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Now officially Baltimore mayor, Jack Young inherits city's problems — particularly violent crime

Bernard C. “Jack” Young became the 51st mayor of Baltimore on Thursday, his new role made official by Catherine Pugh’s resignation.

The City Council president has been serving as acting mayor — to generally positive reviews — since Pugh announced April 1 that she was taking a leave of absence to fight pneumonia.

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Young, like Pugh a Democrat, has dismissed some of her closest aides and sent other signals that he was settling into the job, but Pugh’s resignation ends the uncertainty that hung over his leadership for the past five weeks.

The new mayor was in Detroit for an economic development conference when the moment finally arrived.

“I want people to know I'm dedicated to this city,” Young told The Baltimore Sun in a telephone interview, his first since becoming mayor. “I’ve always been dedicated to this city.”

He is scheduled to be back in Baltimore on Sunday; he said it would be a waste of city money to come back earlier.

Young became mayor automatically Thursday, but a ceremonial swearing-in is being planned for next Thursday in the City Hall rotunda.

Young said his priorities will be bringing down crime and cleaning up the city. He said he plans to review the operations of every city agency, a process he expects to take four to six weeks.

“I need every citizen to be part of what I’m trying to do in terms of reducing crime and cleaning the city,” Young said. “Together we all can do it.”

Pugh announced her leave last month as Republican Gov. Larry Hogan was calling for a criminal investigation into sales of her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books. Pugh initially insisted she would return to work once her health improved, even as the City Council and others called on her to resign. Those calls grew louder last week after the FBI and the IRS raided her City Hall office and her houses.

Young has built a political career on a reputation for tenacious constituent service, a theme he has continued to emphasize as mayor, saying he demands dirty streets be cleaned when he spots them as he rides around the city.

I need every citizen to be part of what I’m trying to do in terms of reducing crime and cleaning the city. Together we can all do it.


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Repeatedly during his tenure as acting mayor, he said, as he did again Wednesday: “The city’s moving forward. I’m at the helm and I’m moving the city forward.”

But in taking on the rest of Pugh’s term, which runs through December 2020, Young inherits responsibility for the city’s many problems.

Chief among them is crime, including a persistently high homicide rate that Pugh struggled to drive down. So far this year, 93 people have been killed in Baltimore. That’s on par with last year, which saw 309 homicides by Dec. 31.

And total shootings, including those in which the victim survived, are up about 20 percent this year.

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As acting mayor, Young already has seen examples of city violence at its worst. On Sunday, a gunman killed one person and wounded seven others at a West Baltimore cookout. The next day, Young apologized to people in that neighborhood who, he said, “get up early every day and do the right thing and are held hostage by a tiny fraction of individuals.”

George Nilson, a former city solicitor who handled Democrat Sheila Dixon’s resignation as mayor in 2010, said he expected the transition for Young to be smooth because he’s been handling the duties of the job for a month.

“He is transitioning from himself, to himself,” Nilson said.

Young sent clear signals that he didn’t feel constrained by serving in an acting capacity.

He put half a dozen Pugh aides on leave, and confirmed that he later fired three of them. Another two — Pugh's chief of staff and the city’s top lobbyist — have since left city government.

And despite the city’s budget process having begun already, Young was planning to make changes to a proposal crafted while Pugh was in office.

Democratic Councilman Eric Costello, who chairs the budget committee, said he and Young have been discussing alterations to the city’s spending for the coming year, but declined to share details of the plans.

“Mayor Young’s been very involved in the budget process,” Costello said. “He’s obviously very familiar with it from his time on the council.”

Nina Kasniunas, a political scientist at Goucher College, cautioned that Young takes office without a mandate from the voters. That could limit his ability to begin pursuing his own vision for the city.

“It would just be really awkward,” Kasniunas said.

But Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, has said that Young need not limit himself.

Young could use his time in charge to accomplish whatever legislative agenda he decides to set, Hartley said. The mayor could even broker deals with the council to pass legislation the Pugh administration opposed.

“If he wants to, he doesn’t have to say he just wants to keep the seat warm,” Hartley said.

Young joins his two predecessors as City Council president in becoming mayor. Dixon took the job when Martin O’Malley was elected governor in 2006. Then Stephanie Rawlings-Blake moved up when Dixon resigned after pleading guilty in a corruption case.

Rawlings-Blake’s elevation in 2010 led to Young’s becoming council president, 14 years after he first joined the body in 1996.

The council is expected to hold a special meeting next week to elect a new president, who is likely to be one of its current member but is not required to be.

Young said again Thursday that he won’t run for his own term as mayor and would instead seek re-election as council president.

“That's where I want to go back to,” Young said.

Carl Stokes, a former councilman and longtime friend of Young’s, said his position has been the same in private conversations, too. But if by fall Young is doing a good job, Stokes said he could imagine a movement to draft Young to run.

“Jack would be formidable if he decided to go for it,” Stokes said. “He has a decent war chest, he is well known, and if he gets a chance to show he can run a city very well that gives him an obvious leg up.”

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Young still lives in the East Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up, his life story entwined with the history of the area.

He attended Dunbar High School before holding a series of jobs that culminated in a three-decade career at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

At the same time, he built political connections through the Democratic clubs that dominated the City Council’s old 2nd District and took a job nights and weekends tackling constituent issues for then-Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

In the council, Young spoke out on issues that affected poor and struggling city residents, like high water bills that put their homes at risk.

He also pushed to create a $12 million youth fund to provide money for programs benefiting children. As acting mayor, Young ordered an audit of the program because the city had awarded the management of it to Associated Black Charities, which had collected donations to pay for Pugh’s books.

Young, who says he doesn't like giving speeches, has continued to display his personable style as he takes on the public duties of being mayor.

This week, he took the podium in the middle of a blighted West Baltimore street to announce that a developer had been selected for a $10 million project to rehab the century-old, long-abandoned, three-story brick rowhouses.

After finishing his prepared remarks, Young turned to introduce a councilman though he had not yet mentioned the secretary of Maryland’s Housing and Community Development department — which is providing funding for the project. Young stopped himself in the middle of the faux pas.

“I’m sorry — I want to invite the secretary,” said Young, bringing himself and the audience to laughter. “I don’t want to make that mistake, because we need you to continue to bring the money! I am not going to make that mistake. We want that money.

“He has been committed to Baltimore, and we want to keep him committed. As a matter of fact, the next time you speak, you speak before me.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

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