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Council President Scott: Can his ambition work in Baltimore's favor?

Council President Scott: Can his ambition work in Baltimore's favor?
Baltimore City Council members selected Brandon Scott on Monday to replace Bernard C. "Jack" Young as council president. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

We offer our congratulations to Brandon Scott on his selection Monday by his Baltimore City Council colleagues as the next council president in the latest consequence of Catherine Pugh’s resignation as mayor. Mr. Scott’s qualifications for the job are undeniable. He has proved himself an able leader on the council and has driven much of the city’s conversation on what is perhaps the most important issue for residents: bringing crime under control. He is at the vanguard of the young, talented core of council members who were swept into office after the post-Freddie Gray unrest of 2015 (though he preceded them on the council by four years), a contrast to his predecessor, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who sometimes served as a brake on their ambitions.

That said, we do have some reservations about Mr. Scott’s elevation. We have found Mayor Young’s announced intention to campaign for his old job of council president helpful in restoring a sense of calm and stability in Baltimore in the wake of Ms. Pugh’s downfall, but the selection of Mr. Scott, an all-but-declared candidate for mayor, to the second most powerful position in city government raises the possibility of conflict and political motives in City Hall during the next year. That’s particularly true if Mr. Young at some point changes his mind and decides to run for mayor. When it comes to ratcheting down the drama, the other leading contender for council president, Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, who is also well qualified but said she intended to campaign for her old 6th District seat either way, might have been a safer choice.

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Mr. Young made clear his preference for Ms. Middleton, and it’s ironic that the council chose to ignore him. His rise from his East Baltimore district happened the same way nine years ago. When Sheila Dixon resigned and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took her place, the new mayor campaigned hard behind the scenes on behalf of then-council member William Cole, believing he would be less likely to stoke conflict with her administration. But Mr. Young sewed up the votes on the council instead, and he indeed found himself in conflict with the Rawlings-Blake administration at various points. He might now get a taste of his own medicine.

Although a council president’s power is limited in a city with a strong-mayor form of government like Baltimore’s, he or she can use the position to act as a substantial thorn in a mayor’s side. The president can block or fast-track legislation, and his or her role as chair of the Board of Estimates provides the president with a soapbox to criticize a mayor, if not the power to overrule one. Mr. Scott has used his position as chairman of the council’s public safety committee to good effect to hold mayors and their police chiefs accountable, but now he’ll have more power and a much bigger platform from which to do it.

One of the biggest questions surrounding Mr. Scott’s potential candidacy for mayor is whether he can be as full of passion and ideas when it comes to the many other issues mayors must handle as he is with crime. What does he bring to the table when it comes to affordable housing, education, economic development, homelessness, public health and so on? With him as council president, we’ll have a chance to find out. One of the biggest questions surrounding any candidate for mayor is whether he or she can bring the managerial skills needed to make sure the city government responds to Baltimoreans’ many needs promptly, effectively and efficiently, and while no other job can fully answer that question, the role of Board of Estimates chairman gives him some opportunity to display his aptitude for oversight.

It’s not completely certain that moving up to the council presidency is a good political move for Mr. Scott. A display of ambition at this moment in Baltimore politics (particularly in contrast to Mr. Young’s lack of it) might not play well. But it does give us the opportunity to see whether this promising young politician can rise to the occasion. If he can, that’s good for him — and Baltimore.

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