A mayor’s job, generally speaking, is to be an advocate for their city and to promote its economic well-being. One of the most important ways to achieve this is to attract and retain residents by creating a high quality of life.
Livability – defined by density, walkability, and strong public transit – is central to this. Mayors across the country have woken up to the idea and are pushing their cities forward, from Michael Bloomberg to Rahm Emanuel to our own Tom Menino. Just last week, Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett declared that it is time to stop building their city for cars and start creating a place that people want to be.
Yet other mayors are stuck in the past, convinced apparently that their cities are one gimmick or convention center away from prosperity.
But who is the worst?
For our money, Baltimore’s Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is the score to beat. Since assuming office in the wake of Shelia Dixon’s indictment in 2009, Rawlings-Blake’s reign has been characterized by a lack of vision, bungled projects, and ineptitude. She has presided over sweeping cuts to parks and after school activities, tax breaks for a big box superblock development, and straight-up cronyism.
Still, nothing typifies SRB’s failure as Baltimore’s mayor better than the ongoing Grand Prix debacle. The city recruited IndyCar to hold an annual race on the streets of downtown Baltimore. Rich with wide thoroughfares and generous curves, downtown streets are ideal for open-wheeled race cars driving 180 miles per hour.
Setting aside the questionable optics of staging a car race in the heart of a city, the Baltimore Grand Prix is a logistical nightmare for residents and workers. Concrete barriers and bleachers disrupt travel patterns for drivers, transit riders, cyclists, and pedestrians alike for a month leading up to the event. Trees are removed in the name of cleaner sightlines. And the noise!
Yet Rawlings-Blake champions the event as a critical jolt for the city’s economy, despite all evidence to the contrary. The Baltimore Marathon is responsible a greater economic impact with almost no inconvenience.
But the worst part is the blatant corruption behind its planning and execution. Following the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix in 2011, Baltimore Racing Development was having trouble paying its bills. Eventually it filed for bankruptcy and left its creditors (including Baltimore City itself) in a lurch. Obligations, such as replanting those street trees were never fulfilled. For all its trouble, Baltimore got stuck cleaning up after BRD’s mess and paying for it.
After everything that happened in 2011, SRB and her team worked feverishly to help create a new organization, Race On LLC, and start planning the 2012 Grand Prix. The new organization is led by her largest campaign contributor and made up almost entirely of the same clowns who botched it up the first time. The same people who absolved themselves of their responsibilities are now collecting salaries to do it all over again. With the mayor’s full blessing and encouragement!
This is the true brilliance of SRB’s awfulness. Not only does she aggressively pursue exactly the wrong projects and policies, she employs corrupt and misguided tactics to make sure they happen.
Rawlings-Blake can’t be blamed for all of Baltimore’s ills – its drugs and crime, it’s 6-lane one-way streets, or its ineffectual transit system – she inherited those. But we can ask why she insists on thinking backwards and refuses to embrace progressive ideas. Baltimore deserves better.
That’s our vote. What do you think? Do you know a mayor who can top it? Leave your suggestions for worst U.S. mayor in the comments. Next week we’ll compile the results and see if someone can dislodge SRB from the top seat.