The Baltimore Mayoral Election Is About More Than Black Lives Matter

Maryland State Delegate Jill P. Carter speaks to Pacific Standard about the promises and perils in Baltimore.
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Baltimore City Hall. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Baltimore City Hall. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Baltimore's high profile mayoral race picked up steam yesterday when Black Lives Matter candidate DeRay McKesson released his 26-page campaign platform. McKesson's late entry into the Democratic primary—which in effect calls the race in historically blue-voting Baltimore—has fit perfectly into the "year of the outsider" narrative fueling breakaway campaigns from Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Following last Thursday's ruling by Maryland's highest court to pause the trials of the officers charged with killing Freddie Gray, whose death propelled nationwide calls for police reform, the stakes in Baltimore are only higher.

Still the hardest city in America for children to escape from poverty, Baltimore is an easy choice for gloomy media analyses of income inequality and racial injustice. But Baltimore residents like 13-year Maryland State Delegate Jill P. Carter have long been fighting—and sometimes winning—for a better city. Carter has been demanding police reform since the 1999–2007 mayoral tenure of Martin O'Malley (who dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary just this month). She was also one of the first Baltimore politicians to publicly oppose McKesson's campaign.

Carter spoke with us over the phone from Annapolis, Maryland, about her objections to McKesson's candidacy, why this mayoral race is more complicated than "Black Lives Matter versus party establishment" headlines, and Baltimore's uphill battle for change.

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You've endorsed Maryland State Senator Catherine Pugh for mayor.

What I think is really critical for turning the city around is to change our philosophy on law enforcement and criminal justice. She was amenable to my ideas, and I'll be able to work with her. She's very innovative and progressive in thinking and willing to be a little more open to collaborating.

Why not DeRay? Why did you call his campaign "ridiculous"?

The big issue is that he probably can't win, because he's not connected to any community in the city. You may think he'd have an automatic base in young people between the ages of 18 and 35 interested in political reform, or at least law enforcement reform, but he's not yet necessarily seen by those communities as authentic.

Jill P. Carter. (Photo: Maryland Manual On-Line)

Jill P. Carter. (Photo: Maryland Manual On-Line)

Among the activists I know, there's some modicum of resentment here toward the idea that the change Baltimore needs has to come from the outside. DeRay's acclaim has come from going around to other cities. He's from Baltimore and was born and raised here. But there are other people who have spent their lives fighting for reform between Annapolis and here.

I understand you have a family history of political activism.

My father was a civil rights activist and leader, kind of an icon. At one point he was the head of the [local] Congress of Racial Equality, but then he founded a group called Activists for Fair Housing. They wanted to address what people called the "black tax"—policies like predatory lending practices that make it harder for black civilians to buy homes. Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro [III] nominated him to a community action agency at the time. In that position he felt he would've been able to reform public housing and make it more affordable for everyone. But [succeeding mayor William] Schafer discouraged support for my father and his nomination didn't go through. Most of the entire community action board resigned in support of my father's position.

I see some parallels between my father's story and mine. I've been pushing the envelope on law enforcement reform forever, and Annapolis has been pretty resistant.

What's wrong with Baltimore's current approach to law enforcement?

It began especially with hyper-policing in the 1980s, during the crack era. Now there's a lot of lip service given to community policing—I'm not sure I even like that term. A lot of politicians' view of community policing is just foot patrols: "We're going to tell the officers to get out of the car and walk in the community." They really think it begins and ends there. But first of all, you need recruiting and hiring from within communities, and better training on the ability to understand and relate to people in our communities. Then it's much easier to identify and mete out crime and identify people who may be troubled and need other kinds of help. [Editor's Note: Carter provided Pacific Standard with a Baltimore City Police report, prompted by her Maryland House Bill 771, finding that only 21.4 percent of officers were living in the city proper as of November 1, 2015.]

What other problems in the city are you tackling through legislation?

Honestly, most of the bills I have now are bills that should have passed before. One issue that has been around for a while but is getting a lot of attention this year is bail reform. This issue of locking people and holding them in jail when they aren't violent. In Baltimore in particular, that's a huge problem. There's a large population of impoverished people who can't afford small bail upon arrest. Sometimes they lose their jobs, their dignity, and their families because they can't afford bail. We really need to reform the pre-trial system.

And you're also doing work on lead poisoning in the city?

There are two pieces of legislation I've sponsored. One has been around since before I started [as a delegate], and would simply enable the Maryland government to go after companies that knew lead paint was dangerous. Holding paint companies accountable is the only way to get resources to tackle this problem. And these people are culpable.

The second bill basically would impose hefty fines and criminal penalties on lead inspectors for submitting false lead safety certificates. The Maryland Department of the Environment found that this was common.

Do you think this mayoral election can bring about broader change?

I don't really think that there's going to be a political revolution with this current election, but there's desire to build a movement over time. It probably won't impact this election. It's too late, because voter registration is over. But I think in future elections it will have a big impact. I think we're going to see a whole lot of new voters who aren't inclined just to follow the Democratic establishment.

What keeps you hopeful about the situation in Baltimore?

I think the awakening of the young people that stepped out of the [Freddie Gray] uprising and have followed the trials of the officers responsible for [his] death. That they were showing interest in justice, even volunteering for the jury system, that's a very positive thing. All of these things give me hope for the future. I used to say, what are we going to do when all the old people die in Baltimore and none of the young people care about voting? But I hope what we're seeing is a long-term increase in interest and engagement.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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