Same Song, Different Verse

Anyone who has been paying the least bit of attention to Baltimore City politics knows at least two things – incumbent Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is under attack from a number of corners for her perceived inability and perennial candidate Carl Stokes thinks he is the man needed to reshape the city and take the helm as Baltimore City’s next mayor.

Of course, that should be “thought.”  Even the most jaded political observers expressed surprise earlier this month when Stokes – who has served on the Baltimore City Council in four decades now – decided that he was not actually the man for the job and refilled to retain the city council seat to which the city council appointed him in 2003.

So why the change of heart? Stokes claimed in media reports that there were too many candidates for mayor and that “the message gets muddled.”  That may very well be true. But for gay people, it’s particularly important to remember why Carl Stokes has a mixed message on our issues.

In the early 1990s, Carl Stokes and eight other council members cosponsored a domestic partnership bill that would have extended rights to the spouses of city employees in both same-sex and heterosexual relationships.  With enough cosponsors to pass the modest proposal, gay activists had high hopes that it would pass.  Unfortunately, some church leaders and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (which, incidentally, now supports the incumbent mayor) pressured cosponsors to withdraw support.  They argued that creating a domestic-partnership ordinance would undermine traditional marriage and family values.  In direct response, Stokes introduced sabotaging legislation that would limit domestic partnership to lesbians and gay men only.  Ultimately, Stokes did not vote for the domestic partnership bill.  Instead, he took a walk during the vote.  Stokes later ran for city council president in 1995 and lost, despite having earned the Baltimore Sun’s endorsement .

When Stokes ran for mayor in 1999, he again earned the endorsement of the Baltimore Sun.  He did not, however, earn the endorsement of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore’s Political Action Committee.  Now-Governor Martin O’Malley earned that endorsement for his support of the domestic partnership bill, among other items.  And, despite being the “establishment choice,” Stokes lost again.

Of course, our community is not a one-trick pony.  We care about other issues, and one of the most important issues – education – is an area where Stokes has made a contribution.  After serving on the Baltimore City Council from 1987 to 1995, the Governor of Maryland and the Mayor of Baltimore appointed Stokes to serve on the then-newly reconstituted Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners.  Stokes, as part of a coalition of activists, including the Baltimore Education Network, Advocates for Children and Youth (full disclosure: I served as education director at ACY from 1999 to 2001) and the Maryland Education Coalition (full disclosure: I served as staff for MEC from 1999 to 2001), successfully lobbied for passage of the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act, a significant reform aimed at ensuring adequacy and equity of funding for students in public schools, regardless of local tax effort.  This was no small undertaking, as richer jurisdictions like Montgomery County perceived that Baltimore City was attempting to garner more than its fair share of state dollars.  Stokes is certainly to be credited for his work in this area.

But does Stokes’ work on education entitle him to reelection to the 12th district councilmanic seat?  On Stokes’ campaign website – still fashioned as a mayoral candidacy website – Stokes claims that he is a politician who thinks “outside of the box.”  However, a review of his campaign platforms – none of which reference gays and lesbians specifically – he sounds like any other politician.  It’s particularly telling, in light of Stokes’ deep involvement in schools issues, that he prioritizes “transform(ing) the Baltimore City School System into a top tier twenty first century school system.”

Really? As a man who has held elected office in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and now 2010s, I ask, what have you been doing if that transformation hasn’t yet started?

We need a fierce advocate who will stand up for us when we are not in the room.  History has demonstrated that Stokes is not that candidate for gays and lesbians.

Originally appeared in Baltimore OUTloud, Friday, 12 August 2011

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