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.”