Who Do You Trust, Baltimore?

If you’re not deeply worried about the future of Baltimore, you’re just not paying attention.  Which is forgivable, ‘cause those who tuned in to the only debate that featured all four of the remaining candidates for mayor (which streamed on the NAACP's Facebook page on Oct. 22), probably just got more anxious – even depressed.

A debate can, of course, be a lousy way to get to know candidates well – especially, as here, when the stage is crowded, time is limited, and the questioners are activists grinding axes rather than posing useful queries.  This one, though, made clear that the presumptive leader in this race, Brandon Scott, is not ready for prime time.  His canned responses were a tired rehash of vague promises and pleasant-sounding buzz phrases, as if clichés delivered emphatically could be a policy platform.  Accountability!  Change for the better!  Rebuild together!  Full funding!  Invest in the future!

The very fact that many see Mr. Scott as our mayor-in-waiting rather than as a candidate who still needs to pass muster with voters is symptomatic of the city’s political dysfunction.  He won the Democratic primary with just 29.6% of the vote (and his tally of 43,927 is a mere 11% of Baltimore’s registered voters).  But because Democrats have had a lock on the mayor’s office since Theodore McKeldin retired in 1967, folks assume this is a done deal – including Mr. Scott himself, who already has presumptuously announced his transition team.

His branding as a “new generation leader” is based solely on his age (36).  More relevant is that he has never had a meaningful job outside City Hall.  And his political base – chiefly, the public employee unions that swap members’ votes for kid glove treatment at contract time – is comprised of special interest groups that always resist constructive policy change.  Meet the new political hack, same as the old political hacks.

Mr. Scott’s inexperience and lack of policy wisdom is exemplified by his first (but certainly not last) proposal to raise Baltimoreans’ taxes, via a 30% levy on e-cigarettes.

Label this foolish and counterproductive.  It ignores the “border effect” problem that arises whenever a locality tries to raise cash via a tax that is avoidable in a nearby jurisdiction.  There’s no place in Baltimore that’s more than a few miles from tax-free vape supplies in the county, so the main effect here would be to induce consumers of these products (and perhaps others) to shop elsewhere – thus delivering negligible revenue to city coffers and disadvantaging city retailers.

To which the tax advocates’ reply “well, we don’t expect much revenue – but we want to protect public health by discouraging vaping.”  Ain’t gonna happen.  Vapers who do not shop in the county may find their way to a now-cheaper underground market, where product quality is sketchy and health risks greater.  And a study of Minnesota’s vape tax found it had major adverse health effects by keeping smokers from transitioning to safer vape products.  Strike three.

In the debate, however, issues like taxes and economic development were neglected, and concrete policy proposals rarely detailed.  Only independent candidate Bob Wallace seemed to have a plan to jump start the city’s post-Covid economy (with his "Nehemiah Plan" to create 100,000 jobs), and only he linked the city’s crime and poverty problems to its long-sputtering economy.  Working Peoples Party candidate Dave Harding seemed to be running to be commissar of a socialist republic.  Only Wallace and Republican Shannon Wright endorsed empowering parents and students by broadening school choice.

In addition to demonstrating the most gravitas in this field, Mr. Wallace has an enormously compelling back story and record of accomplishment.  Like Mr. Scott, who advertises himself as a “son of Baltimore,” Mr. Wallace grew up in a poor neighborhood of the city.  Unlike Mr. Scott, after earning advanced degrees from prestigious universities Mr. Wallace went on to a fabulous career in the private sector, designing solutions to problems, making payrolls, and growing businesses.  He has also authored a few well-regarded books.  His track record demonstrates he knows how to run enterprises and get things done rather than just run campaigns and get elected.

That Baltimore has nurtured and retains talented people like Mr. Wallace says a lot about the city.  If only its voters would elect more people like him, they’d be a lot better off.

Stephen J.K. Walters (email: swalters@mdpolicy.org) is chief economist at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and the author of Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream.