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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Baltimore: Racism or a Failure of Leadership?

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published on August 1, 2019

Last week, President Donald J. Trump called Baltimore, Maryland a "disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess" where “no human being would want to live.” The President also accused U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings' Congressional district in Baltimore of stealing or wasting "billions of dollars." Cummings is a Democrat and an African-American.

Yesterday, Housing Secretary Ben Carson, the lone African-American Cabinet Secretary compared Baltimore to a cancer patient wearing a "nice suit." He said the city has serious problems, including buildings with mold, lead and rodent infestation, which can cause serious health problems in children.

One of the biggest “slumlords” in Baltimore is Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose family real estate firm owns 9,000 rental units across 17 complexes in and around the metro-Baltimore area. Many of the Kushner apartment complexes are infested with rats and rodents. The Kushner properties generate at least $90 million in revenue annually. In 2017, the county officials reported some 200 housing code violations in apartments owned by the Kushner family in one year alone.

Setting aside the political sparring between Republicans and Democrats on this issue, the debate about Baltimore and similarly-situated predominantly black cities across America has focused the nation’s attention on the enduring failure of local government officials in these municipalities to deliver basic city services to their taxpaying political constituents. These services include: (a) providing a safe and clean water supply, (b) providing reliable and efficient sewage collection, waste disposal, refuse removal, (c) strictly enforcing housing, building, and vacant property code compliance, (d) providing adequate fire and police protection, (e) paving municipal streets and roads, constructing proper curbs and gutters, and managing storm water drainage, (f) providing adequate street lighting, and (g) providing and maintaining clean and safe municipal parks and recreational facilities.

The delivery of basic city services is a local government function, not a U.S. Presidential duty or Congressional responsibility. In today’s contentious and racially inflammatory political environment where throwing spitballs filled with hatred is the order of the day, the lines of federal, state, and local government authority and responsibilities often become blurred.

I have publicly condemned the failure of local government leadership on many occasions. My criticism of local elected officials is based on a comparison between what's happening today in majority black local governments and what my black colleagues on the Montgomery, Alabama city council were able to accomplish from 1979 to 1983 for our predominantly black council districts in the ultra-conservative, predominantly white political environment where we constituted only four out of nine council members. Remember, Montgomery was then, and is now, the “Cradle of the Confederacy” and “Heart of Dixie.”

From a minority political position, we: (a) ended the city’s debtor’s court operation that targeted and imprisoned black citizens who could not afford to pay their traffic tickets; (b) curtailed police brutality; (c) promoted economic empowerment; (d) applied for, received, and deployed millions of dollars in federal and state grant money that was used to revitalize the poorest sections in our council districts; (e) desegregated city boards and agencies; (f) increased school funding, improved facilities, added academic programs, and enhanced accountability in neighborhood schools; (g) passed a fair council redistricting plan after successfully objecting to the Mayor’s gerrymandered redistricting plan; (h) made it possible for ordinary citizens to address the city council without pre-screening barriers and procedural roadblocks that were designed to suppress their participation in the governance process; (i) researched municipal problems and issued written reports to the city government and other agencies; (j) found jobs and contracts for our constituents; and, (k) made sure that basic city services were delivered on an equal basis to all council districts.

We accomplished all of these things in the face of massive resistance to the progress we sought. Just imagine what we could have accomplished if my colleagues and I had applied our knowledge of local government, work ethic, and commitment to our political constituents in one of today’s predominantly black urban governments. We would not be talking about slumlords, rats and rodents. We would be talking about: (a) economic empowerment zones, (b) competition for global business relocation opportunities, (c) high school graduation rates that everybody can be proud of, (d) clean and safe neighborhoods in every council district, (e) aggressive and effective community policing, (f) infrastructure improvements in each neighborhood, (g) community reinvestment by banks and regulated financial institutions, and (h) many other quality of life enhancements that revitalize a city.

The Uniontown Example Offers Hope

If a predominantly black city is dying today, it is because the city’s elected officials are lazy or incompetent, or both. My experience in Uniontown, Alabama (pop.2,133 in 1970 census) explains why.

In 1974, I became the city attorney for the small city of Uniontown, which is one the poorest areas in the Black Belt. I served Andrew Hayden, the city’s first black mayor.

Hayden was the first African-American elected to the Uniontown city council in 1968. In 1972, Hayden ran for mayor in a hotly contested race and won.

The day before Mayor Hayden took his oath of office, all of the city’s white department heads and officials quit. The only white official who stayed on and worked with Mayor Hayden was Larry Tate, the chairman of Uniontown’s Industrial Development Authority and the president of the Central Bank branch in town. Before leaving, these city officials spent every dollar in the city’s bank account and left a note for Mayor Hayden that had one penny taped to it. The note, which was written on a 3” x 5” index card, said the penny belonged to a man who was the town’s well-known “drunk.”

From that challenging beginning, Mayor Hayden and his new administration worked hard to rebuild the city through state and federal grants and the attraction of new industries to Uniontown. We applied for and received the first Urban Development Action Grant ever issued in Alabama. We added police officers and expanded the police force; we built a new park with a safe and clean swimming pool; we built a new City Hall; we built a new fire station; we cleaned up all of the city’s neighborhoods; we literally ran violent criminals and gang members out of town; we strictly enforced housing and building codes; we offered “before and after school” care programs for school-age children; we gave a preference on the award of municipal contracts to local businesses; and we instilled and nurtured a spirit of community pride in the city.

Andrew Hayden won six terms in office and served as mayor of Uniontown for 24 years. I served as his city attorney until he left the mayor’s office.

Hayden also served two terms in the state legislature representing House District 72. His passion for public service and his ability to get things done made him a beloved and respected figure throughout his community and state.

Trump's Racism Diverts Attention from the Real Problem in Baltimore

I firmly believe that President Donald Trump is a racist. His father was a hardcore racist. His grandfather, who emigrated from Kallstadt, Germany to the United States at age 16 in 1885, came to America with racist views. Racism is all that Donald Trump knows.

Last month, Joe Kaeser, the CEO of German industrial giant Siemens, sharply criticized President Donald Trump attacking four Congresswomen of color by telling them to “go back” to where they came from. The women -- Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib -- are American citizens. Kaeser, whose company employs more than 50,000 people in the U.S. and has 60 manufacturing, digital and R & D locations in the country, posted this tweet about the Trump presidency, “It saddens me that the most important political office in the world is becoming the face of racism and exclusion.”

My mother always told me, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” Trump has shown me who he is, and I believe him.

Even though Donald Trump is "dyed-in-the-wool, unapologetic racist," I will not allow his racism to divert attention from the perennial failure of Baltimore city officials to deliver the basic city services their taxpaying political constituents deserve. There is absolutely no excuse today for the urban blight and decay in Baltimore and other large, predominantly black cities in America.

The place to start in cleaning up Baltimore is with a strict enforcement of the city’s housing code for the Kushner rental properties located within the city limits. If city officials take on one of the biggest “slumlords” in town, they will send a powerful message to all of the others.

PHOTO: Urban blight in Baltimore, Maryland. Is this the result of President Donald Trump's racism or a failure of leadership in Baltimore's city government?

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