Baltimore Votes 2016 Q&A: Susan Gaztanaga


Susan is a Libertarian candidate for Baltimore City Council President


Q: Background info

Born Susan Jacobson in 1949, I grew up in New York City, where I graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University in 1970. In 1975, I married Lorenzo Gaztañaga, a graduate of Baltimore’s Cardinal Gibbons School who had emigrated from Cuba at the age of 12. We settled in north east Baltimore City in 1984, and almost immediately began to use our time and talents to contribute to the political and civic life of the city. I had registered as a Democrat in New York as soon as I was old enough to vote (21 at the time). Upon moving to Maryland, I initially registered Independent until a letter from Nicholas D’Adamo (successful candidate for City Council) aimed specifically at independent voters persuaded me to change my registration to Democrat so that I could vote in the primaries. My husband and I sought out and joined the Libertarian Party in 1992, working tirelessly to improve ballot access for alternative parties by gathering petition signatures for party certification and individual candidates, and by testifying for ballot access in the State Legislature and in the State Court of Appeals. In 2010, I was the Libertarian candidate for Governor of Maryland, campaigning around the state on a platform of reducing the state sales tax (six percent to zero in eight years), bringing our National Guard units home to Maryland, and upholding the right of law-abiding Maryland citizens to keep and bear arms.

I have worked for over 25 years at the Center for Communication Programs (CCP) in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, starting off as a bilingual secretary and advancing to Program Coordinator.
Q: Do you think there are ‘Two Baltimore’s’? Why or why not? If so, how would you try to reconcile them?
When people talk about “two Baltimores,” they are referring to the sharp contrast between the attractive, redeveloped harbor area and many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods. There are vast areas of Baltimore that are run down, boarded up and deserted. Yet there are also many neighborhoods away from the Harbor that are looking good and doing well, while the downtown area, once a showcase, is beginning to show signs of decay – notably Charles Street. Over the past 15 years or so, I have observed a trend towards another dichotomy: the Baltimore elite that can take advantage of special tax breaks and subsidies to live in luxurious condominiums and work in swanky offices and the Baltimore trapped in dependency on the largess trickling down to them from the first Baltimore. There is still a middle class, but it is shrinking. In a column in the Daily Record on May 22, 2015, Louis Miserendino proposed a solution that I have been in favor of for a long time: “no more tax breaks for the first Baltimore — just reasonable tax rates for all of Baltimore.”

Q: Were you for or against the proposed Red Line? Why or why not?

I was against the Red Line, and I was thrilled when I learned that Governor Hogan had axed it. I never saw any purpose in it, and it was a huge, expensive project that would take money away from street maintenance and other necessary investments in existing infrastructure. I also had a bitter taste in my mouth from the construction of the Light Rail, which cost double what was budgeted for it, and it turned out that its proponents had lied about how much it would cost in order to get it approved.

Q: How would you help improve Baltimore’s transportation system?

Let me begin by saying that I take public transportation to work every morning, and I have used the bus to get to doctor’s and dentist’s appointments, so I can say that the existing system serves me quite well. However, there is always room for improvement. We need more buses that simply go east-west on a frequent schedule, not south and then west like the 15 and the 5. We also need better service to the places just over the county lines (Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties) where so many of the City’s working poor go to work.

Q: How often would you like to see City agencies audited? Which department do you think is the worst offender in avoiding audits?

I join with my Libertarian colleague Jon Bombach, candidate for City Comptroller, in calling for regular, comprehensive audits of all City departments and agencies. I cannot say which department is the worst offender in avoiding audits; however, my personal preference is to make the City School System among the first to be audited. Reports of mismanagement, waste, and textbooks gathering dust in a warehouse because they did not fit the curriculum keep popping up in the Sun, while I hear first-hand accounts of toilets not working and water that is unsafe to drink.

Q: How would you propose to make the Charm City Circulator cost effective? Do you agree with the DOT of Baltimore eliminating the Banner and Green lines?

The only reason to have a free Charm City Circulator is to shuttle tourists around the Inner Harbor, possibly including a few points of interest a few blocks beyond the harbor area. As a resident of the city, I use my monthly bus card to get around. I would only use the circulator if it happened to come before a regular bus. So, let the Downtown Partnership, or whatever other association exists of hotels, restaurants and other businesses dependent on tourism decide whether or not a free shuttle would help their business , where it should go, and how much their members would be willing to pony up to pay for it. The Green line has no reason to exist. The Banner line goes to Fort McHenry, a tourist destination, but so does the #1. A visitor can board the #1 and get a day pass for just $4, so there’s not much incentive to wait around for the circulator just to save $4.

Q: What was going through your mind during the unrest of April 2015?

I shared the feeling of outrage expressed by the protestors over the death of Freddie Gray. It was not the first time someone ended a ride in a police van dead or nearly dead. Whether these deaths are the result of malicious aggression or criminal negligence, they should not happen. They send the message that some people’s lives don’t matter—not because of their race but because they are living on the street and appear to have no one who would miss them. At the same time, I was very disappointed to watch on television police officers literally standing by while businesses around Penn North were looted. Finally, I was embarrassed for my city. I work downtown for a development organization with projects all over the world. It felt strange to e-mail my colleagues in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire who had recently endured a violent civil war telling them that our offices would be closed due to civil unrest in Baltimore. “What next?” I asked myself. “Danger pay to come to Baltimore?”

Q: Now that the trials of the Baltimore Six are over, and all have been acquitted, how can Baltimore heal?

Baltimore has a strong base of church-attending believers. It could start right there. Seriously, and I underline seriously, if all of these church communities are serious about their business, which is ultimately reconciliation–and pastors of these churches know what I mean by “reconciliation”–I encourage this community of believers to step forward and apply this concept to this city. Furthermore, I’m encouraging on the same level playing field any other community of faith—Moslem, Jewish, etc.—to do the same. Furthermore, the people who run the city of Baltimore, the rulers– and please note they’re not leaders they’re rulers–need to get a hold of a realistic understanding of what government can and cannot do at almost every level. They need to exhibit the kind of humility as representatives of the people that acknowledges that our government is not godlike or Superman-like or Wonder Woman-like. These fundamental wrongful attitudes lead to overreaching at every level, whether it’s schools, policing or bringing investment to the city—just to name a few.

Q: Do you support the Port Covington TIF? Why or why not? What did you think of BUILD’s concerns about the TIF? Do you agree with Councilman Stokes’ measure to delay the approval of the TIF?

I am categorically opposed to TIFs, as they are fundamentally government subsidies to private businesses. Anticipated revenue from tax increases is committed to the new develop ent in the expectation that future increased revenue will make it worthwhile. Everything depends on hopes for the future coming true, and there have been many instances in which the future did not live up to expectations. As I write this, BUILD has already announced its support for the deal it helped negotiate between Sagamore Development and the city. According to a recent Daily Record article (September 7, 2016), “Activists opposed to the development have argued the Port Covington overhaul will attract more residents to the city increasing demand for services. But the property taxes from the development will be used to pay off the bonds, they note, not go into the city’s general operating budget.” I don’t know if this was BUILD’s concern, but I find this argument strong enough to oppose awarding a TIF to the Port Covington project under any circumstances—not negotiate for more “concessions” from Sagamore. I commend Councilman Stokes for trying to put the brakes on this.

Q: Light City was a huge success for Baltimore this past year. How would you help cultivate the Arts & Entertainment districts around the city?

Baltimore has always had a remarkably rich cultural and artistic life. I was glad to read about and watch the videos of last year’s inaugural Light City Festival. It looks as if it went a long way to counteract the effects of the 2015 riots. The best part was the “Neighborhood Lights” initiative, which involved areas outside the Inner Harbor in the celebration. I’m not particularly interested in cultivating arts and entertainment districts around the city. I’ve seen our city’s leaders float wacky ideas such as building artists’ lofts in the Lexington Market area and running a canal up Market Place, and I’ve breathed a sigh of relief when these plans disappeared without a trace. Putting your finger on a spot on the city map and saying, “This would be a good place for an arts and entertainment district” is almost as off base. There is so much going on at the grass roots in the way of arts and entertainment that all we really need to do is look for it, recognize it and celebrate it. We could have an Artist or Art Program of the Month.

Q: There is a $15 minimum wage bill coming before the City Council. Do you support it, why or why not? If not, what wage would you support?

I am opposed to the $15 minimum wage, and I would leave the minimum wage at its present level. It is one thing for the city, state or federal government to use its economic clout and say that it will not award contracts to a vendor that does not pay its employees a “living wage.” It is quite another thing to pass a law requiring all employers to pay all employees at least $15 an hour. The worst part is that the council members proposing this legislation have written the bill to have it start in 2022 or 2023, by which time they may have moved on to avoid being held accountable for the disastrous consequences of what they did. The two consequences that come immediately to my mind are:
1. Job flight. In the past two months, I have personally bought bus cards or offered cash assistance for transportation to people who needed to get to work in White Marsh. When the $15 an hour minimum wage takes effect in the city, more of the working poor will have to take two or three buses and ride for an hour and a half to two hours to get to jobs in White Marsh, Hunt Valley or the shopping plazas in Glen Burnie. This would be due to the fact that businesses will be closing down in Baltimore. Small businesses won’t be able to afford the $15 an hour minimum wage.
2. Inflation. Any businesses that remain in the city will naturally raise their prices or fees for services to avoid suffering a loss in net income. Anyone seeing his or her wages increase to $15 an hour will quickly find it meaningless, as quality of life will either stay the same or get worse. A higher enforced minimum wage leads to inflation and destroys purchasing power, which is what inflation does. This hurts the poor first.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in Baltimore?

The biggest challenge in Baltimore is improving our economy. So many of the problems we are concerned about would diminish once the city started to thrive economically.

Q: What is ONE core issue you will fight for if elected?

I will work to make Baltimore a business-friendly city, providing the necessary infrastructure and removing unnecessary obstacles to business, and therefore, job creation. Obstacles include licensing and regulations that hinder small businesses that cannot afford the processes, while their services or products are not necessarily improved by said licensing and regulations. Obstacles include zoning that creates the economic burden on a small entrepreneur to have to separate where he or she does business from his or her home– in many ways an anachronism in this age of telecommuting. Being business friendly means a city tax system that facilitates business creation from the tiniest to the biggest without special tax breaks for people who are supposed to win versus those who are supposed to lose. A simple land value tax would probably go a long way to equalize the tax burden on everyone—home owners, renters and commercial entrepreneurs. The point isn’t just job creation, which is vital, but the economic independence of every family in Baltimore City. That’s what we have to aim for—the economic independence of every family and individual in Baltimore City. They will contribute more that way than under the present system of welfare dependency that also provides unneeded subsidies to a privileged few. This is a process that will take time to untangle the mess that we’re living in.

Q: Why should people vote for you?

I will focus on the basics—those responsibilities that properly belong to a municipal government– ensuring public safety and administering justice without partiality, maintaining our infrastructure of streets, water and sewer systems, sanitation and snow removal, and providing emergency response. The President of the City Council is also the President of the Board of Estimates, which is responsible for awarding contracts and supervising all purchasing by the City. I am well versed in the principles of competitive bidding and all aspects of the procurement process, as I work in this area every day. I am good at organizing information and writing. I can read and understand “legalese.” Just as important, I have been a thoughtful observer and participant in City life for over 30 years, volunteering in community associations and church-based programs for children and youth. Campaigning door-to-door, talking with people at fairs around the city and serving on a grand jury during the summer of 2012 has given me a sense of what people are thinking and talking about at street and neighborhood level. So, why should people vote for me? Because I truly love Baltimore.