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Baltimore mayor’s outlandish statements overshadow achievements, issues

Baltimore City Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young told a reporter this week he was concerned about people in white vans abducting girls for human trafficking based on social media rumors.
Baltimore City Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young told a reporter this week he was concerned about people in white vans abducting girls for human trafficking based on social media rumors. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Ever since Bernard C. “Jack” Young invited reporters to “see [his] damn underwear” as City Council president in 2010, to prove he lived in a particular residence, we’ve understood him to be an off-the-cuff kind of speaker and largely forgiven minor gaffes. He’s shown dedication to Baltimore and a willingness to take on even the tiniest of problems, including broken streetlamps, in his 23 years in politics.

But several comments he’s made recently as mayor are beginning to overshadow any achievements. They suggest a disturbing level of naivete and raise legitimate questions about his judgment as he seeks election in 2020 to the powerful position he inherited this spring when his predecessor first took leave, then resigned, amid scandal.

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In an interview Monday with WBAL 11 News, Mayor Young furthered an improbable urban legend based on social media rumors.

"We're getting reports of somebody in a white van trying to snatch up young girls for human trafficking and for selling body parts, I’m told. So, we have to really be careful because there's so much evil going on, not just in the city of Baltimore but around the country," Mr. Young said. "Don't park near a white van. Make sure that you look at your surroundings, and make sure you keep your cellphone in case somebody tries to abduct you and call 911 right away."

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His source, he said, was Facebook — the company whose founder and CEO has rather boldly declared “we don’t fact-check.” To be clear: Neither city police nor the FBI have received any actual reports of such abductions, though we trust they’ll investigate if they ever do.

And while the last part of the mayor’s statement — to be aware of your surroundings and keep a phone handy in unfamiliar areas — is good advice, the rest of it has the same unfortunate feeling you get when your great aunt or uncle starts posting earnest warnings online about the YouTube “Momo Challenge” hoax or the bogus $75 anniversary coupon Walmart is supposedly offering survey takers. It’s both sad and frustrating, because you’ve been down this road before with them and they really should know better.

The Monday interview is at least the second time Mr. Young has publicly pushed the improbable van/organ-snatching conspiracy. He also brought it up Nov. 20, unprompted, after being asked about signing a plastic bag ban bill.

And a week before that, he made the infamous “I’m not committing the murders” comment to reporters, as explanation for why city residents shouldn’t fault leadership for the appalling homicide rate.

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In June, at a rally against gun violence, he threw out the idea of settling street disputes in a boxing ring. “Those are some kinds of things I’m thinking about and hoping that we can [use to] get these people to put these guns down,” he said. While the notion had some supporters, it’s been largely ridiculed.

Then there was the time in October 2017, when the #MeToo movement was sweeping the globe and thousands of women were coming forward with tales of sexual harassment and abuse. That’s when Mr. Young, as City Council president, chose to say police officers who work in Baltimore but dare to live outside it, are “raping the city.” He later told Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater that he’d used a “poor choice of words.”

No kidding.

We here in the word business understand that slips happen. It’s easy to stumble over phrasing and mess up grammar rules. But we also know the importance of backing up the substance of what we say with research that’s based in reality. And we’ve had about all we can handle lately of politicians promoting conspiracy theories or making other outlandish comments that take away from the real issues we should be discussing.

Human trafficking is a real problem that exists in Maryland: Nearly 400 victims of it were identified and assisted here in 2014. But it doesn’t start with a white van.

Baltimore homicides are soaring and have been for years. City leaders may not be doing the killing, but they’re absolutely responsible for controlling it.

And while duking it out might satisfy some street beefs, swapping one form of violence for another is hardly a reasonable response to illegal guns.

This year as mayor, Mr. Young helped move a plan forward that could save Preakness in Baltimore and saw the City Council pass the Water Accountability and Equity Act he introduced as a member in December 2018. But few are talking about that. Instead, people are sharing memes about Mr. Young not committing murder.

That’s not a thread that’s going to get Baltimore where it needs to be to succeed — or Jack Young elected. And for that, he’s got no one to blame but himself.

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