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Baltimore Mayor Young gets ‘little, if any, bump for incumbency,' according to campaign consultant’s memo

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young waits to answer a question Jan. 25, 2020, during the Greater Baltimore Urban League's mayoral forum at Morgan State University.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young waits to answer a question Jan. 25, 2020, during the Greater Baltimore Urban League's mayoral forum at Morgan State University. (Ulysses Muñoz)

Consultants working for Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s campaign say he can’t count on the power of incumbency to carry him through the Democratic primary as he faces off against roughly two dozen opponents to win the office in his own right.

A memo obtained by The Baltimore Sun — written by Adeo Advocacy for the campaign in December after focus groups were held with voters — said one of Young’s challenges is that “there is very little, if any, bump for incumbency.”

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Outside political analysts say that could be because Young didn’t become mayor in a traditional way: After Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned, he ascended to the role because he was the City Council president. They also pointed to what they called missteps by Young in his first months in office, and how much voters hold him responsible for leading the fight to reduce violent crime.

Young’s campaign spokesman, Myles Handy, called the memo “outdated” and said Wednesday that it doesn’t reflect campaign strategy. The campaign didn’t solicit the analysis from Adeo, he said, though it is working with the company.

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“As voters learn about the mayor’s record, his crime plan, and his opening of rec centers on Saturdays, his support continues to grow," Handy said in a statement.

The memo highlighted a “silver lining” for Young: The consultants wrote that middle-aged black women in the focus groups “cut him slack” for having assumed his role in the middle of Pugh’s term and are “looking for reasons to give him credit” as mayor. This demographic is often considered the heart of Baltimore’s heavily Democratic electorate.

And it’s clear his incumbent status benefits Young in terms of fundraising. He is in a strong financial position, with nearly $960,000 cash on hand — the most of any mayoral candidate, according to state financial disclosure forms candidates filed last month.

The mayor recently began using his war chest to air TV commercials boasting of his accomplishments, including championing the creation of the city’s Children and Youth Fund.

Young has spent more than two decades in City Hall, taking over the mayor’s job after about 10 years as City Council president, which itself is a city-wide elected position.

The power of incumbency in the April 28 primary is complicated by former Mayor Sheila Dixon’s presence in the race. She is banking on voters agreeing that her time in City Hall, when she gained a reputation as a skilled manager who oversaw a decrease in homicides, outweighs the gift card scandal that forced her from office in 2010. Analysts say she benefits from strong name recognition.

Incumbency typically means a candidate can count on free media coverage of their day-to-day work as an officeholder. However, in Young’s case, Adeo consultants wrote that Young is likely to face hurdles because of comments he has made to reporters.

In November, for example, Young said during his weekly news conference that city leadership wasn’t the problem as Baltimore braced to surpass 300 homicides for the fifth year in a row.

“I’m not committing the murders and that’s what people need to understand," Young said. “How can you fault leadership?”

The consultants noted that among those participating in the focus groups of middle-aged and millennial black residents, people had an impression that Young is “not particularly intelligent, based largely on recent comments in the media.”

However, middle-aged black women were “willing to give him a pass on this because he is ‘one of us’ and because his intent is good, regardless of how he articulated himself,” the memo states. They viewed the comments “as the media exploiting the way he said something, as opposed to the intent behind why he said it.”

Some political analysts say such comments still could hurt the mayor’s prospects because some voters might think he wasn’t taking responsibility for fixing Baltimore’s problems. Other candidates have criticized him for the statement, as well.

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In response to criticism at the time of his remark on homicides, Young’s campaign manager issued a statement from the mayor saying he grieves for every life lost.

“While no leaders in our city are personally responsible for these crimes, ALL of us have a role to play in stopping them,” he wrote. “And, as Mayor, I take and will continue to take responsibility for making our city safer and cleaner.”

Loyola University Maryland communications professor Karsonya Wise Whitehead said she thinks the comments were important at the moment, but noted there are still a couple of months to go before voters cast their ballots. To Whitehead, the challenges Young faces as the incumbent are less tied to his comments and more related to the exasperation people feel as they deal with unrelenting violent crime.

“Most voters, in any city, have short memories but long arms of grief,” she said.

“People are so frustrated right now, and understandably so,” Whitehead said. “People feel there’s no one who is going to shield this city. Because you’re currently the mayor, when we look for someone to blame or hold responsible, we look to you. That’s part of being the mayor.”

Nina Kasniunas, a political science professor at Goucher College, said there are obstacles for incumbents during turbulent times in a city. Young took over after a major corruption scandal, the city was hit almost immediately by a crippling ransomware attack and the pace of homicides has continued unabated.

“He inherited things that, rightfully or wrongfully, are going to be attributed to him,” Kasniunas said.

Democrat Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was in a similar position a decade ago. She ascended to the mayor’s seat after Dixon’s resignation, and in 2011, ran to hold on to the position. The race attracted more serious challengers than usual, but the field split the anti-incumbent vote and Rawlings-Blake won.

Also running in this spring’s Democratic primary, which has long determined the next mayor, are state Sen. Mary Washington, City Council President Brandon Scott, former Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, former Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith, and former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller, among others.

Adeo advised the Young campaign to make the mayor more visible on the ground, to celebrate good things happening in Baltimore.

Young last month kicked off what he’s dubbed the “Clean it up!” campaign to eliminate grime in the city. He pledged the city will plow through a steep backlog of 311 cleaning requests by April 1 and publicly shame illegal dumpers.

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At one recent event — announcing a 50-day challenge to fill at least 5,000 potholes — the mayor donned work gloves and pounded the asphalt himself.

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Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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