In October, after a gunshot in the food court at Arundel Mills Mall set off a panicked evacuation of customers, Steuart Pittman, the Anne Arundel County executive, blasted the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that made it easier for Americans to carry guns in public.
“Politicians glorify guns to get votes, the Supreme Court takes away our right in Maryland to pass and enforce our own gun permitting laws, and the result is terror,” Pittman said, just two hours after the accidental discharge in the mall. (No one was injured by the gunfire; a 26-year-old Laurel man was later arrested and charged with reckless endangerment.)
“I will stand with our law enforcement community,” Pittman said, “and push back against this idea of promoting guns in public places. It’s dangerous, and it’s stupid.”
That might sound like the kind of blunt comment you see in social media, hear from a talking head on cable news or sometimes read in this column. But that it came in an official release from a Maryland county executive — not a class of politicians historically known for immediate and pointed commentary on controversial issues — is what made it noteworthy.
On the other hand, anyone who has followed Pittman since his successful 2018 campaign knows him as a progressive Democrat who speaks candidly about a lot of things — police and teacher compensation, forest conservation, socioeconomic disparity, the rise in hate crimes, the threat of climate change — and often from the heart.
For his second inauguration last week, Pittman chose an unusual setting, the old Crownsville Hospital Center acquired in July by the county from the state, and he brought up a grim subject — the long history of racism at the abandoned hospital. That’s not exactly a subject you’d expect on such an occasion.
Crownsville was an institution, Pittman said, “where those of a different skin color, those left out of economic prosperity, those who behaved in ways that made others uncomfortable were kept apart, drugged and experimented on.”
Indeed, not the type of rhetoric that usually adorns an inaugural. Yet, there was more: “Only this past summer did volunteers review death records of 1,772 African American Crownsville patients who were buried here. I visited those volunteers as they worked at the Maryland Archives and looked over the shoulder of one at the record on her screen. The cause of death was listed. It was strangulation.”
I note this part of Pittman’s speech because it represents one of the ways he distinguishes himself in Maryland: He obviously believes that part of his job is to make Arundel citizens think, to see the larger picture, to look beyond immediate needs to the future. Few, if any, county executives in the Baltimore region have tried to exert that power. Most see their jobs as dutifully administrative, making sure that basic government services are delivered competently while keeping taxes in check. Most take a cautious approach to their jobs, especially in counties considered red.
Pittman was elected by promising a greener, smarter development plan for the county, pay raises for teachers and police officers, and a transparent administration that would welcome citizen input at some 200 town halls over his first four years. He would not have soundly won reelection last month — by a larger margin over his Republican opponent than in 2018 — had he not delivered on most of those promises.
Pittman practices the art of the good-government progressive. He manages to balance the conventional duties of the executive with high-minded ambitions, and his performance would seem instructive for Democrats who operate cautiously from the middle of the road.
It no doubt helps that Anne Arundel’s demographics are changing to the benefit of progressives. It has long had a reputation as a conservative county, but trends of the last three elections mark it as purple shaded blue. It has become younger, better educated and more affluent. Pittman benefited from that. But he’s doing more than merely exploiting a political trend. He’s leading.
Crownsville, in the central part of Maryland’s fourth largest county, represents both the practical and idealistic sides of the Pittman model. It was a priority of his administration to acquire it from the state and give it new purpose. The plan is to use part of the property as an incubator for nonprofits, part for a wellness center. Pittmam wants to create a memorial for Black Marylanders who were admitted to Crownsville for treatment of mental illnesses but forced into manual labor.
In his words, he wants to “transform this tainted jewel at the heart of our county into a place where healing happens through the powerful medicine of nature.”
As I said, it’s not the usual rhetoric, but it’s wholly refreshing to hear a county executive say: Look, we can do all of this, acknowledge the past and work for a better future.
Pittman asked Arundel citizens to join him in committing to livable wages for county employees, to fully staffed schools, to less gun violence, to less racism and fewer hate crimes, to more affordable housing, to universal child care and pre-K, to protecting 30% of county land by the year 2030, to powering county government by renewable sources, also by 2030, to helping businesses through the county’s permitting process and by providing an educated workforce.
What’s not to like? Being progressive is not something to be ashamed of. It might even get you elected and reelected.