Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Look for challengers to Pugh if violence continues into new year

And so 2018 ended with a 17-year-old boy shot to death in an area of northeast Baltimore that, over the last decade, had been transformed into a beautiful cluster of affordable, brightly-colored townhomes. The houses were built where there used to be blighted public housing, and some of the new residents are first-time homeowners who moved there from elsewhere in the city, thinking it would be safer.

Police said they found the 17-year-old in the 4500 block of Green Rose Lane, off Erdman Avenue, on New Year’s Eve. A medic declared the boy dead at the scene a little after 10 pm. He was the 309th and final Baltimore homicide victim of 2018. The shootings continued into New Year’s morning, with a bullet grazing the head of a 14-year-old boy just after midnight on Light Street.

And there it is again: The grinding, depressing reality of Baltimore — the insane gun violence, four consecutive years of 300-plus homicides. It’s the dreary, suffocating cloud that hovers over everything, over all the construction cranes, over all the bright points of promise in a waterfront city full of potential.

You can talk around it, you can look the other way, but in my experience — conversations with fellow Baltimoreans, email from readers, social media comments — there is nothing of greater concern than the debilitating crime problem.

Mayor Catherine Pugh’s full-color November newsletter, received in the mail with water bills, highlighted a redevelopment project, Pugh’s involvement in establishing the Baltimore marathon 18 years ago, and the opening of new businesses. There was a photograph of Pugh having lunch at Lexington Market, another of her on an anti-crime walk through the Oliver neighborhood. The December newsletter, with a photograph of a smiling Pugh at the top, highlighted her selection of Joel Fitzgerald as Baltimore’s new police commissioner and the start of Roca’s anti-violence work in the city.

Though they look like campaign flyers printed at taxpayer expense — the Baltimore Brew reported the annual cost as $63,346 — the newsletters are typical for an elected official: Accentuate the positive, show your constituents you’re getting things done.

The problem is, despite all the positives in the city, the crime problem sucks the air out of the sky. The problem is complex, but people are beyond impatient. Those who moved to the city before 2015, when trends were better, feel that something big is broken and beyond the repair of the current leadership.

Pugh can rattle off a litany of initiatives on the crime front, and some are promising. But I hear expressed little confidence that the trend is going to shift any time soon. And time is not on Pugh’s side.

April will mark three years since her victory in the Democratic primary for mayor in this deep-blue city. If we do not see a notable decrease in homicides by spring, I would hold off betting on her re-election next year and listen for more speculation about challengers. And those challengers will do as Martin O’Malley did in 1999 — campaign hard on reducing crime.

Who could challenge Pugh? A short list of possible candidates includes City Councilman Brandon Scott; Thiru Vignarajah, the former deputy attorney general who challenged Marilyn Mosby’s re-election as Baltimore state’s attorney last year; Mosby’s husband, Nick Mosby, now a state delegate from West Baltimore; perhaps Marilyn Mosby herself; Ben Jealous, the former NAACP president who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Maryland; T.J. Smith, the former spokesman for the Police Department; and Sheila Dixon, the former mayor who finished second to Pugh in the 2016 primary, losing by fewer than 2,500 votes.

Bill Ferguson, the state senator from south and southeast Baltimore, has been mentioned as a possible challenger, too. He registered his impatience with crime in a Facebook post last week, after The Washington Post featured the city’s low murder clearance rate on its front page.

“Infuriating,” Ferguson wrote. “Meanwhile, we wait months and months for a commissioner to be nominated and weeks and weeks for any actual transition. We lose our director of Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. We still haven't expanded Safe Streets after money was granted by the State. We flounder along in implementing the consent decree. And we continue to stagger without a coherent crime and safety plan for the City. It doesn't have to be this way, it simply doesn't. We are so much better than this, Baltimore, and we cannot accept such low expectations for our City.”

I asked Ferguson if this meant he was prepared to challenge Pugh.

“It's very hard for Baltimore to be successful if the mayor isn't successful,” he said, “and my sincere hope is that the mayor and city thrive in 2019. At the moment, we're not getting the job done. ... My priority is raising expectations for what's possible in our city, and nothing is off the table to ensure we accomplish that goal.”

April 28 will mark one year until the 2020 primary, and the clock is running.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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