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'Stabilizing force': With Baltimore Mayor Pugh on leave, acting mayor 'Jack' Young seeks to reassure residents

Acting Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young sought to reassure residents, city employees and Annapolis leaders Tuesday, saying he will serve as “a stabilizing force” while Mayor Catherine Pugh is on leave amid a growing scandal.

Young, the City Council president, took over as ex officio mayor the same day Pugh’s lawyer confirmed that the Maryland State Prosecutor has opened an investigation into Pugh’s sales of her self-published children’s book.

At his first City Hall news conference, Young said he was “utterly heartbroken.”

“The past few weeks have been painful and traumatizing for all of us,” he said, flanked by city executives and council members.

Young, like Pugh a Democrat, didn’t promise any new initiatives, instead pledging to focus on cleaning city streets, responding to citizens’ concerns and supporting new Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and other officials.

“We’re going to keep this city moving, and we’re going to get things done,” he said after meeting with the heads of city agencies.

Hours earlier, Young was in Annapolis to meet with the city’s representatives there.

Young reiterated he would not seek the top job in Baltimore in the 2020 election.

“Everybody knows that my dream job at one time was to be mayor,” Young said after the State House meeting. “But I found out that the president of the City Council is the best job in the world and I’m just going to do this as a placeholder. I will be running for the president of the City Council of Baltimore.”

Citing health reasons, Pugh said Monday she was taking a leave of absence. Her announcement came after Republican Gov. Larry Hogan called for a criminal investigation into a book deal that paid her hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The statement from Pugh’s office did not address the scandal over the books — a series she wrote featuring a girl named Healthy Holly — that has quickly overtaken the mayor. Her no-bid deal with the University of Maryland Medical System, initiated while she was on its board, was first reported last month by The Baltimore Sun.

Young’s rise to acting mayor comes after years of bucking the Baltimore political establishment.

In 2009, after Young railed against a Baltimore Police Department decision to withhold the names of officers who shot people, police brass kicked him out of weekly meetings about crime trends and enforcement tactics.

And in 2010, a group of developers, business leaders and political leaders — including former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — started an effort to block Young from ascending to the position of City Council president, arguing he was too outspoken.

Now, having risen to the position of acting mayor, Young met privately Tuesday with the city's senators and Del. Cheryl Glenn, who chairs Baltimore's delegation in the Maryland House. All are Democrats.

Young assured them he was leading the city with a steady hand.

Young allowed reporters in for the last couple of minutes of the meeting, as the politicians talked about how to improve services for senior citizens.

Glenn told reporters she had confidence in Young.

“He knows the city. He has the heart of the city and we’re going to work together,” she said.

Glenn then stepped into an elevator, turned around and flashed a thumbs-up, saying: “Baltimore’s going to be fine!”

Sen. Bill Ferguson of Southeast Baltimore said he thought Pugh should do some “soul searching” about whether to return to the job.

“I’m still angry about the whole situation, but after meeting with Ex Officio Mayor Young, I feel a lot better this morning,” Ferguson said. “He's taking this role extremely seriously. I’m impressed he came to Annapolis to reassure people about stability.”

Ferguson said Young pledged he would be “focused on constituent services, focused on cleaning up the city, make sure Commissioner Harrison has the tools he needs to assure public safety.”

Harrison told The Baltimore Sun he would “focus on what I know how to do” and not get distracted by the upheaval.

“I’m sorry to see the mayor in this position, and sorry to see the city going through what it is going through,” Harrison said. “Although I’m eternally grateful for being hired by the mayor and being brought to Baltimore by the mayor, my commitment is to the citizens of Baltimore.”

Ferguson said he asked Young to see that city swimming pools open on time this summer and that the annual YouthWorks summer jobs program kicks off successfully.

Ferguson predicted “a tough few days and a tough couple of weeks ahead” for Baltimore.

“But the people of Baltimore are gritty and know how to pull it together when times are tough,” Ferguson said. “And it feels like we’re at a bottom now, so it’s time to just do it all. This is our moment to show the world that we can figure our way through rebuilding a great American city.”

Sen. Antonio Hayes, chairman of the city’s Senate delegation, said the situation involving Pugh has been “frustrating as hell.”

“Down here in Annapolis, we are always combated with the negative images and the negative narrative of Baltimore city,” Hayes said. “It just doesn’t help us.”

Hayes said he’d spoken with Young “probably at least four or five times” in the past day and noted that the acting mayor showed up an hour early for his meeting in Annapolis.

“He definitely shows the energy and the commitment to get started and moving and I appreciate that,” Hayes said.

Hayes said Pugh “used good judgment in stepping aside.”

“Right now, we’re locking arms with Mayor Young and our members over there in the House to make sure that we address our priorities that people expect of us,” Hayes said. He cited school funding and efforts to keep the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course as among the key issues in the last days of the General Assembly session, which ends Monday.

Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s college of public affairs, said Young doesn’t need to limit himself in his new role.

Young could use his time in charge to accomplish whatever legislative agenda he decides to set, Hartley said. The acting mayor could even broker deals with the council to pass legislation the Pugh administration opposed.

“If he wants to, he doesn’t have to say he just wants to keep the seat warm,” Hartley said.

Depending on how long Pugh’s leave lasts, there could be consequences to maintaining the status quo, Hartley said.

“This is a major city with major problems, and if an ex officio mayor has decided to take minimum action and make minimum decisions, then we’re all in a holding pattern in Baltimore — the entire government,” Hartley said.

Back at City Hall, Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said city leaders need to focus on reducing violent crime and not get distracted by the scandal.

He said the council needs to display unity going forward.

“Baltimore is bigger than one person,” Scott said. “Baltimore’s government is bigger than one person.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Ian Duncan, Yvonne Wenger and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

Complete coverage: Mayor Pugh's 'Healthy Holly' controversy »

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