History & Politics

You Don't Know Jack

Jack  Young  may be Baltimore’s most unlikely modern mayor. Will he keep the job? 

No one has ever described  Jack  Young as an orator. Standing at a podium slapped with the city seal next to a basketball-size crater on North Collington Avenue in February, Young  takes all of 90 seconds to introduce his “Mayor’s 50-Day Pothole Challenge” before handing things over to Department of Transportation director Steve Sharkey.  

“One of my top priorities is to clean up this city . . . I encourage all residents to report potholes  to 3-1-1  so that  together  we can improve city roadways,”  he says,  reading from notes for the television cameras and promising to fill 5,000 potholes  in  just under two months. And that’s it, other than fielding a couple of softballs from the media. Which is not to say the man  who assumed Baltimore’s highest office after Catherine Pugh was  forced to resign over corruption  charges  is an individual of few words.  Grabbing a shovel, the former City Council president immediately starts chatting up the asphalt crew. 

To his credit,  Young later seeks  out the only neighbor on the block who turned out for this photo opp.  She  informed  him, of all things, that the city’s big street sweeping trucks came by  too  often—“four times a week”—often  leaving potholes in their wake.  Young had never heard this complaint before in  Baltimore,  and  he asked the woman if she spoke for her community. She assured him, in fact, she  did. (“I go to meetings.”) “Okay, we’ll move the sanitation trucks,” Young responds with a wry glance toward Sharkey. “I’m sure some other neighborhoods could use them.” 

Young  may not be the most gifted public official in front of a microphone. The  entire city can recite his gaffes—“I’m  not committing the murders, and that’ s what people need to understand”—but  no one can deny he has a sense of humor. Or that he doesn’t love the city and look out for its workaday  people. He  seems to have half of East  Baltimore on  speed-dial. 

“I could use him on my crew,” cracks one of the  Department of Public Works  crew leaders patching North  Collington. “Seriously, the mayor doesn’t put on any front. He’s the same with everyone.” 

The night before the launch of  the  pothole challenge, the University of Baltimore School of Law hosted a symposium:  “The City Charter: Does  It  Work for a 21st Century Baltimore?”  Former mayor  and current UB  president Kurt  Schmoke, Johns Hopkins University professor emeritus Matthew  Crenson, City Council president Brandon Scott, former mayor Sheila Dixon, City  Councilwoman  Mary Pat Clarke, and City Councilman Bill Henry, who is running for comptroller, debated potential structural changes to the City  Charter. It was wonky stuff ranging  from  ranked primary voting to changes in the makeup of the Board of Estimates. Some of the proposals have been introduced before the City Council and could ballot referendums this fall.

Young was not there. Nor was he  really  missed. The panel discussion thing isn’t his strength. If Baltimore voters decide in June they want  Young in office for the next four years, it won’t be because of his  strong debate  performances, bold vision, or  charisma. But because they want someone who will listen  and fill their potholes.    

His ascendance to the mayor’s office has been anything but jackrabbit fast. Or likely.

Bernard C. “Jack”  Young got his nickname because he was as quick as a  jack rabbit  as a kid. It stuck, even if it did eventually get shortened. “I  had to have it legally changed to get ‘Jack’ listed on the ballot because people don’t  know  me by anything else,” he says  with a  smile  at  his campaign headquarters at the corner of North Charles Street and North Avenue. He is 65 years old, married for 40 years, father of two, grandfather to four, and proud product of Old Town.

One of 10 kids born and raised by a blue-collar dad and stay-at-home mom (who is 91 today), he delivered the  News-American  and worked in a  local  supermarket as a teenager. He did not attend college, but  instead went to  work  first for the DPW at the Sisson Street dump—“the smell gets to  you”—and then got jobs  in the cafeteria and mailroom at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.  Eventually, he moved over to radiology, first as a file clerk, later advancing to an administrative post where he oversaw the department’s transition from film to digital imaging.  Not that he was always happy as an East Baltimore employee with the way he was treated by Hopkins’  higher-ups.

His  ascendance to the city’s highest office has been anything but  jackrabbit fast. Or likely.  

The similarities between  Young and  Clarence “Du” Burns,  the last mayor to come out of East  Baltimore, are  remarkable. Like  Young , the self-made “Du”  did not attend college, was  known  by his one-syllable nickname, and rose to office from the City Council president’s chair when William Donald Schaefer won the governor’s race. Constituent service was more than a matter of pride to  Burns;  like  Young,  it was in his  lifeblood. Both  loved the City Council, its craziness, daily battles, and real human contact, without the security detail.  Both  started out slowly as  interim mayor and were initially  homesick for their old job. 

Young, however, seems to have gotten his feet underneath him  quicker  than Burns, and has appeared more intent on utilizing the full potential of the city’s  powerful mayoral system. It’s not a coincidence that Young’s first involvement in city politics was handing out flyers for Burns to earn a few bucks. He knew  him  from Dunbar High School, where he went and where  Burns worked as a locker room attendant.

“Du talked to us about getting things done for people,”  Young says, explaining his inspiration for getting into politics more formally in the late 1980s, when he pulled night and weekend duty on the staff of then-City Council president Clarke. “You  could see not all politicians did that, but  that’s  what I wanted to do.”  Young then ran for a state committee position, which he eventually won.

At  42, he was tapped by the establishment Democratic powers-that-be—the start of so many political careers in Baltimore—to fill a City Council seat vacated by Anthony Ambridge in the spring of 1996. He won the seat in his  own right that fall, before much of  the  current City Council had  finished high school. 

Young hasn’t lost an election since. He has spent decades now showing up at neighborhood association meetings, writing down phone numbers, and keeping his word with constituents. (The  notable exception, of course, is  that he  said he  would not seek election for the mayor’s office after assuming the job on an interim basis.) Even as mayor,  Young is still  plugged in—perhaps too plugged in—to the day-to-day concerns of average Baltimoreans. Among everything else  going on in the city, he remains  a walking 3-1-1 call center. (Over the course of an hour-and-a-half interview, he showed off  a recent photo of an illegal trash dump texted by a voter, a crime tip from a concerned citizen, and a phone call from  a  contractor looking for temporary workers.) 

“He  is basically a  moderate,  politically,”  says  Clarke,  referring to  Young’s general policy  leanings, “but when it comes to people in  pain,  he  is a left-wing progressive.”  

He still has his  Dunbar High School I.D. and has  been the  de facto  Mayor of East Baltimore for years. 

“I paid  Jack  $2,000 a year as a staffer while his ‘real job’ was still as a clerk at Johns Hopkins, and he worked tirelessly for me on going to meetings and doing constituent service,” says Clarke, who has endorsed  Young.  “He’d pass on issues to our office and he followed up, making sure they were being taken care of,”  she  recalls with a chuckle. “If not, he wanted to  know  why.” 

In the end, his focus inevitably comes back to two things: “Crime and grime.”

When  Martin O’Malley left Baltimore for the  Governor’s Mansion in 2007, his departure set in motion a game of musical chairs at City Hall that shows no end in sight. To recap: then-City Council president Sheila Dixon assumed O’Malley’s job as mayor. Dixon then backed Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for City Council president. (For what it’s worth, Dixon  admits  Young had the backing among fellow members to become council president at the time, but she asked him to step aside so she could fulfill a promise made to Rawlings-Blake’s late father, Howard “Pete” Rawlings, the respected former  chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee in the House of Delegates.) 

Three short years  later,  when Dixon resigned after pleading guilty to stealing gift cards intended for impoverished families, Rawlings-Blake moved up the ladder and became mayor.  But instead of supporting  Young  to replace her as City Council president, she put  forward  her own candidate to take her position.  This time,  knowing he had the backing of the majority of council members, he played his hand.  Young says his relationship with Rawlings-Blake,  who chose not to run for reelection in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death and the subsequent  uprising, was never the same. He’d  made room for her  to skip the line, but didn’t return the favor. “I felt betrayed,” Young says. “I did. I’d been a team player.” 

Pugh, as if anyone needs a reminder,  resigned last May.  She  was recently sentenced to three years over fraud and tax evasion charges related to her  Healthy Holly children’s book  scandal,  and  here we are.  For those counting, that’s four mayors in the past 10 years with a good chance of a fifth new mayor winning the primary election later this month.  We all know Sheila Dixon happens to be running again as well.

For months after Pugh’s resignation,  Young maintained that he was only a placeholder and would not run for a  full  term. He sounded sincere, but it was a shaky promise all the same. Meanwhile, the musical chairs has continued.  Young did everything he could to hand the City Council president’s keys to ally Sharon Green Middleton. But he lost a  hard-fought backroom battle to  35-year-old Brandon Scott, who pulled the  young City Council  his way.

Naturally, Scott  used his new platform to  launch  his own bid for  mayor. It’s a crowded field of, get ready, 24 in the Democratic  primary, with at least a half-dozen viable candidates and several others capable of grabbing votes.  Political appointments to vacant seats may still be handled the old-fashioned way—with a combination of patronage and arm-twisting—but gone are the days when  Young was coming up and the local Democratic clubs decided who could run for office and  who needed to wait their turn. 

Initially, this year’s Democratic primary  looked like it would shape up along similar lines to  the 1987  race when Burns faced a  young, rising star named Kurt  Schmoke.  Young, it was thought early on, would need  all of his nearly $1-million war chest to stave off a challenge from Scott. “There was the perception that  Du  was part of the older establishment and  Schmoke  would make  the  public schools  his priority, which Schaefer had largely ignored,” says  Crenson, the retired Hopkins professor and author of  Baltimore: A Political History. “In many ways, there is the same perception of Jack, now, being part of the older establishment.”

For  Young,  that  means it’s a challenge  to run on experience given the record  of corruption and dysfunction in City Hall, including now the comptroller’s office, the police department,  DPW, DOT,  and  Office  of Information and Technology—all  beset by mismanagement, scandal, and leadership turnover in recent years. 

But then the race splintered in to  pieces. 

In an early March Sun/UB/WYPR poll, four candidates—former Mayor Dixon (16 percent), Scott (10 percent) former state Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah (10 percent), and former police spokesman T.J. Smith (9 percent) were all grouped close to the five-point margin of error. Well-funded new candidate Mary Miller, a former T. Rowe Price executive and Obama administration treasury official, came in fifth (7 percent), followed by Young (6 percent), and state Sen. Mary Washington (5 percent). Washington, a progressive leader in the General Assembly, has since dropped out of the race, saying she intended to devote her efforts to serving her constituents during the coronavirus pandemic.

Each candidate essentially has  a  narrow  lane.  Vignarajah, the former prosecutor, promises to “stop the bloodshed” in his television ads.  Scott promotes a more holistic agenda, including looking at all city expenditures through  a racial equity lens. Dixon admits to making “a mistake” and says  the city was safer and moving forward under her tenure.  Smith,  personable  and polished on camera,  says he understands how to reform the police department.  

In addition,  a well-funded new candidate,  Mary Miller, a former T. Rowe Price executive and Obama  administration  treasury official, has thrown her hat in the ring.  

Pugh won the  Democratic primary in  2016,  and,  for all intents and purposes, the  mayorship,  with just 36 percent of the vote.  This month, there  is a good  chance that  the  future mayor may win office with less than 25 percent. Whoever  does get voted in, victory will come with more skepticism than mandate. 

For his part,  Young admits  that  he ran himself ragged after Pugh  first took sick leave and then resigned. (Loyal to the end, he still calls her  a  friend.)  He overcompensated, he says, trying to keep up the appearance that the city’s basic functioning, such as it is, wouldn’t come to a halt.  That said,  Young possesses unique and instinctive, if  underrated, political skills. Close observers of City Hall  dynamics  marvel at his ability to reward allies and punish foes. (Recall,  for example,  how  he  removed former City  Council woman  Rikki Spector  from most of her committee assignments after she voted against two of his bills.)

His aforementioned gaffes—he linked climate change to volcanic eruptions, or vice versa, it wasn’t exactly clear, at a   mayoral forum—also tend to overshadow genuine accomplishments.  (More recently, he urged residents to stop shooting each other because the city is going to need all its hospital beds to deal with the corona virus). He  established the city’s Children and  Youth Fund  and opened local  recreation  centers on Saturdays for the first time since the 1970s. He also helped break the logjam of legislation and lawsuits around  Pimlico  and the Preakness Stakes, which now look like they will remain in town. 

Young also  bristles at the contention by some that he doesn’t possess the idea s to move the city forward. That said, in the end, his focus inevitably comes back to two things. 

“Crime and grime,” he says. 

Whether voters, even those who  know  him well, give him four years  in charge to tackle those things is an open question.  With primary date now pushed back to June 2, the spread of Covid-19 virus does provide Young, who has requested the National Guard deploy in the city to provide humanitarian assistance in partnership with local agencies, an opportunity to demonstrate crisis management and leadership ability.

On a recent late afternoon,  the dozen-plus folks waiting outside the  Henderson-Hopkins  elementary  school  for a bus to Annapolis on Baltimore Day—a chance for voters to see their delegation in action—each  said they knew  Young. Almost all had met him more than once  over the years. To a person, they expressed their appreciation for Young  stepping up in wake of Pugh’s resignation. None, however, were  committed to voting for him.  Most said they were undecided. 

“It’s just time for someone  younger,” says  one senior woman, a member of the Berea community association. 

Her friend, also a member of the Berea association, thought  Young hadn’t had enough of  an  opportunity to make an impact yet as mayor. “I’m not saying I’m going to vote for him, though,” she adds. 

If Baltimoreans felt  the city was humming along , Young’s chances of winning a full term would  be better. 

A  Democratic insider, who admires  Young, put it this way: “If  you  need someone to put their finger in a dike,  Jack’s  your guy,” he says. “I’m just afraid  Jack’s going to run out of fingers.”