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Brandon Scott sworn in as Baltimore mayor, addresses ‘public health emergencies’ of COVID-19 and gun violence

Former Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott pledged to tackle a pair of “public health emergencies” — gun violence and the coronavirus — as he was sworn in as the city’s 52nd mayor during a small, socially distanced inaugural ceremony Tuesday.

Scott, 36, said the city faces many challenges, including rising COVID-19 cases and deaths, struggling small businesses, a looming eviction crisis and a significant fiscal impact to the city’s budget that he said will require sacrifices.

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“We cannot accept this as normal in our city,” Scott said. “We must also understand that these dual emergencies of violence and this pandemic exacerbate the underlying and obvious inequities facing residents of Baltimore. I am humbled by the task before us and I have hope, but I am not naive to the challenges we face.”

The inaugural ceremony was unmistakably shaped by the pandemic. The oath was administered inside City Hall’s marble-floored rotunda, where only Scott’s parents and a few other key officials were on hand. The public and most media were barred due to crowd restrictions during the pandemic.

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After signing a historic ledger, as required by the city’s charter, Scott emerged from City Hall where about a dozen reporters and photographers waited. He pumped a squirt of hand sanitizer into his palms before delivering a 10-minute address shown live on the city’s CharmTV channel.

Scott said it was clear the city’s current policing strategy is not working, evidenced by a homicide rate that again topped 300 in 2020.

“We continue to lose too many people to violence,” he said. “Those committing these acts remain comfortable on our streets. This is unacceptable and will change.”

Under Scott’s leadership and amid national calls to defund police departments, the Baltimore City Council voted this year to eliminate $22 million from the Baltimore Police Department budget with the intention of boosting spending elsewhere, including opening recreation centers on Sundays and increasing trauma services. Then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who alone had the power to reallocate funds, blocked the move.

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On Tuesday, Scott called for a holistic approach to “sustainably decline” violence, although he stopped short of offering too many specifics.

“Baltimore, we must re-imagine what public safety means for us,” he said. “Gone are the days where we try to police our way out of our problems. That strategy has not worked, it will not work.”

Outside City Hall, there were few hints at the historic nature of what was unfolding inside, save for police barricades encircling the plaza in front of the building, security perched on top of the War Memorial Building and an oversized American flag draped from two city firetrucks, whipping in the wind. (Scott’s staff said the outgoing mayor arranged for the flag.)

In years prior, inaugurations have been packed with city and state dignitaries and customarily include the governor. This year, officials were asked not to come, although Democratic Councilman Robert Stokes was briefly in attendance outside on the brisk but sunny day. One or two more curious onlookers gathered beyond the barricades, but wandered away before the brief event culminated.

Scott pledged to battle the pandemic head on. All city residents should have access to testing and, ultimately, a COVID-19 vaccine, he said.

“I will not waiver or hesitate to make decisions that save lives and protect our economy,” he said.

The mayor also addressed an issue often on the minds of Baltimore residents: the city’s lack of recycling service. Young suspended curbside collections in August amid an outbreak of COVID-19 among the city sanitation staff. Residents have been without recycling pickups since.

“We will resume recycling collection, but we won’t stop there,” Scott said. “We must pursue a zero waste future.”

Scott, the eldest of three boys, was raised in a working-class family in the Park Heights neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore. His father, Alvin Scott, works for a family-owned heating and air conditioning company and his mother, Donna Scott, for a Giant supermarket — jobs Scott credits for allowing his family to work its way into the middle class.

Scott spoke frequently on the campaign trail of his upbringing and his early exposure to violence as police and drug dealers squared off in his neighborhood. His inaugural remarks gave a nod to the streets where he was raised.

“Trauma and violence in our city is personal for you, just like it is for me,” he said.

The city must change its approach to preventing violence or it will continue to lose Black lives, he added.

Athletics pushed the future mayor through graduation in 2002 from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical School, an alma mater of which Scott is a proud and vocal alumnus (he wore a Mervo mask as he was sworn in and gave a shoutout to the school in his remarks). There, Scott participated in the CollegeBound program, which pushes city students to higher education.

Following the inauguration, Scott spoke Tuesday to a sixth grade social studies class at Henderson-Hopkins School in East Baltimore.

Scott graduated in 2006 from St. Mary’s College of Maryland with a degree in political science. A year later, back in his hometown, he tried to seize on an opening on Baltimore City Council left by then-Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings-Blake during a political shuffle following Democratic Mayor Martin O’Malley’s election as governor. Scott wasn’t selected for the spot, but Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, offered him a job in the council president’s office.

In 2011, Scott was elected to City Council, representing the 2nd District. He became council president in 2019 in the wake of Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh’s resignation from office amid her Healthy Holly children’s book scandal. Then, Democratic Council President Young assumed the mayor’s office, and Scott won the council president role.

During his time in public office, Scott has cast himself as someone willing to usher a new way of thinking into City Hall and to shake up the old guard. Teaming with a growing, left-leaning faction of City Council, Scott pushed through a series of amendments to the city’s charter that made changes to the city administration, gave council increased power over the budget and altered the legislative process.

In 2018, when Scott was a councilman, he proposed a racial equity bill ultimately signed into law that requires city agencies to determine whether existing or proposed policies have differing outcomes with regards to race, gender or income. It also requires them to develop policies to address disparate outcomes. He also proposed a $15 million annual fund to work toward eliminating institutional racism.

Scott has called for transparency in government and sponsored the bill that ultimately created Baltimore’s open data program, which made city data more readily available to the public.

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Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, praised Scott for approaching his inaugural address with a focused agenda. Some in the political arena make the mistake of enumerating too many priorities, he said. If they’re unable to accomplish them, that can create the perception they’ve been unproductive.

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If Scott can make “demonstrable progress” on his targeted issues in his first 100 days, he’ll be on a path to success, Hartley said.

Hartley said Scott also made it clear he expects the solution to the city’s crime problem to be the focus of every agency, not just the police department.

“How does the Department of Health contribute to lessening the crime problem? If he’s able to make that connection in policies and speeches, that’s powerful,” Hartley said.

Democrat Bill Henry, also a former City Council member, was sworn in as the city comptroller during a separate ceremony later Tuesday afternoon inside City Hall.

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