Mayor Vickie: Bringing back civility

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley showing off her wall of memories.

Victoria Jackson-Stanley looks back over her Mayoral career

In 2008, Cambridge voters put this city into the history books again, when they elected the first African-American female mayor. Victoria Jackson-Stanley was an employee of Social Services, already focused on helping people every day. She saw a chance to expand that focus, and serve her entire city. With the support of her family and neighbors, she threw her hat in the ring and started a door-to-door campaign that resonated with the town. She ran against incumbent Mayor Cleveland Rippons, and won by a slim margin of 150 votes.

“Mayor Vickie” became the smiling, upbeat face of Cambridge, the city’s biggest, most ardent supporter. She took Cambridge’s needs and troubles to Annapolis and Washington D.C., and raised awareness of Cambridge, as well as the entire Eastern Shore. In 2012 she was re-elected and continued her door-to-door, project-to-project campaign to make improvements in Cambridge.

Recently Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley announced her resignation, effective on the last day of this month. No major scandal or serious problems prompted her decision to step down, it is a decision of practicality. In order to retire and file for her pension as a state employee for 40 years, most recently with the Dorchester Social Services Department, Ms. Stanley could not continue to draw pay from the state in her mayoral position — in order to retire from Social Services, she had to also quit her government position. Her resignation is timed to allow her the waiting period necessary and still allow time to file for re-election as mayor at the last minute — but she admits, at the end of this interview, that she’s still undecided whether she’ll run again.

We got together with Mayor Vickie at her office in Cambridge, and talked about her quest to become Mayor of Cambridge, her accomplishments and regrets along the way, and her hopes for the future.

Paul: On what did you base your campaign in 2008?

Mayor: Bringing civility back into the community.

Paul: Was there a big need for that?

Mayor: In my opinion, and in the view of people that I talked with, they (local citizens) wanted to feel they could come to the mayor and have a conversation. To see there was a vision. Safety, beautification, and civility — that’s what I ran on.

I still believe that Cambridge is the most wonderful community that you can find. We have our wards like every other place. We have our good people and bad people. We have a very diverse population, which makes it all the more interesting.

Paul: Eight years ago, when you were campaigning, what kind of condition was the Main Street area in? Poplar Street? High Street?

Mayor: Retail was really in bad shape. We had a lot of housing (problems) all around town, and county government was working on that, but I didn’t see any interest in downtown. We had just had the fire on the corner of Race and Muir, and it was a major fire. One of the things that I found downtown was there were a lot of empty buildings. And economic development was in a state of flux at the time.

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I met Tom Brokaw not long after I was elected. He was doing a piece on Ocean City to Sacramento — Route 50 goes all the way across — and I remember him asking me a question. It’s an empty store front and he said, “Mayor, if I came back five years from now, what would you like to see on the street?” I said, “I’d like to see a business on that corner, and in this building and the next building, and the next building after that.” And now there are businesses in that building. We really had an aggressive economic development plan that was creative.
Paul: In what way?

Mayor: We came up with things like the pop up businesses, where from October to December, if you wanted to sell hats, we give you a short-term lease and if you liked it you stayed. If you didn’t, you had a short permit. We tried different things on Race Street and Poplar Street and all around town.

There were people who believed in Cambridge who wanted to do something, and if it was for the good of the town, sure why not? The worst that can happen is that it fails, but if you don’t try you will never know.

Paul: When you got in, how did you feel? Did you sneak in here and say, “Man, what have I done?”

Mayor: I’m just a little old country girl from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The first words out of my mouth when I realized I won, were, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh my God.” I thought, “Okay, settle down, relax. The city has run before you. It will run after you. Depend on the people who do their job.”

My best friend in the City of Cambridge is the woman who helped me get through this. Her name is Kathy Foster. I just started working with all the department heads, not saying, “Do it my way because I know,” but learning from them, how it is supposed to be done, and then putting my twist and my personality on it to do more.

I like to tell the story about after I got elected. The council of 2008 gathered together … Let me stop here and say, the very first time the council and I met, we met at a local restaurant because I didn’t know these guys and they didn’t know me. They were all men, and me, because I didn’t know them I took my brother — my brother who is like 6’4”, 300 pounds at the time.

Paul: You had to bring a bodyguard.

Mayor: Yeah, you never know. We went to a local restaurant for breakfast, the six of us, and I said, “Look guys, I’m the first female — I’m the first black female mayor of Cambridge, and everybody is going to be taking pictures, everybody is going to want to know what is going on in Cambridge,” I said to them. “And I’m a woman, and if things are going well I’m going to say that, but if things are not going well, I’m going to say that too. It’ll be good for us to work together so when I speak they are going to know that we are working together.”
We were a million point something in the red and we worked together to get us out of the hole. They agreed to take a cut in the small salary that we get (as elected officials). They agreed with me to take control of our financial situation. They supported me. They empowered me. They sent me to Annapolis to get to those who could help us. Between me going to Annapolis, with my personality and their support, and with the help of brilliant people, financial people, connected people, all of us working together got it done.

Paul: Did you see any great resistance when you came in as a black female?

Mayor: I did not. I didn’t feel it. What I felt was excitement and anticipation of what could be. Remember in 2008 Barack Hussein Obama was also running for president at the same time…

Paul: I remember him.

Mayor: You remember? Great guy, I met him once. I’ve got a picture to prove it (The Mayor takes me to a picture on the wall).

Paul: Tell me about it.

Mayor: I got a ton of stories. I got the call in February, early March 2013, and they said, “Mayor this is the White House. We are having a focus group and we’d like for you to come.” I said, “Well, where is it?” They said, “Washington.” I said, “I’m sorry I can’t do that. I promised the governor, Governor O’Malley …” I got three calls, and then the fourth call was like, “Mayor, this is the President signing the Harriet Tubman National Byway order, deeming it a national thing.” I said, “Ah, why didn’t you say that in the beginning?”

I went, and when I got to the White House I’m standing here and when they opened the door for the President I’m like a groupie. I have lost my breath. I said, “Calm down, calm down.” I walk in, shake his hand, and he’s so tall and so thin and so handsome. I was so impressed. I was like, “Oh, my God, I’ve actually met Barack Hussein Obama!”

But back to your point about being overwhelmed or accepted, remember Barack Obama was running for president at the same time as I was running for mayor. I think because there was this wave, this feeling of change, I was the change agent in this little microscopic community — compared to the great nation we live in, Cambridge versus the United States. I believed that I could do something for my community, so between those two positive thoughts it worked.

Paul: How do you think you did? If you were to give yourself a quick report card, what would it be?
Mayor: If I had to grade myself, it would be a “B.” I have brought a good image to Cambridge again. When we call, Annapolis is like, ‘Oh, Cambridge is calling, what do they want?’ but they know we are working for the good of the community. We’ve gotten some sidewalks done all around town. We are working on a lot of things. We’ve worked on playgrounds. We have playgrounds all over town. We’ve improved Great Marsh, and Sailwinds, in collaboration with the county, is really looking good.

We’ve got playground equipment for the little kids and that is fine, but when you get to 10, 11, 12, you don’t want to play on playground equipment anymore. You want other activities, but it is expensive and funding for that kind of thing isn’t easily obtained.

Paul: I thought the Cannery Park project and the skate park was all funded.

Mayor: That is funded but we haven’t broke ground. It’s working. It’s in the works. It’s coming but it ain’t here.

There is still a lot to be done and there are phases and everything. I wanted it to be done as much as all the other kids, and I understand why it is taking so long. It’s about money. I talked to kids a lot and they’d say, “Well, we want it affordable. We want this and this and that.” I was like, “Okay I understand that but would your mom or dad be able to pay if it cost money?” and it’s like, “No, we want it for free.” I understand that, honey. It’s going to cost money to get those things done and yes we are moving towards a lot of things. We’ve got Cannery Park underway in the planning phase. We have a lot of cool things around, but if you are a struggling community … I think we are 100 percent better than we were, but I’m a positive person.

I like to think positive but we have so much more to do, and unfortunately it costs money and we don’t have a lot of liquid asset here in our community. I’ve got skate boarders and they are all giving me the fish eye when they see me. “I thought you said we are going to have a skate park …” Well we are working on it. “… I won’t be able to use it by the time it’s done.”

Then there are those who say, “I don’t know if I want my tax payer dollars to be used for that. I don’t have any kids here.” I say, “You know what, I understand you don’t want your tax dollars used that way, but think of it this way,” I say. “The other municipalities, the other jurisdictions throughout the State of Maryland, particularly the Western Shore, get that money all the time and they are your taxpayer dollars. It’s our turn to use your taxpayer dollar for our community, what’s wrong with that? Let us get the benefit out of your taxpayer dollar, and remember they are my taxpayer dollars too.”

I haven’t gotten everything I wanted done. Historic High Street needs to have its infrastructure dug up — talk about millions of dollars. Then there are other parts of town.

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We need the Mace’s Lane Community Center on Mace’s Lane. We need funding for that. As a recreational and community center it would meet the needs of a lot of our young people and families. A place to go that has the middle school and the elementary school right next door, oh that would just be terrific. Pine Street is a historic site as well. We need to start working on revitalizing that community. There are historic houses on Pine street as well, they need that attention.

I would like some sidewalks on High Street extended from the 800th block to the 1000th block. Bayly Road needs more sidewalks. Leonard Lane — take Leonard Lane late at night and a kid is walking, kids like to wear black, black, black and you can’t see them. It’s a tragedy.

How about that? Where is the money coming from? That is why I say it’s a B. If I grade myself there are still many things that I did not get done that I really was hoping to get done. The recreational piece is one thing. Public safety — we are working on it. Beautification of the city — we are working on it. Like the new Maryland Avenue. Once it becomes blooming again it will be a gorgeous street.

For collaboration with state government, I get an A. I got to give myself an A, simply because the secretary of corrections at the time approached us, after I met him at a meeting, and said, “Would you like to be a test community for our sidewalk project?” From Route 50 at Cedar Street to the corner of Dorchester Avenue. Inmates from ECI developed or laid the sidewalk for that. Collaboration with governmental agencies is my strength, I know how to do that. That is why I give myself an A.

Paul: We have to have collaboration because we can’t do it alone.

Mayor: Exactly, I mean State Highway, Department of Planning, Department of Economic Development, Department of Corrections at one point. We have a new administration, Boyd Rutherford and Governor Hogan; I want them to be just as excited to hear the name Cambridge as the previous administration.

Paul: State Comptroller Peter Franchot is excited about Cambridge.

Mayor: Franchot — I have to start charging him taxes pretty soon, he is here so much. I love him and he loves our community. He sees that we are working together. He nominated me for the Schaefer award for helping people, and I was very humble, and appreciative because that is all I wanted to do, Paul, is to help as best as I can while I can.

Paul: How do you rate your hires? The people who have come on board in the city since your election.
Mayor: I have to share that with the council, don’t I? We have done an outstanding job bringing on a new chief of police, our director of the municipal utilities commission, the water company, our new city manager. We hire excellent people, and I’m just proud of the fact they chose Cambridge, they could have gone anywhere but they chose to come here. I am just very grateful they agreed to work with us.

Paul: What is the benefit they brought?

Mayor: The chief (Dan Dvorak) has brought a sense of community among his peers that we haven’t had in a while. He is just excellent to work with. It’s a relationship that has now formulated a bond between the sheriff’s department, the city police, up into the state police, that we now have a unified front that colleagues are really appreciative of. He has a finger on the pulse of the community. He is at schools. He is visible. He is putting key people in the right place so the work of the city goes on, and the visibility of the police department has improved.

Also, Jane Dorman was my third in command at the Municipal Utilities Commission when I came on board, and then the top dog left and the person right after him also retired. They retired and she was selected because she had a good relationship with the staff. This lady has just blossomed into such leadership. She thinks out of the box, but she knows the rules. She is compassionate, but she is tough when she has to be. She keeps me looking good and that is always the thing I look for. She is great. And of course (City Manager) Sandra Tripp-Jones was the final hire.

Paul: That seemed to be a pursuit that was fraught with controversy.

Mayor: Well, because like anything, things that are new, things that are considered change, things that are unknown, some people are very wary of change. That is really what it was. People were saying, “Well the mayor didn’t want a city manager because it’s going to strip her of her authority.” Are you kidding me? No — let it go on record. Let the world hear it for hopefully the last time — I have to say this. I was not, have not been, nor was I ever against the idea of a city manager. The idea of a city manager was something whose time had come. What I really had a problem with was that the five commissioners who were elected by people of the community were making that decision without giving the people of the community an opportunity to say, “Hey, I want to have a say in this too. I don’t want you to make a decision for me, let me make a decision for the city manager as well.”

The referendum failed for want of enough votes to hold an election, so the five commissioners deemed that we will have a city manager, then designated me to come up with a team to hire a city manager. Of course, I put my two cents in. The idea of an interim city manager didn’t make sense because we were paying for an interim city manager while we were hiring a full-time city manager. We had a fabulous search committee. We had a fabulous search committee for the chief of police too, by the way, made up of people of the community. The people had a say yet anyway.

Paul: You are happy with Sandra Tripp-Jones (Cambridge City Manager)?

Mayor: Yes. She is a gem. I can say she is a gem. What do I say about the chief? He is double excellent. I don’t want to get cute saying that stuff. The City Commissioners did an excellent job choosing the people, and then they agreeing to come work for the city — because with their credentials they could have gone anywhere, but they chose to come here. I’m very proud of that. They are excellent people, and they have the heart of the community within them and that makes it all the better for us all.

Paul: Are you fairly happy with what you have accomplished?

Mayor: To be humble about it, I’m very happy with how things are working out. I’m really happy that with the council’s support, with the excellent department heads, with everybody working together within the City of Cambridge.

When they killed that poor, poor man, when Mr. Johnson was killed, our police department leadership said, “We will not rest until we get a break in this case.” I can tell you one police officer particularly told me he had been up 26 hours nonstop, no sleep until they apprehended the suspect. They are committed to making our streets safe.

When they are digging holes and the water company is in the middle, I’m not getting in the water, but I’m going to stand there and say, “Okay thank you for doing that.” I think the people in this government are doing a fine job. I could not have done this job without their support. Never would have made it.

Paul: What is going to happen next? Are you going to run for mayor it the coming elections?

Mayor: I’m praying on it. My mother says, “No.” My mother says, “You’ve done it. You made history already, you don’t have to prove anything else to these people.” I don’t go against my mother, but in my heart of hearts I know there is more to do. I have not filed as of this very day.

I’m praying on it because my mother is right, I’m in the history books. I don’t need to prove anything. I want to continue to do what I can for my community, be it here or be it in volunteerism. But who knows? I might want to do something else other than be mayor.

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