(Photo by GPA Photo Archive, used via Creative Commons license)
After a pandemic-prompted delay, it’s time to vote in Baltimore’s mayoral primary.
With ballots due to be mailed by June 2, the election that will decide the party nominees for the city’s top job, as well as a host of other city government leadership roles. Winners advance to November’s general election. (Find complete ballot information for all races here.)
As the year started, candidates attended forums and talked about the importance of this year’s election following the resignation of former mayor Catherine Pugh last year.
It’s also an election where technologists and entrepreneurs could have a bigger collective voice than ever. It’s a time when a growing network of coworking spaces and new strategies emerging to attract capital are expanding the reach of scalable businesses into more neighborhoods. And with the city continuing recovery from a cyber attack and new energy to connect city agencies with technologists, a new period of civic tech organizing is coming into view.
Then, in March, the pandemic arrived, bringing remote work and distance learning that exacerbated the digital divide and an economic downturn that laid bare the city’s disparities. And even as the city is facing tough budget choices, IT upgrades are remaining.
The new mayor will have a host of issues to tackle and will be leading the city through a crisis, but technology is likely to be there both as infrastructure and conduit to affect new change.
To gauge where candidates stood on these issues, we made a questionnaire that we sent to all mayoral campaigns. Today, we’re publishing the responses to all eight questions, plus additional comments offered by the campaigns in full. Consider it a cheat sheet for where priorities lie. And for whoever wins, it can be a reference point for a future administration.
We received completed questionnaires from the following candidates:
- Catalina Byrd, political strategist, media consultant, community advocate (R)
- Sheila Dixon, former mayor (D)
- Mary Miller, former U.S. under secretary for domestic finance and a former acting deputy secretary of the treasury (D)
- Erik Powery (D)
- Brandon Scott, City Council president (D)
- TJ Smith, former Baltimore police spokesman (D)
- Thiru Vignarajah, former state deputy attorney general (D)
Here are the responses.
QUESTION #1: I support city government initiatives to expand access to technology across the City of Baltimore, including to the more than 74,000 households who currently lack an internet connection.
- Exploring how to increase broadband access, including the completion and release of Baltimore city’s study on the feasibility of municipal broadband, as well as potential solutions leveraging the city’s conduit system and fiber ring.
- Exploring infrastructure to help the city prepare for 5G connectivity, such as small cell technology.
- Convening public, private and nonprofit leaders to explore best practices.
- Taking steps to ensure the U.S. Census reaches all households, regardless of internet connectivity.
- All candidates answered yes.
- Thiru Vignarajah: “We must work towards free-wifi across the entire City for all individuals and businesses. This necessitates first reintroducing competition into the market to expand broadband infrastructure. While it is a non-exclusive contract, Comcast effectively has a monopoly over broadband in Baltimore City which removes incentives for improving the quality of high speed internet. One of the barriers for new market entrants is general lackluster economic development and crumbling infrastructure. Our comprehensive redesign of the transit grid will simultaneously stimulate Baltimore’s economy by creating jobs and include locating and, where necessary, replacing or installing underground city-owned fiber. Increasing competition for broadband services will improve the quality and lower costs for consumers.”
- Sheila Dixon: “One of the only ways to bring our city into the 21 st century is if we are aggressive about expanding access to internet as well as adequate technological devices. More and more each day, resources and basic services are available, in some cases, exclusively on the internet. I support bringing tech giants such as Comcast and Verizon to the table to talk about specific ways to expand internet services at low or no cost to all citizens of our city. Taking it a step further—this issue disproportionately affect lower income communities and continues the cycles of inequity that plagues our communities.”
- Mary Miller: “This crisis has underscored the importance of connectivity when applying for unemployment insurance, holding school online, and even staying in touch virtually during social distancing. Closing the schools put tens of thousands of children at risk of falling behind due to a lack of internet and laptops. Bridging the digital divide in Baltimore will be a priority in my administration.”
- TJ Smith: “This issue has reared its ugly head during this pandemic. Children continue to struggle with connecting to school resources because of a lack of internet. This will be a priority in the Smith Administration.”
- Erik Powery: “1 out 3 homes do not have broadband internet. This just perpetuates ignorance of the populace and reinforces generational poverty.”
QUESTION #2: I believe Baltimore’s economic growth requires modern workforce development strategies.
- The need for supplementary educational opportunities in STEAM, like robotics, advanced manufacturing, and entrepreneurship for Baltimore school children to be better prepared for careers of the future.
- Prioritizing computing centers and digital literacy training in the City of Baltimore budget for modern workforce development, leveraging the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore City Community College and other existing stakeholders to help develop a more inclusive and diverse innovation ecosystem.
- Integrating computer science and engineering education into city-run programs, such as the Rec to Tech initiative launching in Baltimore City Parks and Rec.
- Providing education and work experience to students in Baltimore schools as a pathway into tech careers, most recently shown through the partnership between the City of Baltimore and Code in the Schools.
- All candidates answered yes.
- TJ Smith: “In my education plan, I outline opportunities for additional trades and how we can accomplish it. But I also outline some of what I will advocate for when it comes to city schools. Our kids should graduate college or career ready and I support the above strategies along with additional strategies outlined in my education plan.”
- Mary Miller: “In my education plan I write about the need for preparing students for 21st century work. Students should have access to quality training opportunities that lead to well-paying jobs after graduation. Recent evaluations of Baltimore’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs showed that CTE in Baltimore doesn’t always pay off for students. Given the success of quality CTE programs nationwide, it is imperative that Baltimore’s students not be left behind. Inclusive economic growth also requires a comprehensive, connected workforce development plan. As Mayor I would restore funding to the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development (MOED) to build a coordinated approach for citywide work force training. We have over 30 organizations engaged in workforce training in Baltimore and plenty of evidence that an industry focused approach can drive good job placement.”
- Erik Powery: “Enoch Pratt Public Library will have expanded hours 10-9 Mon thru Sat. EPPL will be crucial partnering with Tech Schools, Vocational Colleges, and community colleges to fast track our children into a great head start into a career.”
- Thiru Vignarajah: “To stimulate economic mobility, the first step is to create jobs with living wages that match the workforce development efforts of the community. For Baltimore, we must create jobs not only for PhD students at our prominent universities, but also for students without college or high school degrees, for citizens returning from prison, and for people struggling with addiction, trauma and mental illness. I have identified a number of industries ripe for investment and expansion in Baltimore: Biotechnology and Healthcare; Cybersecurity and Coding; Small Businesses and Entrepreneurship; Arts, Film, and Music; Culinary Arts and Hospitality; Medical and Recreational Cannabis; Cancer Research; and Driverless Vehicles. We need to provide workforce development opportunities that align our workforce with employment opportunities in these sectors.”
- Sheila Dixon: We need to invest in workforce development now. We will triple our city’s investment in workforce training in order to serve residents with and without high school degrees. Through a competitive grant program for workforce providers, we will award employers that have a proven track record of connecting underemployed adults, youth and ex- offenders with the skills they need to get good paying jobs. Grant programs like these help these providers create new jobs and support a more skilled workforce. In addition, we will increase support to non-government service providers offering education, life skills, literacy, training, industry-recognized credentials, and family support networks. Industry led partnerships for workforce training have proven the most successful across the country and we will seek more opportunities to partner closely with several business sectors to identify job opportunities that offer clear career paths and create the training partnerships that will help meet employer and employee needs. For thousands of unemployed and underemployed, middle-skill STEM jobs (science,technology, engineering and math) represent a significant opportunity to gain skills and earn an income great enough to support a family. According to a report by the Associated Black Charities and the Greater Baltimore Committee, more than 40 percent of the STEM jobs in Baltimore require middle-skills and earn, on average, close to $59,000 a year. This is transformative for our city and is critical for so many of our citizens to be able to provide for their families.
QUESTION #3: I support programs that aim to introduce technology practices and products developed by public and private sector leaders into city government.
- Programs which pair local tech organizations with city government departments to explore tech-enabled solutions, such as the TECHealth program.
- Adoption of modern software development best practices, including testing of new and existing products, as described in frameworks like Agile software development.
- Executing on the city’s five-year tech transformation plan.
- All candidates answered yes.
- Sheila Dixon: In my former administration, I was successful in using CitiStat for city government and SchoolStat for our schools as a means of retrieving metrics to find out what was working and what was not. This method of auditing was transformational in identifying waste and duplications in our budgets and informing decisions on programmatic changes in the city’s infrastructure. While this is one example of how I have already taken the lead on using technology in city government, I plan to integrate in other areas to improve transparency—so that the citizens can have better insight on where the tax dollars are being alloted as well as a means to tackle some of the issues with crime. Advances in technology have played a critical role in aiding our police department to address crime and violence in our city. Technology is a tool and not a replacement for preventive patrols and complex criminal investigations. I will continue to support the Shot Spotter technology that could be a more effective tool in apprehending illegal gun offenders with the appropriate deployment of patrol officers in our communities. I will also ensure that all of our CCTV cameras are operational to assist our police officers in preventing crime. As Mayor, I will evaluate programs such as Predictive Policing Software and the controversial Surveillance Plane to see if there is a return on investment from the use of these tools.
- TJ Smith: “Our government currently operates in the 20th century. To improve efficiency and service to our constituents, we must invest in our five-year tech transformation plan.”
- Thiru Vignarajah: “One component of our broader economic development plan is to create an Office for Strategic Partnerships in City Hall to promote capital development in Baltimore through public-private partnerships and to coordinate city resources with greater efficiency and transparency. This office would be responsible for convening public, private, philanthropic, and nonprofit stakeholders to more effectively and holistically address the core challenges affecting Baltimore City. Introducing technology practices and products into City government is a core challenge where we would welcome the expertise of local leaders in technology.”
- Erik Powery: “Private/public partnerships will push tech forward because city government is not as nimble or innovative as the private technology sector.”
- Mary Miller: “I’ve publicly called for the city government to work more closely with the private sector. COMSTAT needs to be redesigned, so that it more effectively collects data relevant to reducing crime and strengthening community relations. To speed this transition, I will convene a public-private taskforce, utilizing outside data experts.”
QUESTION #4: I believe modern economic development includes high-growth software companies.
- Recognizing the role private investment, like venture capital, must play in growing local communities through social entrepreneurship and other civic-minded business growth.
- Supporting programs that aim to attract, retain and grow early stage businesses, like the ETC (Emerging Technology Centers), and its AccelerateBaltimore program, in addition to private-sector incubators like Betamore, the University of Maryland BioPark, the Johns Hopkins University FastForward, Impact Hub Baltimore, and programs like Baltimore Creatives Acceleration Network, Innovation Works and others.
- All candidates answered yes.
- TJ Smith: “We like to say ‘this is the future of employment opportunities,’ but in all actuality, ‘this is the now.’ We should’ve been supporting such programs. My administration will do so to create our 21st century economy.”
- Thiru Vignarajah: “A key tenet of my economic development plan is investing in city-owned affordable incubator centers, located near prominent universities. These programs require private-public partnerships to ensure our investment strategies encourage growth in software and technology companies.”
- Sheila Dixon: “One of the unique qualities of Baltimore is that we have some of the most premier learning institutions right here in our city. The products of these institutions are some of the brightest minds that the world has ever seen. The incubator programs, business schools, and other relevant entities compounded with Baltimore’s ripeness for investment should merge more intentionally to yield economic growth for our city.”
- Erik Powery: “VC are going to invest because Maryland is and will lead the northeast with entrepreneurial tech leadership and ai that will be a blueprint for other emerging cities.”
QUESTION #5: I support viewing technology and entrepreneurial expansion through an equity lens.
- Ensuring communities of all races and geographies are supported by new projects.
- Launching and supporting initiatives at all levels that create opportunities for more women and people of color to enter the tech industry, and potentially gain a job within city government.
- Launching and supporting tools to promote inclusive economic growth among small businesses and ventures in Baltimore’s underinvested neighborhoods, such as the Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund.
- All candidates answered yes; Erik Powery left the third bullet blank.
- Mary Miller: “I know digital literacy is vital in today’s economy and I will work to convene a digital equity task force to ensure that vulnerable residents aren’t left behind as we drive inclusive growth in the city.”
- Erik Powery: “We must no longer have parasitic programs with shiny names. We must invest in Blacks and women early and [often] in tech. This will help blacks escape poverty and be aspirational figures of hope where other black children will believe success is an option and failure is not.”
- Sheila Dixon: “I will view all of my work through an equity lens. Equity infused into technology and entrepreneurial expansion is particularly important because these are both important arenas in advancing society and will provide access to so many opportunities for diverse demographics to thrive in a 21 st century society. In Baltimore in particular, there are a number of black businesses and incubators that need specific resources to thrive. I address these needs specifically in my economic development plan, which include financial literacy, sustainability and growth practices, etc. Representation for people of color and women in the tech field is really scarce, so I would infuse STEM trainings into rec centers and after-school programs so that young people who are interested may be able to cultivate those skills. It has to start early if we are committed to real change.”
- Thiru Vignarajah: “By fostering an entrepreneurial culture, the city will increase access to capital, creating new jobs to rebuild Baltimore for the 21st century. We have put forth a small business plan that specifically encourages entrepreneurship and economic growth for women and minorities. The plan includes ending minor privilege and permitting fees; providing tax incentives to LGBTQ, female, immigrant, or minority-owned small businesses; introducing low-interest rainy-day loans for small businesses; and pledging health insurance coverage for up to seven employees to companies that stay in Baltimore for at least 5 years. Also, we will start by developing a master plan for investment that will prioritize City support and subsidies in neighborhoods where investment has to be encouraged instead of simply allowed. In addition, tax incentives and TIFs, when used, should be first deployed to neighborhoods that are struggling to attract investment instead of as a tool simply to lower the cost of investments that were already going to happen.”
- TJ Smith: “My entire administration will operate through a lens of equity and that will include technology. Once again, this pandemic has illustrated the digital divide which is clearly drawn upon class and race. A complete culture change is necessary to ensure operating through a lens of equity becomes standard practice.”
QUESTION #6: I support efforts to bolster cybersecurity within the City of Baltimore, including ensuring that the city has learned lessons from two ransomware attacks over the last two years, and taking steps to prepare in the event of future attacks.
- Completing a review of the 2019 ransomware attack to ensure lessons are learned.
- Establishing business continuity planning to deal with potential threats.
- Training city employees in cybersecurity best practices.
- Taking steps to limit potential disinformation and protect data during the U.S. Census.
- All candidates answered yes.
- Sheila Dixon: “Cyber-security is something that we should not only prioritize in city-government, but in households as well. We have to normalize all acts of cyber-hygiene in order to mitigate these threats in the future. This means to expand cyber-security trainings to employees and relying on experts to perform regular maintenance and audits to uncover vulnerabilities and threats. We have to be vigilant as to not compromise our city’s data and information again because it is a very serious—though unconventional—form of attack.”
- TJ Smith: “A standard in my administration will be evaluation and lessons learned from any crisis we experience in order to improve upon our challenges. Our employees are one of our best defenses against allowing cyber threats into our systems. It is imperative that we have a robust cybersecurity culture throughout government.”
- Erik Powery: “We have so much waste, fraud, and, abuse, we obviously had Larry, Curly and Moe and Chief of Cybersecurity. We need to talk the Armed Forces for real cybersecurity experts.”
- Mary Miller: “I’ve publicly called for the city to conduct risk assessments and take the appropriate measures to ensure that something like the ransomware attacks won’t happen again.”
- Thiru Vignarajah: “As mentioned above, cybersecurity and coding is one of the high-potential industries vital to Baltimore’s future. We must not only ensure our public institutions are able to withstand cyber attacks, but also aggressively grow this industry that is already emerging as a massive strength for Baltimore. Several startups with meteoric trajectories have committed headquarters at Port Covington. U.S. Cyber Command is located at Fort Meade, just eighteen miles south of Baltimore City; and there is a ring of graduate programs in and around Baltimore educating the next generation of cybersecurity analysts and experts.”
QUESTION #7: I believe open data is a dominant trend in transparent, responsive and effective government.
- Maintaining and upgrading data.baltimorecity.gov.
- Elevating, whether through a director, office or advisory committee, experts within the administration who can advise and provide recommendations on how the city can use data to increase transparency and improve services. Recent examples include the chief data officer role and open data advisory group.
- Developing plans and strategies for programs that apply data and regular accountability to the delivery of city services and policies, such as CitiStat.
- All candidates answered yes.
- TJ Smith: “Transparency is key to accountability. It is more than necessary to ensure front facing opportunity for the public and media to access to government information. Additionally, I have pledged, as part of my accountable government platform, to launch a public accountability tracker that shows my administration’s progress on commitments.”
- Erik Powery: “We must upgrade Data.baltimore[city].gov by any means necessary. We are shooting ourselves in the foot with disorderly delivery and collections services that discourage Baltimoreans who receive four months of bills due to no fault of their own. Bills that will never get paid due to deep despair. We need oversight and accountability to CitiStat. We must have an accurate accounting of who owes what and have accurate record keeping in order that responsible citizens are rewarded and irresponsible citizens are penalized.”
- Thiru Vignarajah: “Baltimore deserves to understand how their money is being spent and, in some instances, misspent, and how their City is performing. This requires clear, consistent data collection and reporting. I will
- (1) Launch a citywide forensic audit to be shared with the public within 100 days of taking office
- (2) Establish monthly public CitiStat, with three citywide town halls and nine town halls in each police district
- (3) Hold a weekly press conference on the state of crime in Baltimore. We will identify the weaknesses and stopgaps in effective reporting systems to provide Baltimoreans with a comprehensive and transparent accounting of the City’s operations.”
- Sheila Dixon: “I was a major proponent of the effective use of CitiStat, and I do believe in using technological platforms as a means of inserting transparency into city government. I think that this is a great way for the taxpayers to become involved in holding officials accountable and offering feedback in real time.
QUESTION #8: I support city procurement reform to enable the City of Baltimore to more efficiently, transparently and modernly acquire the best goods and services, including the use of open source software when appropriate and preferring locally-based firms.
- All candidates answered yes.
- Thiru Vignarajah: “Baltimore’s procurement process must function in the best interest of taxpayers. We must eliminate the pay-to-play culture and close relationships between City Hall decision makers and public contract petitioners who have for too long riddled our procurement process with inefficiency and hence resulted in sub-optimal outcomes. As Mayor, I would support greater reliance on blind bidding processes that select contractors and vendors based on quality of goods and services, cost, and impact on the local economy.”
- Erik Powery: “Baltimore City must be empowered to ‘shop around’ for its citizens to pursue local firms who strive for excellence and are willing to give a hometown discount.”
- Sheila Dixon: I think that we should provide both more transparency and equity into the procurement process. I also address this in my economic prosperity plan where I highlight the need to prioritize local firms. We must reform the system for the award of contracts and the resolution of contract claims to provide for due process and transparency; the Board of Estimates is not a tribunal. We need an open, predictable and fair process for determining the relevant facts. The Board of Estimates should not make decisions on contract award disputes based on undocumented contacts with bidders or their representatives. We need to take the politics out of city contracting. Similarly, city employees should not be awarded for withholding payments rightfully due contractors as a means of saving money or meeting budget timetables. This fiscal shortsightedness results in fewer companies competing for city business and higher prices from those that do. Changing the way we do business and the culture of how we operate. That be accomplished by simply adjusting the number of members of the Board or adjusting how votes are counted. I will appoint a procurement advisor to the Board of Estimates to whom city agencies will present and support their recommendations for contract award, before they are presented to the Board. To ensure public confidence, the vote of at least one non -mayoral Board member would be needed to remove the Procurement Advisor. I will also [legislate] to create a Board of Appeals to hear bid disputes and resolve contract claims. We must take the politics out of city contracting and put fairness and equity into how contracts are administered.”
- TJ Smith: “We are overdue for this. It is a no-brainer.”
Candidates were asked if they had additional comments. Their responses are included below.
“The other thing that I will say about technology is its importance to the future of our education system. Computer science is driving job growth, with more than half of projected STEM jobs to be in computer science related occupations. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, computing is one of the fastest growing occupations in the country and will pay substantially above the national median annual salary. In the first quarter of 2013, there were more job postings for computer and mathematical science occupations than any other trade. Right now, large segments of our population are not participating in the STEM economy, and yet, computer science education is largely missing from City and State K-12 curriculums, particularly among under-represented populations. In Baltimore, we must work with the State to provide clear pathways for people to become computer science teachers or create teaching and testing standards. Computer science must be more than an elective or after-school program. It must be an integrated part of our students’ required coursework. We need to do a better job of connecting schools to employers. The Cristo Rey Jesuit High School’s Corporate Internship Program (CIP) is a model we should consider expanding. CIP places students in entry-level jobs at businesses and non-profits throughout the Baltimore area.
I am committed to using tech as a tool to push this city forward.”
“We will not be successful in attracting new businesses and residents to move to Baltimore if we don’t solve the crime problem. That has to be top of list. However, as Mayor I would concurrently develop a strong economic development plan that includes industry sector workforce development, bridging the digital divide gap, maintaining a ready inventory of properties and sites available for occupancy or development, creating a more robust Small Business Resource Center to offer comprehensive services to startups, and leveraging pubic dollars for more significant private sector investment. These ideas are part of a bigger plan I call ‘Inclusive Growth.’ As Mayor I would never miss the chance to welcome a new employer to our city.”
“The crony capitalism, no bid contracts, and nepotism must end, NOW! Until we achieve at least 99% occupancy and the treasury is running a surplus, we have no space for fiscal shenanigans and Mayors and Councilman cutting side deals to enrich themselves. I am the anti corruption mayor. Please write in Erik Powery November 3rd for the honor and privilege of being your 52nd Mayor. As CEO of Baltimore City, I have a solemn, fiduciary duty to manage your taxpayer dollars with the utmost wisdom, care, and concern.”
“My first priority is to invest in programs and policies that will radically transform and rapidly improve the quality of basic city services. This includes hiring a City Administrator to oversee much of this important base work. We are not going to be able to combat the negative perception of Baltimore City if residents’ core city services are not reliably provided, or if people do not trust our elected officials and institutions. Businesses and residents will be more inclined to relocate to the City if they can be sure that the streets are paved, trash is picked up on time, and constituent issues are handled in an efficient and equitable manner. We must start with the basics.
We must also focus on the central issues facing our City: improving public safety, improving education, and cleaning up the City government. By focusing on these, we will make Baltimore safer and more trustworthy.
Any loss of life to violence is unacceptable. But with 300 murders for five years in a row, it’s time for a comprehensive response to the disease of gun violence. As Mayor, I will establish a holistic vision with a focus on investing in young people, addressing trauma, providing supportive housing, and reforming the police department.
Baltimore City Public Schools have been underfunded by the State and the City for decades. As Mayor, I will increase the City’s contribution to public schools to right these historical wrongs so that our City’s children get the education and resources they deserve.
A city government that is not transparent is one that is not effective, not equitable, and not accountable to the people. A government that is not accountable to the people cannot effectively address their needs, whether surrounding housing instability, public safety, public health, or quality education. As Mayor, I will make the city government more transparent and accountable.
We must work together with the surrounding jurisdictions to improve transportation options for all residents and to improve our impact on the environment. These problems can not be solved by the city alone and require collaboration with all regional stakeholders.
By addressing these core issues in our City, we will make Baltimore the City we know it can be.”
“We have a litany of work to do with regards to upgrading and updating our technology. We need to be aggressive and forward thinking. It will take commitment and long-term strategies to recognize our full potential, but we have to begin the process and commit to the process which will reveal remarkable benefits in the future.”
“To change perception, we have to change reality. Our crime plan provides a road map to dramatically reduce the murder rate over a short period of time. For too long, our murder rate has been a defining barometer of the City’s health. Once it is headed in a more positive direction, our City has a reason to return to all the news outlets, local and national, who have painted us in an unfavorable light and demand they tell a positive story of our City’s turnaround. Our City is a city of stories. It is time for us to convert the tragedy of Baltimore into the story of its triumphs.”
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