Council President Hopeful Nathan Irby Has Big Plans

by Alice Cherbonnier
      AT 67, Nathan Irby hadn’t expected to be getting back into politics. Since serving in the Baltimore City Council for eight years, from 1975 to 1982, and then as a State Senator from 1983 to 1994, he has served as executive secretary of the state’s Board of Liquor License Commissioners. It’s a full-time position, paying $63,000 a year.

      “It’s a tough job,” he says of his work. “When I came in, the Board was under a cloud. We’re okay at this point. I think we’re viewed as a responsible agency now by many communities. We’ve developed relationships between [liquor licensees] and the neighborhoods, and we mediate difficult problems on site.”

      The work has been sufficiently challenging to Mr. Irby that he resisted when supporters approached him in March about running for City Council President. He declined, and refused again when asked to run in April. They tried again in May, and then in June. Finally he decided to do it. “I heard the call,” he says. “I saw the need.” By that time, some of the plum endorsements had already gone to other candidates, but that doesn’t seem to worry him.

      Though Mr. Irby knows all the major contenders for Mayor, he declines to support any of them openly. “I want a good relationship with the next Mayor,” he says. “I want to be a bridge-builder at all levels of government, as well as with the community. And especially, I want to make it clear that I’m not running for Mayor. The voters can be sure I wouldn’t use this office as a steppingstone.”

      If elected, one of the first tasks he would undertake would be to put in place a city-wide Council agenda--“something we’ve never had, to my knowledge.” This agenda would be broken down into six initiatives, tailored to the special needs of each Council district, with action steps prioritized and timelines put in place.

      “I would also present a plan to the Mayor based on these initiatives, so some of the concepts can be meshed in with the Mayor’s budget preparations,” he says.

      He adds. “I’d want to establish a City Council Standing Committee on neighborhood business development. And you have to set up a high-risk [loan] fund to provide working capital for small businesses. We’ve got to be creative. I’m talking about getting down to the real nitty gritty, not the kind of thing the BDC [Baltimore Development Corporation] does. This could mean setting up a central payroll service or accounting center.”

      Another initiative he would work for if elected would be to stop tearing down housing. “We need to look realistically at what we’re doing,” he says. “Instead of tearing down those [delapidated] houses, we could develop home ownership with another Dollar House program. But mortgages under $30,000, banks don’t want. We’d need a plan to address this.”

      The immediate major problems he foresees are keeping the City fiscally sound, and designing a formula to build down a projected $150 million budget shortfall over the next few years, due primarily to declining tax revenues. “We must maintain our current 1-A bond rating,” he says. “That saves millions.”

      Mr. Irby does not believe the City’s population is declining as much as is popularly believed. “I think we’ve got about 800,000 people here,” he says. “Check the school rolls and compare with 20 years ago. You won’t see much difference. Anybody who understands the drug culture knows you’ve got two, three, maybe four families living in small units. That puts tremendous pressures on families, houses, and neighborhoods.”

      Mr. Irby once worked as a community specialist with a drug program operated by Johns Hopkins. “I understand the valuable implications of the methadone program,” he says. “but all drug programs are cost-effective because the person seeking treatment must be examined, and many other health problems are discovered, like venereal diseases, hepatitis, HIV, and TB.”

      He views the drug problem as regional, not specific to the City.

      “We’ve got to interrupt ‘business as usual’,” he says. “No matter what the policies of the police superintendent, there will be some innocent people caught up. That’s unfortunate, but a bad sickness requires strong medicine.” Police work, he believes, has to coincide with “a make-sense health program.” “When the heat’s on the street, the users will rush to the [treatment] centers,” predicts Mr. Irby.

      As for education, “That’s the biggest problem,” he says. “Baltimore has more than its fair share of special education students, and that takes money from other students. We can diminish that with early diagnostics--tests for vision and dyslexia, for example. We need to pick up problems early.” He sees “family preparation--or lack of it” as a major cause of backsliding among students who are ready to learn.

      He would want to see principals given full authority to run their schools, with annual performance reviews. “The school system needs managers,” he says.

      Perhaps the most important role of all for a top City official, however, is the ability to work well with all levels of government. Nathan Irby believes his experience would help the City. “I know how to lobby,” he says. “I have contacts. I walked out of the General Assembly, I wasn’t forced out.”

      A graduate of Dunbar High School and Antioch College, Mr. Irby says he came from a “structured, organized family. My mother used to say, ‘If you’ll lie, you’ll steal’. We were brought up right.”

      Now divorced, with his children grown, Nathan Irby’s family appears to be his constituents--a role he savors. “You’ve got to have humility if you’re in politics,” he says. “You have to ask yourself, do you want to be a servant of the people, or do you expect them to serve you?”

      Mr. Irby appears to have made his decision about that question. Though he’s been out of elected office for five years, he never shut down the constituent office at 2021 East Biddle Street that he opened while a State Senator. “I just couldn’t close it,” he says. “I thought it was the least I could do, to keep it open to help people solve problems.” If elected City Council President, he does not expect this to change. “As long as the health and wealth allow me,” he says, “I’m going to keep it open.”

      Not only that, but when he’s there he answers the phone himself. “I hate those mechanical answering systems,” he says. “The public wants to hear a voice. They don’t want to hear a machine.”

      He was asked what will happen if the next Mayor proves inadequate. He was ready with another saying: “If the general is weak, then the lieutenants have got to be superb.”

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This story was published on September 1, 1999.