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Jack Young’s Mayorship, Born Of And Defined By Crisis, Comes To An End

Emily Sullivan/WYPR

Mayor Jack Young’s term, born amid crisis and marked by a relentless onslaught of subsequent emergencies, ends Tuesday morning, as a slate of younger Democrats were sworn into their new City Hall offices.

The Democrat, previously City Council President, ascended to the Mayor’s office in May  2019 after the resignation of ex-mayor Catherine Pugh, who stepped down a month after her “Healthy Holly” children’s book scandal came to light.

The punches kept rolling throughout his 19-month term: the city was in the midst of a ransomware attack as he was sworn in, and the coronavirus pandemic pummeled the city less than a year later. The man who had said he never wanted to be mayor led the city through some of its most challenging moments in recent memory.

Young, 66, has not granted any exit interviews.

His supporters and critics alike praised his “quiet determination” in leading Baltimore through tumult as well as his willingness to impose stricter pandemic measurement rules than Gov. Larry Hogan. But they also faulted the gaffes that marked his tenure, unceremonious firings and withdrawals from public appearances after he lost the Democratic mayoral primary with 6% of the vote.

“It’s a tragedy, in a way,” Mary Pat Clarke, a longtime city councilwoman who hired Young as an aide for his very first position in City Hall. “What a sad way to become the mayor, which he didn't want to be.” 

Young first said he wanted his first term as mayor to be his only -- that he’d carry out the term, more than halfway over, and run for his old seat. But when then-councilman Brandon Scott convinced his council peers to elect him as council president instead of Sharon Green Middleton, the council’s vice president, everyone’s political calculus changed.

“The future was laid out, there was no going home,” Clarke said.

Young declared his campaign for mayor in the fall of last year. Until the pandemic, which largely prevented him from campaigning, Young sought voters’ approval by presenting himself as a steady hand, well-versed in the ins and outs of City Hall. His message could not stack up against Scott’s, a 36-year-old who argued that Baltimore needed a young progressive to lead amid societal upheaval. He eked out a victory against Young and other establishment Democrats in a split primary vote. Scott cruised to victory in the general election this fall. 

Young served as City Council President for nearly a decade, after he was unanimously voted by his council peers in 2010 to fill the office left vacant when former council president Stephanie Rawlings-Blake became mayor following the resignation of ex-mayor Sheila Dixon.

The middle child of 10 children raised in a small East Baltimore rowhouse, Young worked his way from managing a Johns Hopkins laboratory to entering City Hall by impressing Clarke with his dedication to constituent services. When street lights burned out, alleys were trashed or rec centers closed, Young alerted Clarke to the problem and stayed on the case until it was resolved.

“Every Monday morning, he would call the office with a long list of constituent issues that he had gathered,” Clarke said. “And then he would call us Tuesday morning and say, ‘Are they all done?' ”

His ability to cut through bureaucratic red tape and force city agencies to do right by its residents garnered Young a reputation as a dedicated public servant, and he won his first election to City Hall as a councilman in 1996, representing East Baltimore in what then was Council District 2. When district lines were redrawn in 2003, he continued to represent East Baltimore in District 12 until he became City Council President, carrying that reputation all the while.

Credit Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Mayor Jack Young speaks alongside Gov. Larry Hogan during a spring news conference.

“This is a man who grew up mostly in East Baltimore, in lower economic strata, who gave almost all of his life to public service, whether as an elected official or just as an individual in the community,” Carl Stokes, a former East Baltimore city councilman, said.

Zeke Cohen, a city councilman who’s represented South Baltimore since 2016, recalled walking the streets of his district with Young after his victory. People recognized him as the constituent services-oriented City Council President, Cohen said.

“They would tell him they had a problem with a pothole in their neighborhood,” he said. “And within seconds, Jack would be on the phone calling up an agency head, screaming and yelling to get the pothole fixed. And 99 out of 100 times, that pothole would get fixed and people loved it.”

But in Cohen’s view, that strong suit failed to impress city residents during Young’s tenure as mayor, especially during a year filled with enormous societal challenges, including mass protests across the city after police in Minnesota killed George Floyd. Scott attended those protests, Young did not.

“Instead of wanting one-off solutions to water main breaks or potholes or erroneous water bills, people are really looking for systemic solutions,” Cohen said.

Throughout his term, Young’s critics often latched onto his gaffes -- Young himself joked in his mayoral inauguration speech that his team hates when he’s off script. In perhaps the most infamous of his gaffes, he tried to shield himself from blame over the homicide rate he inherited.

“There's not any lack of leadership on my part, I've been moving the city forward, and I don't know, he never called me,” Young said after reporters asked him about an op-ed about the city’s homicide rate in the Baltimore Sun last year. “Because you know I'm not committing the murders. That's what people need to understand, I'm not committing the murders, the police commissioner is not committing it, the council isn't committing it. So how can you fault leadership?”

That comment, along with others, was borne out of frustration, Stokes said.

“He put his foot in his mouth, but I think there was a frustration that he couldn't do more,” Stokes said. “Even as council president, he was working on and advocating for ways to to alleviate much of this violence and murder in our city.”

Intention doesn’t make the gaffe any less hurtful, said Lisa Snowden-McCray, the editor of Baltimore Beat and the managing editor of the Real News Network.

“It's a thing that's easy to make fun of, but it's also super heartbreaking because this is a thing that rips people's families apart every single day in this city,” she said. “People walk around in pain.”

Snowden-McCray also criticized Young’s unwillingness to redistribute funds the council cut from the police department into other services throughout the city. 

“There has been a little bit of anger at some of the things that he's done recently, like looking for money in the budget to make sure that Nick Mosby's office as an incoming city council president is more than fully staffed and attempting to raze a homeless encampment downtown,” Snowden-McCray said.

It’s as if the lame duck tried to sow chaos on his way out, she said.

Cohen called some of Young’s post-election moves “the embodiment of bitterness,” particularly his high-profile firing of longtime ex-Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman amidst a pandemic and a potential eviction crisis. Young has declined to provide a reason for the ousting.

The firing was “cruel both to the commissioner himself and also to the city who just craves steady leadership and housing,” Cohen said.

Both Cohen and Snowden-McCray praised Young’s willingness to implement stricter coronavirus containment measures than Gov. Hogan.

Young also was unafraid to double down on his restrictions, such as reducing indoor dining capacity to 25% in the fall after allowing 50% for several weeks.

He often leaned on Dr. Letitia Dzirasa’s expertise and guidance in his news conferences, allowing the Health Commissioner to explain more technical pandemic guidelines. But before introducing her, he’d repeat the same advice: stay home and wear a mask.

“Jack would always take the most cautious approach to handling this,” compared to Hogan, Stokes said. “I think it has helped to keep Baltimore numbers somewhat in check, much better than many other jurisdictions in Maryland.”

People outside the mayor’s office fail to understand the intensity of the challenges Young was confronted with during his tenure, Stokes said, especially given the fact that he was thrust into office without a transition team.

Credit Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Jack Young speaks during Danielle McCray's inauguration.

“You're walking in and you have a group of people around you that you have to lead,” said Roger Hartley, the Dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore. “That's always a challenge, especially when you didn't get a chance to choose them.”

And less than a year into his tenure, the city’s budget was nearly shattered by the loss of revenue caused by the pandemic. Instead of introducing ambitious new programs, Hartley said, Young’s administration had to contend with budget cuts while pandemic-related costs grew.

All the while, the mayor, along with peers across the nation facing similar woes, frequently called on Congress to bail out cities. The help he requested never came.

When a group of protestors demanding Young do more for homeless residents crashed a news conference outside City Hall in April, they interrupted the mayor’s comments with honks and cries, calling on him to find permanent housing for residents rather than putting them in hotels as his administration had been doing.

Afterward, most of Young’s news conferences took place indoors, often closed to members of the media. These conferences, broadcast on a city streaming site, occurred more frequently after his election loss.

Then there was a flurry of vetoes, from an effort to rename a monument dedicated to Columbus to honor victims of police violence to a prominent charter amendment introduced by Scott to establish a city administrator to two bills intended to lay out protections for hospitality workers. 

Last week, in one of his final acts as mayor, Young signed several prominent progressive bills into law, including a program to provide counsel for tenants in eviction cases and updates to the Water Accountability and Equity Act, which he first introduced. 

“People don't remember the kinds of [progressive legislation] he did, the things he made possible and broke through,” Councilwoman Clarke said. But after he lost the election, she said, it’s as if his spirit “just gave up.”

“He had, I think, without argument, the hardest term of office of a mayor I have ever read about or seen,” she said.

Young has not said publicly if he will fully retire or seek another job.

“He has served the city for so many years,” Hartley said. “His wisdom, his contributions, his longtime service to the city could very well mean this isn’t the last of Jack Young.”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.