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In Baltimore, crime continues amid coronavirus, and a mayor’s job gets even tougher | COMMENTARY

Baltimore police officers investigate the scene Monday evening of a police-involved shooting at the 1800 block of N. Chester Street. An officer confronted and shot an armed suspect at the location. The suspect was later pronounced dead at an area hospital. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam 3/30/20
Baltimore police officers investigate the scene Monday evening of a police-involved shooting at the 1800 block of N. Chester Street. An officer confronted and shot an armed suspect at the location. The suspect was later pronounced dead at an area hospital. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam 3/30/20(Kenneth K. Lam)

The next mayor of Baltimore will have to lead the city out of a long period of incessant violence and the lingering miasma of corruption while also managing recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The next mayor will have to deal with familiar and visible problems while a whole new, invisible one brings widespread illness, death and fear to American life.

Our City of Perpetual Recovery is already afflicted with a vicious, localized contagion — the insanity of retaliatory gun violence — and now it faces a deadly, global contagion as well.

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The next mayor, most likely the Democrat who wins the primary election rescheduled by Gov. Larry Hogan for June 2, will not take office until December 8. But starting shortly after the primary, she or he will have to muster a staff, Cabinet and supporting cast of community activists fully primed to tackle both the city’s festering problems and its recovery from coronavirus.

Before I go on, you might ask: Isn’t the current mayor and his staff doing that? As far as I can see, Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young has been doing what he’s supposed to do in this unprecedented-in-a-lifetime situation. His administration’s daily actions and communications have been exemplary.

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But is he the next mayor? If polls are any indication, no. Given the rate of violence in the city, even in the midst of pandemic, along with the most recent census data showing more population loss, Young’s single-digit ranking is understandable. Even with his steady approach to the virus, it’s hard to see Baltimoreans being content to keep him in office.

Still, given his candidacy, Young is eligible to be mayor for four more years, and voters ultimately will decide if he’s the candidate up to the formidable challenges ahead.

I bring this up today because, overwhelmed with coronavirus news and information, it’s hard for any citizen to think about a primary more than two months away. A lot of things suddenly seem trivial. But for Baltimore, the 2020 municipal election is the most important of the 21st Century, just as the 2020 presidential election is for the nation. The coronavirus does not diminish that characterization, it amplifies it.

I hope I’m wrong, but the next mayor could come into office while Maryland and the nation are still in a state of emergency. In Baltimore, we already have an undeclared emergency — the depressing level of violence that grew to 300-plus homicides each year, starting in 2015.

The violence has not stopped because of the virus.

It has not stopped despite Young’s earnest plea to people caught up in drugs and guns to cease fire “because we’re going to need [hospital beds] for people who might be infected with the coronavirus.”

It was a good message, delivered on March 18.

But there have been, at this writing, eight homicides since then. Three shooters got out of a car Saturday night in Pigtown and opened fire on a group, killing one man and wounding three others. On Monday in Broadway East, a police officer shot and killed a man who was firing on a crowd. As is often the case, police said retaliation was the motive for the shooting. There have been 69 homicides and 139 non-fatal shootings in three months. And there are other forms of crime that consume the overworked, understaffed police department.

The next mayor of Baltimore must be capable of a powerful message to attract more badly needed police officers: “Come to this city and make a difference.”

The next mayor will have to broker peace and cooperation between the police commissioner and the police union.

The next mayor will have to be a person with broad appeal across the racial lines of Baltimore that form the black butterfly and the white L on a map. The race, age or gender of the next mayor should not matter so much as vision, commitment, smarts and integrity — and probably integrity most of all. Baltimore is still in recovery from the misdeeds of two recent mayors and the extraordinary corruption of a police task force.

The next mayor needs to get the numbers back up. In the latest census, the city’s population slipped below 600,000 for the first time in a century. There are a lot of reasons for it — smaller household sizes, low-income families moving to the suburbs. But when paired with the violence, it’s understandable when someone says life in the city has become intolerable. The next mayor needs to do something about that with a consistent message to those who live here — and those who might — that things are going to change, and fast.

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The next mayor needs to be a pragmatist and an idealist who promotes the best aspects of city life. We can use a cheerleader.

But the only way to convince Baltimoreans, suburban Baltimoreans and prospective Baltimoreans that Baltimore is a safer city is to make Baltimore a safer city.

So we keep coming back to crime, and while a lot of it is linked to the drug trade, a lot is linked to other things, all visible and familiar — generational poverty, lack of job opportunities, the incomplete education of too many children, lack of investment in neighborhoods.

So there’s all that, plus pandemic.

It is a mountain of responsibility for one woman or one man, and it just became a mountain range. There will be a need to help restaurants, businesses and nonprofits recover, to help students make up for lost time, to help all of us come back from the fear and trauma of life under the coronavirus cloud.

My fellow Baltimoreans, we need to shelter in place and wash our hands a lot. We need to keep our distance from others while still looking out for one another.

But we also need to pay attention and, come June, pick the next mayor of Baltimore, the woman or man best suited to lead us out of this awful place we’re in right now.

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