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Running for Baltimore mayor, Brandon Scott wants to bring generational change to the city that shaped him

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott is campaigning on a promise to usher in a new way of thinking in City Hall. In this April 6 photo, Scott presides over the council's first virtual meeting due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott is campaigning on a promise to usher in a new way of thinking in City Hall. In this April 6 photo, Scott presides over the council's first virtual meeting due to the coronavirus pandemic.(Kenneth K. Lam)

First in a series of articles about candidates for mayor.

Preaching from the stage at Mount Pleasant Church, the pastor urged his congregation: Forget about your age. Was Abraham not 100 years old when he fathered Isaac? Was Lamar Jackson not 23 when he was voted the NFL’s Most Valuable Player?

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“Age has nothing to do with your being effective in your kingdom,” the minister bellowed.

Brandon Scott, visiting the church as part of his campaign to become Baltimore mayor, leaned forward from his sixth-row pew and smiled.

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The 36-year-old City Council president is a generation younger than some of his fiercest competitors, and he’s campaigning on the promise to usher in a new way of thinking in City Hall.

“We need to change the guard,” he tells voters.

He argues he’s the best candidate to cross from Baltimore’s streets to its boardrooms and find a way to communicate his vision. Scott witnessed some of Baltimore’s deepest challenges — a black kid finding his way in Park Heights during turbulent decades — and says he’s prepared to lead his city.

“When you see people get shot, when you go to schools with no heat and air, when you’re out playing basketball and police come — it changes you,” he said. “That’s the way I will always see the world.”

He also said he represents the kind of progressive leadership necessary to shepherd Baltimore through a difficult period of recovery from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

During that crowded church service in late February — before such gatherings were banned in an attempt to slow the new virus’ spread — the pastor mentioned COVID-19 only in passing, using it as a reminder of earthly struggles. Two weeks later, the first case erupted in Baltimore.

In the months since, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of nearly 170 people in the city, devastated the economy and upended the Democratic mayoral primary. Recovering will likely be the central challenge of the next administration.

Some now ask: Is Scott ready?

When knocking on doors was considered safe, some potential voters would comment on how the slight, 5-foot-9-inch politician looked so young. He had a ready response: Did you say Johnny Olszewski Jr. was too young when he ran for Baltimore County executive? Was Bill Ferguson too young to become state Senate president? And how about when Martin O’Malley ran for mayor back in 1999? What’s different, Scott asks, between those three white men and me?

“Same age, but I’ve got more experience,” he says, touting the decade-plus he’s spent in City Hall, as a staffer under then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, then representing the 2nd District in Northeast Baltimore, and now as council president.

He says that’s given him the know-how to hit the ground running during a crisis.

His office put together an “asset map” showing where kids can get free food and the uninsured can find health care. During virtual council meetings, Scott successfully pushed for a prohibition on rent increases while so many people are out of work.

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Scott broadcasts frequent coronavirus briefings from his social media accounts. He says he uses Instagram, in particular, to reach black residents, who have been disproportionately hit by the disease.

“If you stand out as the person who can address a major crisis like this, that’s something that could be really attractive to a lot of voters,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.

But could his experience inside City Hall hamper instead of help him with voters? A Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore/WYPR-FM poll released in March found roughly three-quarters of voters surveyed thought the city was going in the wrong direction. That frustration may lead them to vote for one of the candidates positioning themselves as a political outsider with fresh perspective.

It remains to be seen how much voters tie those in office to a persistently high crime rate and other troubles. Rivals have slammed incumbents such as Scott and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, questioning them about what happened on their watch.

Scott said he planned to run for mayor even before Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh stepped down a year ago in the wake of her fraudulent “Healthy Holly” children’s book dealings. Her resignation shuffled city government. Young, then council president, automatically rose to the mayor’s office, while Scott wrangled a unanimous council vote to nab Young’s former post — despite the new mayor having backed another council member.

Scott is paid $125,000 as council president.

Now, the two men are running against each other in the crowded, competitive June 2 primary.

Scott rejects the premise he’s part of the establishment.

“Does anybody call Bernie an insider? No, they don’t,” he said, referencing three-term U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has twice sought the Democratic presidential nomination. “What people have to remember is, they didn’t want me to become City Council president.”

At night, Scott often jumps into his city-issued SUV and spends hours patrolling the places that shaped him.

He’ll check on corners known for giving trouble, report broken lights and make sure vacant houses are properly boarded up. City staffers have come to expect his late-night calls.

He’ll pause outside a dirty liquor store around the corner from his childhood home; memories of picking up discarded bottles off the street are the reason he doesn’t drink. He’ll check on his family’s auto shop, where he’s treated like he "ain’t the council president of s---.”

The perspective forged by his Baltimore upbringing bleeds into Scott’s policy positions, especially around crime. He’s the former chairman of the council’s public safety committee.

Scott is vocal about treating gun violence as a public health issue. His 26-page public safety plan includes not only a pledge to target gun traffickers, but also a proposal to fund a year-round version of the summer YouthWorks program. He voted against a pilot aerial surveillance program for the police department and vows to resist “regressive ‘tough-on-crime’” measures.

“It’s different when you’re young and black and you grow up during zero tolerance,” he said. “Being older and black is different, being elected and black is different. ... That is what roots my plan in this deep understanding and knowledge of the entirety of this issue.”

Scott's views shifted left during his time in City Hall, a transformation perhaps most evident in his stance on drug addiction.

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“We were trained to treat people with substance abuse issues as less than human," he said. “I had to grow as a person and understand people were sick and dying and didn’t have to be.”

He’s now trying to get Baltimore to pilot “safe consumption sites” for drug users.

Scott is also backing several structural changes to local government: creating a city manager position and revamping Baltimore’s spending panel. He’s sparred with Young over the speed with which he’s pushing these proposals through the council, with the mayor accusing the president of moving ahead without enough input or deliberation.

“I used to think we just had bad mayors with bad ideas,” Scott says. “Now, I realize, no, it’s the whole system."

Scott’s supporters say one of his greatest strengths is his perceived ability to build a coalition that spans race, age and class.

“He has a lot of friends in a lot of places,” said Democratic Councilman Kristerfer Burnett of West Baltimore, a friend and political ally.

Scott is endorsed by several progressive groups and unions, including those that represent area health care workers, retail staffers and laborers. That could help him rustle up votes in this peculiar, mostly mail-in election.

It also led to backlash recently over a bill he championed that would allow labor unions to set the terms for how contractors hire employees for city construction projects. Several minority contractors protested the legislation and pledged to remember Scott’s support for it when primary day comes.

Some say Scott is too ambitious, pointing to his run for the lieutenant governor nomination in 2018. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who is running to return to the office, questioned why he wanted to be council president if he was just going to try to become the mayor a year later.

Scott responds that every move he makes is about uplifting Baltimore: “It’s not about people waiting their turn.”

Coming Thursday: T.J. Smith

Brandon M. Scott

Age: 36

Experience: Baltimore City Council president (May 2019-present); 2nd District Councilman (2011-May 2019); sought 2018 Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor; co-founder, 300MenMarch movement against violence.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, 2006, St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Family: Single.

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