The Conduit Street Q&A is our opportunity to get closer to the policymakers and public leaders who affect Maryland and its counties. We’ll ask questions about the person, the policy, and the politics – and let their answers bring you valuable insights on the biggest issues of today and tomorrow.
This week, we catch up with Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle (Rikki) Spector.
Conduit Street: So, we heard a lot from our members when we ran an item on Conduit Street that you weren’t going to seek another term. Lots of people in the county community consider you the “Grande Dame” of MACo. Are you comfortable with that title?
Rikki Spector: On the issue of my title, some say Grande Dame. I am often referred to as the Dean of the Baltimore City Council. But for my preference, call me anything; just don’t call me late for dinner…
MACo: You have served in local government for 39 years… that’s a record, we understand. Can you tell us how you got your start in public life?
Spector: In June of 1977, I was elected by the Baltimore City Council to fill the un-expired seat of my husband for the balance of his term, which was 2 ½ years, because he was appointed to a judgeship in Baltimore City’s District Court.
At that time, the City Council was made up of 6 districts with 3 members each.
There is a great back-story of how that came to pass, but I am reserving the juicy parts for my memoirs.
MACo: As tempting as that is to follow up on…okay. You’re known for being in touch with your constituents. How do you stay connected?
Spector: I like to remember the song,“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” I have always reversed the philosophy a bit, to say “Don’t Lose Rikki’s Number!”
I tell people – if you need something, just call me. And I do give all my numbers out: office, home, and cell phone!
MACo: So, being available all the time?
Spector: Over these nearly 40 years of my being a City Councilmember, I know that our constituents don’t know if their issue needs to be addressed at the local level, the state level, the federal level, or in the private sector. But they do know how accessible I am. If you can’t reach me in the office, you have my cell phone number and my home number – people problems don’t just happen Monday to Friday between 8:30 and 4:30; they also happened evenings, weekends and holidays.
When my husband was the Councilperson, I got very accustomed to constituents calling him at home, so I was familiar with what issues Councilmembers handled. But being the Councilperson myself brought me to a different place.
MACo: As the Councilmember, then, what did you feel you needed to do?
Spector: I immediately set up meetings with all of the agency and department heads to learn what they were responsible for doing. Listening to most of them describe their work and responsibility and listening to the constituents in the community was like going to a funeral and hearing the praising of the deceased: you want to go up and check the casket to make sure you are at the right funeral.
As the local elected person, I made this observation early and have been successful in fixing the problem and now there is a real connection between the city folks and my constituents.
Serving your constituency is by making sure they get good service from your city/county. That keeps you effective and electable.
MACo: And being familiar is part of that…
Spector: Our constituents know us better and are apt to run into us more often – in the neighborhood, at the market, shopping, etc.—because we stay close to home; we don’t go to Annapolis or Washington, DC to do our work.
MACo: Selfishly, we’d like to talk about MACo a bit. You have been a MACo member and leader for decades and served as MACo President in 1995. What do you see as MACo’s importance?
Spector: Our role at MACo is so important because we protect the autonomy of our local governments, as far as zoning matters, fiscal burdens that need to be avoided by unfunded mandates or other costs of government being shifted down to us by the state or the federal government.
With good direction from Michael Sanderson and the staff at MACo, we vet pending legislation and policy decisions. We actively participate by testifying and maintaining a seat at the table – all with the goal of improving our local governments and, by extension, the lives of our constituents.
MACo: Your job representing a district in a large city is pretty different from that of a County Commissioner. But you have always found common ground with your friends at MACo. How do you make that connection?
Spector: My take-away message is whether you are from a rural or an urban jurisdiction, you are that elected official closest to your constituency and truly have the best opportunity to make government – no matter what level – work for the people.
MACo: Obviously some issues don’t affect everyone the same way. You have been really vocal in emphasizing MACo’s importance as a statewide group. What thoughts do you have for MACo’s current and future leaders in keeping everyone working together under one big umbrella?
Spector: The 23 counties and Baltimore City have been successful in finding common ground during my years serving as MACo President, member of the Legislative Committee and Board member. I believe we need to be mindful of our larger, more over-reaching goal of being the only local elected government organization that serves the entire state of Maryland. And, again, I believe our constituents benefit from that unified effort.
MACo: You have been aggressively involved with the National Association of Counties for some time, too. What have you gotten out of being active with NACo? Maryland may be looking for a new generation of leaders at the national level – can you help us pitch their importance?
Spector: The work that the NACo officials and staff accomplish with the Congress and federal government is tremendous. I have been able to bring several conventions and conferences to Baltimore City and introduce to my local administrations the programs developed and offered to local governments and state associations.
The huge issues that affect our constituents – like health, education, transportation – often have national solutions. Being active and involved with NACo brings many benefits – and funding — home to the local government in those areas.
MACo: So, you translate both your MACo and NACo efforts back home to local effectiveness.
Spector: When I describe MACo and NACo to political as well as non-political folks, I liken them to trade organizations that lobby the Maryland legislature (MACo) and Congress (NACo) on behalf and for the good of local governments. As the locally-elected representatives, we actually do and must make government work for people….be it on a local, state or federal level. And, frankly speaking, we often make issues in the private sector work for people, too.
MACo: Those ties back to local government really count at the higher levels, don’t they?
Spector: Over the years I have noticed that when elected legislators or members of Congress start their elected office at the local government level, they remember where they came from and are sensitive to and understand how their votes impact the local government both fiscally and legislatively. I know this first-hand working with Senator Barbara Mikulski. She first served on the Baltimore City Council, then the House of Representatives, and as she matriculated to the U.S. Senate, she was ever mindful of the impact on the locals and was very successful and productive for the local governments of Maryland.
MACo: As your term in elected office comes to a close… surely many people are interested in your guidance or experience. We hope we are still going to see you at the MACo conferences and events….can we count on that?
Spector: I will stay involved with MACo and NACo after my retirement from the Baltimore City Council. Even though I won’t be in elected office, once a MACo President, always a MACo President. The MACo home always takes you in and makes you feel welcome.
The friendships you make at MACo and NACo, along with the mutual respect and experience you glean, are instrumental in improving the governance for your local jurisdiction. I truly was a better Councilwoman and a better citizen because of my MACo and NACo experience.
MACo: I know that your many, many friends in and around county government are thankful for your time here… but more importantly for the time you have given to your community, your government, and to MACo.