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Baltimore Mayor Young, who didn’t plan on holding city’s top job, leaves office. He ‘steered the ship through some troubled times.’

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young is shown in a Feb. 13, 2020, photo.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young is shown in a Feb. 13, 2020, photo. (Amy Davis)

When Bernard C. “Jack” Young assumed Baltimore’s highest office, he first said he had no intention of staying.

The hospital administrator-turned-councilman-turned-City Council president built his career playing by an old-school political rulebook, patiently waiting his turn — first to run for council, then to take the reins.

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But after Young served nearly a decade as council president, a self-dealing scandal in the spring of 2019 forced the resignation of Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh. That thrust Young into the mayoral post. He supported Democratic Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, his preferred candidate to keep the council president’s seat warm, with the expectation he would return to the job.

For reasons political and personal, Young changed his mind and opted to run in the Democratic primary to remain the city’s mayor. Young, 66, lost in June to the much younger man who will take office Tuesday as the city’s 52nd mayor, Brandon Scott.

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Many credit Young with bringing a steady hand to City Hall at a time when citizens were reeling from the cascade of revelations of Pugh’s misconduct that led to her resignation and eventual conviction on federal fraud and tax charges.

“He’ll be remembered as someone who came in to fill the void and steered the ship through some troubled times,” said Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., chief legislative officer for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and a former Democratic City Council colleague of Young’s.

Young’s 20-month stint in the mayor’s office also was marked by unexpected and monumental challenges. Little more than a month into his tenure, Baltimore was struck by a ransomware attack, freezing critical services and costing the city millions. Less than a year later, COVID-19 struck, dealing the cash-strapped city another financial blow and pitting Young, at times, against state officials and businesses in his rigorous efforts to curtail the spread of the virus.

“He did a pretty good job based on the events and the unpredictable things that were happening,” said Joan Carter Conway, a former Democratic city councilwoman and state senator. “He had some tremendous drawbacks that were uncontrollable.”

Young has had little to say publicly since his primary defeat and declined to be interviewed for this article.

He sometimes appeared bitter about the tough hand he was dealt as mayor. He quipped that “everything that could’ve happened, happened” and complained people didn’t give enough credit for his work.

An East Baltimore native, Young established himself on City Council as a constituent service-minded politician. Those skills were honed long before he joined the council in 1996. Young was hired in the late 1980s by then-Council President Mary Pat Clarke to assist with constituent issues. He worked days at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the radiology department and moonlighted for Clarke, a Democrat.

“He went to meetings for me that I couldn’t go to,” said Clarke, who is also leaving office this week. “Monday morning, he would come in with a list of constituent issues that he had gotten, and on Tuesday, he would want to know if we had solved them yet.”

As a member of the council, Young pushed for police officers to wear body cameras — ultimately with success — and championed legislation barring the sale of water bill debts to investors who can seize people’s homes.

Young was among the first people to call for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Baltimore Police Department in 2014, noted Lester Davis, a longtime member of Young’s staff who is now a vice president at a Washington-based political consulting company. Young asked for the probe in light of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, noting cases in which people died during arrests in Baltimore.

Young also had an eye on the city’s youth, pushing for creation of the Children and Youth Fund, a dedicated stream for grassroots organizations that benefit city youth. It had some hiccups getting started. Still, the fund will likely be remembered as one of Young’s biggest political victories, said Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore’s Democratic mayor from 1987 to 1999.

“It sent the right signals about the city’s priorities,” said Schmoke, now the University of Baltimore president.

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Young tried to bring the same focus on youth to his tenure as mayor. He made opening the city’s recreation centers on Saturdays for the first time in decades an early priority. The Saturday hours began in September 2019.

He also helped reach a deal to keep the historic Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. During the Pugh administration, the city and The Stronach Group, the track’s owner, engaged in a lawsuit. But during the 2019 race, the new mayor approached the group’s president and asked for a fresh start. Successful negotiations got underway.

“He certainly appreciates and understands the importance of sports at all levels, whether it is a Triple Crown race, whether it is a Thursday night game at Camden Yards, or recreation and parks,” said state Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Democrat who represents northwest Baltimore. “To have lost the Preakness in the midst of everything else going on in the city would have been a big blow.”

But Young struggled to accomplish other constituent-minded pieces of his agenda. He began this year with a launch of his Clean It Up! campaign aimed at eliminating a backlog of 311 calls and clamping down on repeat dumping violators. The outbreak of COVID-19 put a wrench in those plans, with the disease striking the city’s sanitation crews and creating a trash collection backlog. In August, Young suspended curbside recycling citywide.

Most of Young’s final year in office was colored by the pandemic. The mayor was a visible presence the first few months, routinely announcing new restrictions to help control the spread of the virus.

As new cases of the virus lessened over the summer and Hogan eased restrictions, Young and other county executives found themselves at odds with the governor and maintained tighter controls on a local level. In Baltimore, occupancy restrictions for restaurants, shops and churches were more restrictive than the state required throughout the summer.

This fall, as cases spiked again, the city was the first local government to shut down bars that don’t serve food and to require masks in all public spaces. Young joined six county executives last month to call on Hogan to better communicate about pandemic response.

Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore, said he thinks people will look back favorably on Young’s coronavirus response. Young took a hard position, Hartley said, but he was right to push the governor to better coordinate with local officials about the response.

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“It’s hard to say that things are looking good in Baltimore on COVID, but some people would say he tried to be extra safe and didn’t play fast and loose with the disease,” Hartley said.

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“What Jack did, that absolutely kept people alive,” Davis added.

Young’s strict approach to the virus drew criticism from some city businesses. In May, he publicly sparred with restaurant owners in Little Italy when they accused Young of not acting quickly enough to expand outdoor dining. Restaurant owners complained of argumentative and unproductive conversations with Young.

“If you illegally open your business,” Young warned at the time, “we will shut you down.”

Young’s blunt tongue and tendency to speak his mind has sometimes manifested into memorable gaffes. Asked last fall about the persistent murder rate, he retorted: “I’m not committing the murders.”

His critics and supporters agreed there are likely comments the mayor wishes he could take back. Young often complained he was unfairly maligned by the attention paid to his verbal slips.

“Sometimes I would say, ‘Wait a minute, Bernard,” Conway said. “‘I know where you’re going, but at that point, you need to say, ‘No comment.’”

Young’s contemporaries say the mayor was probably happiest leading the City Council, negotiating deals and offering guidance to a younger generation of city leaders. By the time Young left the council, that younger, more progressive group had taken a firm hold over the body. With Scott’s swearing in, they will now occupy the mayor’s office.

Clarke said Young relished his council role and worked doggedly on his projects.

“He just worked and worked it. He worked it to life,” she said. “He liked being part of the City Council family and being the dad.”

While they’ve become political rivals, Scott credited Young along with then-Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for teaching him the workings of city government when Scott was a staffer.

“I’ll always be grateful to him,” Scott said.

For his successor, Young offered a piece of advice during a June Board of Estimates meeting as it became clear that Scott would likely replace him.

“Watch out for the snakes,” Young said. “There’s plenty of them.”

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