It will be up to city voters to decide if Thiru Vignarajah is the right man to be the next mayor of Baltimore, but one thing is clear from his announcement and my recent talk with him — he has the right message at the right time: End the killing and root out corruption.
First things first.
The killings, of course, have been occurring at a high rate since the late winter of 2015. We had not seen years of 300-plus homicides since the crack-infested 1990s, and Baltimore has had four in a row in this decade. There are signs of a slowing pace in 2019 — 71 homicides in the first 100 days — but one of the consequences of the last four years is a sense of foreboding and low expectations.
“We will never achieve our full promise until we end the bloodshed and root out political corruption,” Vignarajah, a former federal and state prosecutor, said in announcing his candidacy today.
He’s stepping into the race as Mayor Catherine Pugh, currently on leave from City Hall, faces a career-crippling scandal over her questionable sales of “Healthy Holly” books. Public reaction to Pugh’s lucrative deal with the University of Maryland Medical System while a UMMS board member, and her sales of books to other entities that did business with the city, has been harsh and consistent. Sunday’s story about Pugh by my Sun colleague Jean Marbella measured the extent of distrust and disappointment among citizens. A mayor need not be convicted of a crime, or even indicted, to lose the public’s confidence.
So Vignarajah is wise to mention a focus on corruption out of the box.
But, in a recent conversation, he also provided, without notes and in complete sentences, a list of specific ideas about reducing the city’s property tax rate, improving public education with expanded pre-K, supporting biotech and cybersecurity businesses, improving transit amenities and growing the city’s population. He sounded as he did when he ran for Baltimore state’s attorney last year — informed, focused and thoughtful, and sick of seeing mediocrity, or worse, in the results of local government services, from crime reduction to economic development.
The first time I spoke to Vignarajah was in September 2015, one of the worst years in the city’s history — death of Freddie Gray, civil unrest in West Baltimore, 342 homicides. By then, Vignarajah was deputy attorney general of Maryland. He had left the state’s attorney’s office after Marilyn Mosby unseated the incumbent chief prosecutor, Gregg Bernstein.
Though he had moved to the AG’s office, Vignarajah came back to Baltimore Circuit Court to see to its conclusion the Bernstein-era bust-up of the Black Guerilla Family’s violent control of Greenmount Avenue and Mund Park. The gang had been involved in numerous robberies, drug deals, shootings and homicides. "It was one of the most violent areas in the history of the city, ruled by one of the most ruthless gangs in the history of the city,” Vignarajah said.
In 2013, police and prosecutors started making dozens of arrests of gang members, and Vignarajah’s Major Investigations Unit started getting convictions and guilty pleas. Over the next 18 months, there were only two shootings, and no homicides, in the area previously ruled by the BGF.
The last case was in 2015: A gang member who had carried out a revenge killing received a sentence of life in prison, and Vignarajah was there to see it happen. He followed through on his commitment to finish the complex prosecution of the gang and make Greenmount safer. Finishing unfinished business is one of the many things Baltimore needs from city leadership.
And having a mayor with a consistent focus on priorities and high expectations — a mayor who might even last more than one term — would be great.
Vignarajah is not the first prosecutor to run for mayor. Like him, Kurt Schmoke was an assistant U.S. attorney and, later, Baltimore state’s attorney. Martin O’Malley had been an assistant state’s attorney before he ran for City Council at the age of 28. The mayor-elect of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, once served as an assistant U.S. attorney, and in that role prosecuted drug crimes and corruption. She faces in Chicago a violent crime trend similar to Baltimore’s. “If people don’t feel safe, they’re not going to stay,” Lightfoot told The New York Times this week. “If people don’t feel safe, they’re not going to have hope. If people don’t feel safe, they’re not going to invest.”
Baltimoreans will hear a similar message from Vignarajah, and while the city has many problems, all needing attention, I don’t know anyone, in any part of the city, who is not hungry to see the crime numbers come down and the city be associated with something other than violence.
Vignarajah lost his bid to unseat Mosby in the Democratic primary last June, but he remained interested in serving the city in some capacity. In July, he showed up for a street-side memorial for little Taylor Hayes, the 7-year-old girl who had been killed by a stray bullet while she sat in the backseat of a car near Edmondson Avenue. And Vignarajah has continued to comment on the city’s problems, sometimes in published op-eds. He’s kept himself viable, even in the face of harsh criticism in social media for his role representing the state in the appeals of Adnan Syed, the convicted killer who became a cause celebre after the hit Serial podcast.
Do people care about that here? Some do, and will probably hold it against him.
But Baltimoreans are hungry for a fresh start, an intelligent focus on reducing crime, and, above all, municipal leadership that raises expectations for what can be achieved.
While the city needs a strong mayor, we should not be looking for a superwoman or superman to fly in and save us. The next mayor needs to build or tap into a cross-racial, cross-city coalition of people, currently in or out of public office, with brains, energy and community spirit — an entourage of thinkers and doers who care about Baltimore and believe in its potential. These people live and work in the city, many of them millennials. I hear from them all the time, and they are really sick of failure and impatient for change.
There may well be a lot of candidates in this race, and it's way too early to know who will emerge as viable contenders. But if Vignarajah is indicative of the ambition, experience and thoughtfulness of those seeking to become our next leader in City Hall, we have reason for hope.