Before she stepped down from her post indefinitely amid health concerns and the Healthy Holly scandal, it was an open question whether Mayor Catherine Pugh would face a substantial challenge for re-election in 2020. Now, that race is wide open. Even if she recovers enough physically and politically to run — a possibility we don’t discount; after all, this is Baltimore — she can no longer be considered a prohibitive favorite in next April’s Democratic primary. Whether subtly or overtly, other serious contenders will start making moves to position themselves to run, and given where Baltimore is today, that’s a good thing.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who is acting as ex officio mayor in Ms. Pugh’s absence, has said in no uncertain terms that he’s not in the race. In his admirably humble and earnest response to this week’s events, Mr. Young said he had once harbored mayoral ambitions but now realizes that council president is the job he wants and the one he will seek next year. Former mayor Sheila Dixon, the runner up to Ms. Pugh in 2016, was already part of the conversation, given her experience, political base and success in driving down violent crime in the late-2000s.
Do the ethical and legal questions about Mayor Pugh’s Healthy Holly business, which involved more than a thousand times as much money as the $500 in gift cards Ms. Dixon stole, help or hurt the former mayor? It could go either way, but we would like to hope that Baltimore’s instinctive response to the second mayor driven out of office amid scandal in a decade isn’t to turn our eyes toward the first.
Some current elected officials had already been sniffing around the 2020 race before Ms. Pugh stepped down, notably City Councilman Brandon Scott and state Sen. Bill Ferguson. Both are young, ambitious and untainted by scandal, though both would need to do serious work to expand their bases and to build their brands beyond their main areas of focus in office — public safety for Mr. Scott, education for Mr. Ferguson. But there’s any number of promising elected officials in the City Council and legislative delegation who haven’t openly discussed the idea but could conceivably run. Sens. Mary Washington, Antonio Hayes and Cory McCray all knocked off entrenched incumbents last year, and Sen. Jill Carter’s stock is on the rise thanks to her sponsorship of the University of Maryland Medical System reform bill that led to the discovery of the current scandal. The House of Delegates has some possible contenders, too: Dels. Brooke Lierman, Nick Mosby (who ran for mayor three years ago but dropped out) and Maggie McIntosh (though she may be more valuable as Appropriations Committee chair). The council is chock-full of ambitious new leaders who might try to move up, including but not limited to Kristerfer Burnett, Zeke Cohen, Ryan Dorsey, Leon Pinkett and Shannon Sneed.
Then there’s the ranks of people who ran strong but unsuccessful city-wide campaigns, the most promising of whom are Elizabeth Embry, who placed third to Ms. Pugh and Ms. Dixon in 2016 and offered up the best conceived issue-oriented campaign of that election, and Thiru Vignarajah, who ran unsuccessfully for state’s attorney last year but whose interests clearly extend far beyond the prosecutor’s office. Businessman David Warnock placed fourth in the 2016 election and has remained engaged in the city, though it’s not clear whether he’s interested in another campaign.
And finally, there are a few wild cards. It seems unlikely that Martin O’Malley would run for his old job after two terms as governor (though there’s precedent for that), but there is chatter around town about his former chief of staff and current Goldseker Foundation President and CEO Matt Gallagher. He hasn’t run for office before, but he does actually know how to run a government. Former city police spokesman T.J. Smith has been talked about before as a possible mayoral candidate, and he recently moved into the city. He has the name recognition he would need and first-hand knowledge of some of Baltimore’s most intractable problems. He’s never run for office before either. The same is true of author and philanthropist Wes Moore, though that didn’t stop a lot of people from urging him to run last time. He’s smart, charismatic and well connected. Another attractive candidate in the same vein, but with the bonus of hard-earned electoral experience, is Ben Jealous. The former NAACP head’s ideas for urban renewal in his unsuccessful gubernatorial bid were as insightful and comprehensive as Ms. Embry’s were in the last mayor’s race. He handily won the Democratic gubernatorial primary in the city last year and racked up 20,000 more general election votes in the city than the party’s nominee four years before. He recently bought a house in the city..