Jack Young’s 23-year rise to the top of Baltimore’s political pyramid has hardly been meteoric.
But after beginning his City Council career in 1996 with residents of his own district plotting his downfall, Young has endured through redistricting, a criminal case that brought down a mayor, a riot that ended the reelection ambitions of another, and a generational shift in the city’s politics that followed the disorder.
Now a scandal over children’s books and a case of pneumonia have brought low a third mayor — and thrust Young, the council president, into the city’s top job for some indeterminate period.
Young has spent his first two weeks in the new job adjusting to the pace.
“I think I’m prepared for this,” said Young, who during Mayor Catherine Pugh’s leave of absence has the title of ex officio mayor. “But I still think I’m running myself ragged. And I’m going to slow the pace down because number one, I want to keep stabilizing the city.”
The 64-year-old Bernard C. “Jack” Young is the first politician to emerge from East Baltimore and reach the mayor’s office since Clarence “Du” Burns in 1987. Young doesn’t hold a college degree and speaks casually even in formal settings, resorting frequently to double negatives.
Former Councilman Carl Stokes, a longtime friend, said Young’s style has led plenty of people to look down on him, just as they did Burns.
“There are other people who quite frankly are demeaning to Jack as if he’s not sharp enough or something to be the mayor of the city,” Stokes said. “They are so wrong.”
Above all, those who’ve worked with him say Young is dedicated to constituent service, troubleshooting the problems residents have that threaten to make their lives miserable: garbage not collected, a streetlight that doesn’t work.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke hired Young when she was City Council president in the late 1980s. Young worked days at Johns Hopkins Hospital as an administrator in the radiology department and evenings and weekends for Clarke.
Young would attend East Baltimore community meetings and church gatherings in Clarke’s stead, reporting back to her on who had problems. “He would call every day, all the time about these constituent cases,” Clarke said. “He really cared about those people.”
Young grew up the fifth of 10 children, who were crammed into bunk beds in a succession of rowhouses in the Gay Street and Oliver neighborhoods. He can still rattle off the addresses on Eager Street, Barnes Street and Broadway — two of which have since been erased as the area has been remade and one that’s home to a house reclaimed from abandonment in recent years.
An uncle dubbed the energetic Young “Jackrabbit.” Later, Young said, “I dropped the damn rabbit. I got too old to be called Jackrabbit.”
Now he’s almost universally known as Jack.
Young attended Dunbar High School until 11th grade, then got his diploma from Northern High School. But to anyone who says he’s not a true Poet, he can answer by whipping out the bright yellow Dunbar student ID he still carries in his wallet, his teenage face smiling through the lamination.
All his life Young has attended United Baptist Church; 39 years ago he married Darlene Young at the church. They have two children and three grandchildren.
Young recalls a series of jobs he held as a teenager that took him out into the neighborhood: digging up worms to sell as fish bait, hawking the News-American, shining shoes, working at a grocery store and making Coke cans in a factory. Eventually he landed at Hopkins, first washing pots and serving food, then working in the mailroom before becoming a file clerk in the radiology department.
There he rose to management, helping transition the archives from film to digital.
Young says he has mixed feelings about Hopkins. On the one hand, it provided him three decades of steady employment blocks away from his home, but it’s also a powerful institution that has imposed its vision of progress on the surrounding neighborhood.
The difficult relationship — laid bare in the recent debate over whether Hopkins should be allowed its own police force — has improved in recent years, Young says, but he adds, “There’s still some trust factors.”
As he built his career at Hopkins, Young was also forging the beginnings of a political career in the world of East Baltimore’s Democratic Party clubs. He first joined the East End Forum and then its sometime rival, the more powerful Eastside Democratic Organization, which was led by Burns.
The clubs mobilized campaign workers and raised money. And to those who came up through the system, they served to screen and school potential candidates for office and keep them in check once they were elected.
Stokes recalled Young being held back from running in some instances, a turn-taking ethos Young would also face later in his career.
“In a real sense, Jack was a soldier until the time was right for him to become a leader,” Stokes said.
The Eastside club blocked Young from running in the 1995 election for one of three seats in what was then the City Council’s 2nd District. But when one of the three took a job in the city comptroller’s office, Young’s allies arranged for him to fill the vacancy.
Young’s council career got off to a rocky start, The Sun reported at the time. On his first day, the council president wouldn’t give him an office, and voters in the mostly white northern and western parts of the district fretted that Young wouldn’t represent their interests. They failed in an effort to push him out.
In 1999, Young won his first election. Then in 2003, under a plan pushed by activist groups hoping to weaken incumbents, the council’s six three-member districts were split into 14 single seats. That pitted Young against one of his council colleagues, Pamela Carter. Members of the Eastside club chided her for challenging him.
“This disloyalty piece is bothering me,” then state-Sen. Nathaniel McFadden told The Sun at the time.
Young won the race and began championing causes that affected poor and working people. In 2005, he raised the idea of barring the sale of water bill debts to investors who can seize people’s homes. The General Assembly took that step this year.
“He is basically a moderate at least, but when it comes to people in pain he is a left-wing progressive,” Clarke said.
In his early years on the council, Young, along with other council members, came under scrutiny from federal prosecutors for hiring relatives as paid assistants and accepting free parking and tickets to movies and other events. No one was ever charged.
Young also has faced repeated questions over his living arrangements. The city solicitor ultimately cleared him of wrongdoing after he moved into a house his sister had bought using a special loan. Officials said she didn’t remain in the house 10 years as required. Young paid the city’s housing agency $12,180 to cover her penalty.
And in 2010, Young showed reporters his underwear drawer as he faced questions about which of two East Baltimore homes he owns he actually lived in. He lists a house in the 1500 block of E. Madison St. as his primary residence.
Martin O’Malley’s inauguration as governor in 2007 set off a changing of the guard at City Hall that led to the City Council president, Sheila Dixon, becoming mayor. Dixon recalled that Young had enough support on the council to get elected its president. But Dixon asked him to step back so she could fulfill a promise she had made to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s late father.
“He said he respected that,” Dixon said.
Three years later, when Dixon was forced from office after pleading guilty to embezzling gift cards, Rawlings-Blake became mayor. She unsuccessfully pushed another candidate to take her old job as council president.
Young said his relationship with Rawlings-Blake never really recovered, especially since he had stepped aside for her.
“It made me feel I had been betrayed because I have been a team player,” Young said. “But I pressed on because I knew I had the votes to become president.”
Since becoming council president in 2010, Young has rewarded allies and punished rivals. He successfully backed Stokes to fill the seat he vacated to become council president. He was accused of championing Eric Costello to fill another vacancy, irking other hopefuls. In 2014, Young stripped Councilwoman Rikki Spector of most of her committee assignments after she voted against two bills he favored.
At the time, Spector called Young’s move “bullying.”
As council president, Young opposed plans to build a special jail for young people. He pushed for the implementation of police body cameras and creation of a special fund to back programs for children. Voters ultimately approved creation of the fund after the council overrode Rawlings-Blake’s veto of the proposal.
Even with the added responsibility of citywide office, Young continued to intervene in small-scale constituent issues.
About five years ago, Doris Minor-Terrell was struggling to get a pool repaired at Northwestern High School and reopened for students with disabilities to use. Then she remembered how her own community, Broadway East, would call Young when a church wanted a street sign or a resident needed an alley cleaned.
“If you would call his office for any concern, he would make it happen,” said Minor-Terrell, now 75 and retired from the school system. “He was reachable and solution-oriented.”
Young helped her get the pool fixed and inspected so special needs students could use it for water therapy, she said.
“It doesn’t have to be an issue that’s going to get him the limelight,” said Minor-Terrell, a leader of the New Broadway East Community Association. “It can be the smallest thing. You just can call his office.”
The 2016 elections marked another revolution in city politics. Pugh beat Dixon to become mayor and eight new council members were elected.
Pugh and Young, still the council president, forged a close relationship.
“Mayor Pugh has definitely been more inclusive of the president of the council in her deliberations than I have ever seen,” Clarke said.
But at the same time, Young had to come to grips with the new council members, many of them from a new generation of progressive Democrats. The first year was rocky, with some of the new members chafing under Young’s leadership, but some now say they’ve learned from him and he’s learned from them.
“This council has evolved in its collective consciousness over the last two years, and he has been a part of that and grown like the rest of us,” said Ryan Dorsey, one of the newcomers.
On April 1, while Young was talking to a class of fifth-graders at Lakeland Elementary/Middle School about the city’s budget process, word began to spread that Pugh would take a leave of absence. She had been hospitalized for pneumonia and was facing growing scrutiny over hundreds of thousands of dollars she collected in sales of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books.
At midnight, Young had the job he says he once coveted. But he immediately said he would not run for mayor in next year’s election and would serve now only as a caretaker.
“I want this city clean, I want to reduce crime, I want to make sure that recreation and parks get the resources they need,” Young said. “I just want to make sure the city and people know that the city’s in good hands, because it’s in good hands.”
Young’s future is unclear. He hasn’t moved from his fourth-floor council president’s office down to the mayor’s suite on the second floor. Pugh has said she intends to return when her health improves. Every member of the City Council, save Young, has called on her to resign.
Stokes said he knows Young is comfortable as council president but wishes he would stop ruling out the idea of running for mayor in his own right.
“Does he mean it?” Stokes asked. “I think he does at this point. But I think hopefully he could change his mind.”
Sun reporter Jean Marbella contributed to this article.
Bernard C. ‘Jack’ Young
Position: Ex officio mayor of Baltimore
Education: Northern High School, Community College of Baltimore
Family: Wife of 39 years, Darlene. Two children.
*As acting mayor, still receives city council president’s salary