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Baltimore mayor’s race: Run, Jack, run?

Baltimore Mayor Jack Young speaks about plans for Baltimore while at the National Organization of Black County Officials in Detroit, MI. (Yvonne Wenger / Baltimore Sun video)

It’s neither surprising nor at this point unwelcome news that Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young is reconsidering his insistence that he will not run to keep the office he recently inherited in next year’s election. During the period when former Mayor Catherine Pugh was deciding whether to resign amid the Healthy Holly scandal, Mr. Young’s lack of overt ambition probably made her less inclined to dig in her heels, and in the turmoil that accompanied her departure from office it offered voters some reassurance. After one mayor got caught using the prestige of office for her financial gain, it was helpful that Baltimore’s new leader voiced no interest in advancing even his political fortunes.

We have little doubt that he was sincere about it at the time — if he had mayoral ambitions from the start, there’s no way he would have decided to stick around at a local government conference in Detroit the day Ms. Pugh resigned — but it was also pretty obvious that before long, people would start whispering in Mr. Young’s ear that the city’s top office was his for the taking. That’s intoxicating. And by all rights, he should be part of the conversation about the next mayoral election. He has more city government experience than any of the other people mentioned as likely contenders (generally by a factor of decades), and he has remained a visible and generally surefooted presence in the public during the last few months. But we wouldn’t say he’s earned the job yet either. All those who would be mayor need to demonstrate not only a passion for Baltimore but also a vision for its future and the ability to execute it. That goes for Mr. Young, too.

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It has not exactly been smooth sailing for Baltimore in the months Mr. Young has been in charge. A string of problems has roiled the city — ransomware that shut down city government computers, yet another round of regional tooth-gnashing over the behavior of youth at the Inner Harbor, flooding and water main breaks, the unrelenting pace of killings. Mr. Young can’t be blamed for those things, but he has also not given residents reason to believe that the city has turned a corner.

There’s not much time to accomplish that between now and the all-important Democratic primary next spring, but Mr. Young has some opportunities to show progress. Showing an improvement in public safety, and in particular the closely watched homicide rate, would provide a major boost of municipal confidence. Ending the year with fewer than 300 killings for the first time since Freddie Gray’s death would at least be a symbolic victory, and one that could be attainable if Commissioner Michael Harrison is as good as his reputation from New Orleans suggests. The reopened negotiations with the owners of Pimlico about the fate of the Preakness afford Mr. Young the chance to do something none of his predecessors could — secure the second leg of the Triple Crown for Baltimore for the long term. Showing some impact from Baltimore’s new Affordable Housing Trust Fund or implementing public campaign financing — two things city residents approved overwhelmingly at the ballot box — would be a sign that the impatience voters displayed in the last election was having an impact on policy.

If Mr. Young runs, he’ll almost certainly face strong opponents. Attorney Thiru Vignarajah is already running, Council President Brandon Scott certainly looks and sounds like he is, and others ranging from Sen. Bill Ferguson to former national NAACP CEO Ben Jealous to former city police spokesman T.J. Smith might well get into the race. They’re all likely to pitch themselves as a change from the status quo, and a Young campaign would have to balance the virtues of his experience with a sense that he’s not just more of the same.

KAL: Jack Young takes the driver's seat in City Hall
KAL: Jack Young takes the driver's seat in City Hall (KAL/Baltimore Sun)

As much as we cheered Mr. Young’s avowed disinterest in running for mayor a few months ago, we recognize that things have changed since then. Ms. Pugh’s shadow does not loom over the municipal discourse. She has disappeared literally and figuratively, and that’s likely to remain the case unless the federal and state investigations into her conduct yield indictments. Mr. Young now has his own people in place in City Hall and at the helms of some departments, and it’s possible to judge him on his own merits. Should Mr. Young decide to run for a full term, we would be delighted to welcome him to the race — and to see how he stacks up against the competition.

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