wounds, and long-festering problems in Baltimore that are easy to ignore if you only visit downtown, the stadiums or the glittering East Harbor.

Governors and Mayors

Friction between Maryland’s governor and the mayor of its largest city has been common in the past, even when they are both Democrats.

Hogan clearly was sensitive to an old white guy big-footing on the beleaguered female black mayor. But he couldn’t resist suggesting the she had waited too long to ask for help from the state and the National Guard, aid which Hogan had been preparing to give for more than a day.

The mayor and her police force were clearly overwhelmed. The state has had a long history of coming to Baltimore’s assistance, but it’s easy to understand how the help is both welcomed and resented. No one likes to be reminded that they can’t handle their own problems.

Baltimore gets more state aid, direct and indirect, than any jurisdiction in the state, even though it has been overtaken in population by Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore counties, with a growing Anne Arundel County coming up fast; unlike those jurisdictions, the state runs Baltimore’s community college and its jail — not very successfully, as the corruption prosecutions at the Baltimore City Detention Center have shown.

Hogan made a big deal of moving his office to Baltimore, but Maryland governors have long had an office downtown. Some, like former Mayors Martin O’Malley and William Donald Schaefer, used it more than others. The governor is, after all, governor of the entire state, including Baltimore, and the majority of state employees actually work in the city, not Annapolis.

Budget Battles

Here’s where the budget battles at the State House intersected with the long-standing problems of city neighborhoods with crummy schools, low incomes, high unemployment and awful housing surrounded by trashy streets and boarded-up homes. It is actually a quarrel over a very small percentage of state spending, with Hogan emphasizing the need to cure the persisting structural deficits.

The state takes in less money than it has promised to pay out. Baltimore always wants to get at least what it has been promised, but usually more. It is never enough for the city. Even Republican Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman has asked Hogan to fully fund the geographic cost of the education index, which will give many jurisdictions more school aid.

Rawlings-Blake surely resents the need to rely on Hogan for aid, which explains why she acknowledged the National Guard troops he sent, but did not thank him by name or title for sending them.

Hogan’s Broader Goal

The governor has an even more important motive than a charitable impulse to help a beleaguered city and its shocked citizens. Showing strong, positive leadership is one of them.

The national and international coverage of the rioting and looting of businesses seriously undermines Hogan’s broader goal of creating more jobs for the state and showing Maryland is open for business.

The problems over the death of Freddie Gray had already made national news before the city exploded on Monday. National networks flocked to Baltimore to cover the disturbances and their aftermath. There were multiple segments on broadcast and cable networks, and Washington stations provided extensive coverage.

Hogan has an economic development trip to China, Korean and Japan planned for late May and early June. With Obama highlighting Baltimore’s problems in a press conference that largely emphasized Asian issues, it is hard to imagine the riots not being mentioned at all on that trip, if only behind his back.

The coverage has been so widespread and intense that even the casual news consumer will have heard about Baltimore’s problems. They have even seeped into the sports world, with the game between the Orioles and the Chicago White Sox that was played in an empty stadium for the first time anyone knows of. It was a bizarre and newsworthy event.

Effect on Tourism

Besides the riots’ short-term impact on local businesses, Baltimore’s tourism could be affected, and trade shows and conventions might take a pass on a second tier city that has had first tier civil unrest. Two smaller conventions were cancelled the week of the riots.

Other businesses might have second thoughts about locating in, or near, a city that desperately needs new jobs and residents. The mayor had a stated goal of increasing Baltimore’s population by 10,000, but in the wake of the civil unrest that even touched downtown, she can probably kiss that goal goodbye.

Regardless of how Rawlings-Blake treats the governor as she copes with critics of her actions and the damage to her reputation, Hogan had plenty of strategic reasons to restore Baltimore’s law and order and its national reputation that have little to do with whoever is in charge of City Hall.

Maryland already had a hard path to overcome its reputation as less-than-friendly to business, but the national black eye its biggest city got at the end of April will make that climb even harder.