October 30, 2007 / 1:18 PM / 12 years ago

Black, female leaders battle Baltimore urban woes

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Baltimore has more than its share of urban woes, which city leaders are tackling with a unique approach — the experience and perspective they share as the first all-black, all-female team to hold the most powerful jobs in town.

Mayor of Baltimore Sheila Dixon (R) along with City Council president Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (3rd R), and City Comptroller Joan Pratt (2nd R) are honored at Baltimore Metropolitan chapter of The National Coalition of 100 Black Women in Baltimore, Maryland, May 1, 2007. Baltimore's top elected posts -- mayor, city council president, chief prosecutor and comptroller -- as of this year all are held by black women. REUTERS/Mark L. Dennis/Handout/Office of the Mayor/City of Baltimore

Baltimore’s top elected posts — mayor, city council president, chief prosecutor and comptroller — as of this year all are held by black women.

“People come up and say, ‘I’m so excited that women are finally running things in the city,’” said Patricia Jessamy, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney, in an interview with Reuters. “They say, ‘We’ve tried all these other things. This is something new.’”

The first woman to hold the mayor’s job, Sheila Dixon, took over from the previous mayor, who became governor of Maryland. She was re-elected in a Democratic primary in September and faces minor opposition in this November’s general election.

The job of City Council president is held by Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Joan Pratt is city comptroller.

The all-female, all-black team at the top is unique in U.S. politics, where a woman and a black man — Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois — are vying to make history as the Democratic nominee in the 2008 presidential race.

“The presence of women in city government in really important leadership positions is a rarity, even today,” said Michael Owens, an expert in urban politics at Emory University in Atlanta. “But does it make any difference as to how cities function?”

PROBLEMS GALORE

Facing Baltimore, a city of 650,000 some 40 miles north of Washington, D.C., is a bevy of ills confronting many U.S. big cities — poverty, drug abuse, illegal guns, violent crime, gangs and high student dropout and jobless rates.

Already, observers say a difference in tactics is noticeable. The mayor publicly apologized after police arrested a 7-year-old for riding a dirt bike on a sidewalk.

Police have also ended a zero-tolerance arrest strategy in favor of targeting repeat offenders and are again walking neighborhood beats in a city with the second-highest U.S. murder rate. In 2006, 276 people were murdered in Baltimore; this year, the number to date is about 10 percent higher.

Mayor Dixon said being a woman definitely influences how she does her job. It “has a lot to do with a certain sensitivity I believe women have in wanting to really focus on systemic issues,” she said, “along with all the other pieces that you have to deal with day to day.”

But, she added, the jury is still out.

“We’ve made history. All I can say for now is, we will see,” she said. “The process is really just starting.”

Jessamy, whose office oversees roughly 12,000 felony-level cases and 110,000 less serious cases every year, said being black and female provides insight.

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“Most black people have a very sharp sense of what justice is ... because they’ve known discrimination,” she said, and prosecutors now are looking beyond caseloads and conviction rates to help tackle the underlying causes of crime.

“Women are more interested in trying to get long-term results,” she added. “Women have more of a direction towards compassion and understanding human nature, more than just a bottom line.”

Nevertheless, the urban expert Owens said, city leadership can be a “hollow prize” without the resources to make a difference. “Baltimore might be one of those cities that is very difficult to turn around,” he said.

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