The sixth in a series of interviews with the top-polling contenders for the Democratic nomination for mayor.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young ascended to the top spot in city government last year under untraditional circumstances: first in an ex officio capacity in April 2019 while former Mayor Catherine Pugh took a leave of absence, then on a permanent basis starting in May 2019 after Pugh resigned amid her “Healthy Holly” scandal.
Over the past year in the mayor’s office, Young says he has championed transparency in city government. Now, he hopes he has built up enough trust with Baltimore City residents for them to elect him to his first full term as mayor.
“I know that we must hold ourselves to higher standards, and that’s what I’m doing,” he said during a recent phone interview with Baltimore Fishbowl. “We’ll continue to look at ways that we can make government more transparent in every way that we can.
Early into Young’s time as mayor, the city’s computer system was attacked by RobbinHood ransomware. Hackers held municipal employees’ files hostage and demanded 13 Bitcoins, worth more than $76,000 at the exchange rate at the time. City officials refused to pay the hackers’ ransom, instead paying to recover data and upgrade the city’s IT infrastructure. The attack ultimately cost the city about $18 million.
Young has also led Baltimore during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, usually holding multiple press briefings per week with updates about the city’s response to COVID-19. The city remains under a local stay-at-home order while other jurisdictions across Maryland have begun reopening businesses and easing other coronavirus-related restrictions as permitted by Gov. Larry Hogan.
Before stepping into the role of mayor, Young served on the Baltimore City Council representing the city’s 2nd district from 1996 to 2005, and the 12th district from 2005 to 2010. Young climbed to the council president seat after Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the council president at the time, became mayor after former Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned due to her 2009 conviction on misdemeanor embezzlement.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Before working in City Hall, you worked as a sanitation worker, nutritional worker and manager of the radiology film library at Johns Hopkins Hospital. How did those experiences prepare you for public service and connecting with the people of Baltimore?
Jack Young: It prepared me because I’ve been a leader my entire life. Ever since I can remember as a young kid, I was a leader in my community. Even on my baseball team, I was a leader. Even on my basketball team, I was a leader. I don’t know what made me think that I was a leader, but people followed me.
I built my whole career based on customer service, and Hopkins taught me and Mary Pat Clarke taught me what customer service really means and what it really is. It’s embedded in me. I’m a born leader. I ascended from a councilman to the council president. I jumped into that with both feet and moved the city forward as the president of the city council, having a steady hand at the helm as council president and moving a progressive agenda.
People talk about people being progressive. If they look at my entire career and look at what I’ve done, I’ve been a progressive my entire career. So I don’t know if people really understand what progressive is because they’re looking at it when they look at me.
BFB: As City Council President, you helped launch the Children and Youth Fund. Why was it important for you to provide more opportunities to youth in Baltimore City?
JY: Well, because historically Rec and Parks’ budget was being cut by just about every mayor, and I knew how important it was for us to have activities and services for our young people. It was during election time, I said, “Who can be against kids?” Because I’ve been trying to do this for a while, trying to get dedicated funding for Rec and Parks. So I said, “Well, what better way to do it than to create a children and youth fund?”
I pulled my team together and said, “Look, I want to make more opportunities for our young people and more opportunities for grassroots organizations that are on the ground really doing all of the critical work to engage our young people, who normally can’t get funding from the largest philanthropic organizations.” So we crafted the bill, put it in and put it on the charter, and it’s history. It’s a legacy that I’m leaving behind to make sure that there’s money set aside for opportunities for our young people.
BFB: You came into the role of mayor after the resignation of former Mayor Catherine Pugh last May amid her “Healthy Holly” scandal. What have you done and what will you do to restore trust in city government?
JY: If people look at what I’ve done, I’m the author of the Transparency Bill in the City Council of Baltimore. I hate corruption, too. I’ve championed transparency in government from back when I first got on the council because I wanted people to see who makes the decisions so that they can hold them accountable by making sure that our council meetings are televised, the Board of Municipal Zoning and Appeals, the liquor board, the planning board, all those things.
My push for transparency is what I will continue to do. I know that we must hold ourselves to higher standards, and that’s what I’m doing. We’ll continue to look at ways that we can make government more transparent in every way that we can.
BFB: What will your administration do to help residents, businesses and nonprofits after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed?
JY: We have a small business task force that’s being chaired by Shelonda Stokes and Councilman Costello. That’s working with various business partners to plan a recovery after the pandemic is over. I can tell you we’re working with Goldman Sachs and Lendistry, with a $10 million dollar pot of money for forgivable loans and grants to help small businesses. And on top of that, I created part of $5 million fund for those vendors who might not meet the criteria set up in the federal guidelines.
We’re doing all those things because we know that our small businesses are the ones that really hire local. We want to make sure that as we come out of this pandemic that we’re putting all the resources that we can into our business community. We’re working real hard with our nonprofits as well to make sure that they’re viable by calling on our federal and state partners to look at how we can get some federal assistance to make sure that those organizations that are doing great work within our communities are able to be sustained.
We’re doing all kinds of things to make sure that we’re prepared when we come out of this pandemic so that we can move back to some sort of normalcy.
BFB: Baltimore mayors have grappled with the city’s violent crime for years. And since 2015, the annual homicide rate has surpassed 300 people killed. Why is your plan the best to solve violent crime in the city?
JY: Well, number one, I’m working with Commissioner Harrison, who came from New Orleans, who had a high rate of murders in that city, and came here with some new approaches. We’re under a consent decree and we’re under the consent decree because that’s something I pushed. We have body cameras because that’s something I pushed so that we can build trust between the community and the police.
In order to do that, I’m creating what they call community intelligence centers, where the state’s attorney will have one of her prosecutors there, along with the community advocate and a data analyst, working closely with the police department in these districts to have real-time crime data that we can use to end the violence in the city of Baltimore. And might I add, the micro zones that the commissioner oftentimes refers to, you see a great reduction in the number of murders and crime in those areas.
As a person who has lost relatives to the violence in the streets of Baltimore–two of my sisters lost sons, my sister-in-law lost her son, and countless friends of mine have lost their young children to the violence in the streets of Baltimore. But this has to be a holistic approach where the divisions of probation and parole, juvenile justice and the community at large have to be a part of helping us to reduce crime, because nine times out of 10, the community knows who is doing the crime but they are afraid to come forward. That’s why I’m pushing to try to get more witness protection funding because most people want to report stuff, but they want to know: “Am I going to be protected? Is my family gonna be protected if I come forward and say, ‘Hey, little Jack did that murder last night. We saw him. Here’s what he was wearing.’” Those kind of things.
I think the holistic approach with the community, our federal or state partners working together, we’re doing things that most other candidates are talking about. I’m already doing those things. One of the candidates talked about a gun task force. I already have that where we’re looking at data of where these guns are coming from and tracking these people down to make sure that they stop trafficking guns in the city of Baltimore. We’ve done a number of things.
We’re also working with our federal partners. They set up this system where they’re going to be targeting the most violent criminals. I don’t even know where this facility is, but they’re doing the groundwork right now to start hitting these organizations. They have started hitting some. Some of these major drug organizations have been taken down. But as you know, you take one down and another will pop up. So we’re going to continue to be vigilant, we will continue to be resilient, and we’re going to solve the murder crime in the city of Baltimore. We’re going to do that.
BFB: While many major cities have seen population growth in recent years, the number of people living in Baltimore continues to decline. What are your main strategies for building healthy neighborhoods throughout Baltimore and making sure that investment is not concentrated in just a few areas so that current residents can participate in any resurgence?
JY: If you looked at all the work I’d done as council president and as a councilman, I pushed for inclusion of affordable housing. As president, I shepherded the Affordable Housing Trust Fund bill through the council.
I’ve also established a neighborhood impact investment fund to target areas of the city that haven’t seen development in decades, and that’s working. If you look at Druid Heights, the development that’s going on over at Druid Heights. If you look over in East Baltimore with Rebuild Baltimore, where Rebuild Baltimore is rebuilding vacant properties there and building a brand new apartment building for seniors. And if you go and look over at the Park Heights corridor, developers have already been awarded contracts to redevelop over those areas. And if you look at downtown Baltimore on Park Avenue, off of Saratoga, you’ll see where Enterprise has done some affordable housing there.
When people say there’s no affordable housing being built in other areas of the city, there is. But I want to see more mixed-income housing because I don’t want to concentrate all the poor over here and the poor over there and all the middle class over here and over there. I think we need to do more mixed-income housing with a mix of affordable workforce and market-rate housing for Baltimore City. I’m doing all those things. If you look at what all the candidates are talking about today that they want to do and really take a hard look at it, the question is, “Isn’t Mayor Young already doing that?”
BFB: How would you improve and expand access throughout Baltimore to public transit, bicycling, walking and other transportation options not based around single-occupancy vehicles.
JY: I shepherded the bill that Ryan Dorsey put in for Complete Streets. It wouldn’t have been done without my leadership, and that creates all kinds of modes of transportation. We have to work with the Maryland Department of Transportation as well because we need to get them to do better with being on time, picking people up.
We have bike lanes all over the city of Baltimore. We have the scooters that people are using to get to and from work. We have the water taxi. We’re doing everything that we can to provide all types of modes of transportation for the people in the city of Baltimore. I’m committed to continue to do that.
We also have our transportation system of getting people from point A to point B, which is called our Circulator. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, he’s doing a circulator system as well, so I’m in conversation with him about how we can work together to maximize both systems where Baltimore City can hook up with Baltimore County, Baltimore County can hook up with Baltimore City. Because we have workers who work in county, the county has workers who work in the city. Once we do that, we’re going to talk to [Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart] Pittman about doing it on his end, and Pittman’s gonna hook up and talk to Annapolis and Howard County and we can rebuild our own regional transit system outside of the MTA. So we can get our people to jobs around the state that they need to get to by building our own Circulator systems that can touch each other.
BFB: The area has been transfixed with the “squeegee kid” debate about window washers on Baltimore streets. What would your administration do to connect people who are eager to work with well-paying jobs?
JY: This exactly why I created the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success, because the former mayor had something called Squeegee Corps, which I would have never done because it’s encouraging them to be out there squeegeeing, which is not a career. It’s dangerous because they’re in the middle of traffic trying to make some money.
Through the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success, we have engaged most of these young people. We have about 13 of them right now employed, working with our food program where we’re feeding the community. We also have nine that we have connected with jobs like Federal Express, Amazon and even McDonald’s and Burger King have hired a few of these young people. We continue to reach out to employers to make sure that we can offer opportunities to our young people. Four of them right now, we’re working with them through virtual learning to make sure that they’re able to graduate on time in June.
We’re doing a lot of things to engage these young people. However, we need parent participation in that because it’s really a safety issue and they should not be out there. At one time, they said they was out there because they had to put food on the table at their homes. We’re feeding everybody, so there’s not an excuse anymore. I’m hoping and praying that as they see other young squeegee kids being able to get connected with jobs and services, that they will come off the corners and do the same thing.
But I want to remind you that the “squeegee kid” problem predated me. Way back in Schaefer’s administration they had “squeegee kids” out there. Everybody talks about “squeegee kids,” but nobody talks about the panhandlers that’s up and down the rows throughout the city of Baltimore either. So when we talk about “squeegee kids,” we have to talk about panhandlers as well, because they’re all out there panhandling.
BFB: We recently passed the five-year anniversary of the Baltimore uprising. What lessons did you learn from that?
JY: Well, number one, the lesson that I learned is that we have to make sure that our police department is operating under the orders that they swore to do: to protect and serve. That’s why I told you earlier that I pushed for the consent decree. I pushed for that. Not only did I push for the consent decree, I pushed for body cameras and got that passed through the city council. So we’re trying to rebuild the police and community relations through that.
As one who has lost, like I said earlier, three nephews to the violence in the city of Baltimore, I firsthand know how it feels to lose loved ones. I know the trauma that it leaves on a family and also on the community. It’s to my advantage to make sure that we have a police department that’s doing all the right things. Because of the GTTF [Gun Trace Task Force] episode and because of what happened with Mr. Gray, we have raised the standards in our police department to have our officers to make sure that they are treating our citizens like citizens.
Not everybody in the city is a criminal. Because a kid wears pants down off his butt don’t mean he’s a criminal. Some of these kids are A students at their high school. Some of them are in college doing very well, no criminal background. We can’t just lump everybody into one basket. We’ve got to make sure that our police department gets to know the community.
I’m very happy to report to you that at the last couple of police classes, it has been overwhelmingly Baltimore City residents. I tell them all the time: “Look, go tell your friends, go tell your family members that the Baltimore Police Department is going to be the best comeback story in all of America. So try to get your friends to become police officers.” I was really, really shocked that the number of one class was 11. One class I think was nine. And this class that’s going on now, I think it’s eight or nine there. So I’m encouraged that Baltimore City residents now, our young people, are applying to be police in the city of Baltimore, and that would help us build the police community relationships because these young people know how to connect with each other. So I’m happy about that.
BFB: A bill to build new racetracks at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park recently became law. Aside from keeping the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, what, if anything, should the city push for when the new Pimlico is being developed?
JY: Well, we don’t have to push for much of nothing because under my leadership I’m the one who brokered the deal to move this whole project forward. It was me that sat down with the Stronach Group and Belinda Stronach and ironed out this deal to say, “Hey, let’s take a pause and see how we can work together.” The city is getting land out of that deal, so we’ll be able to do RFPs to make sure that there’s community engagement in that process and that we are able to build what the community wants to see there.
Pimlico is going to be a 365-day venue. It’s not going to be just for racing. It’s going to be for all kinds of community activities. All kinds of things are going to happen at Pimlico.
So I’m happy that under my leadership, working with our members of the General Assembly by going down there to lobby and tell them how important it was, working with Pittman, working with Johnny Olszewski, we made sure that we were all singing from the same hymn book, because the Preakness belongs right here in Baltimore.
BFB: The acquisition of Legg Mason by Franklin Resources Inc., and the merger of WillScott Corp. and Mobile Mini Inc., signal the end of two corporate headquarters in the city. While that may not mean much to a lot of citizens, the city’s big companies, as the Baltimore Sun editorial board noted, populated the boards of many city arts, education and charitable enterprises, and had been leaders in the business community. Should the city be concerned by these transactions? And what will your administration do to attract the next Legg Mason and keep it?
JY: We should always be concerned when companies are leaving, but companies get bought out by other companies all the time. When they get bought up by other companies, they have their own cities where they want to be. There’s not much we can do about that. But I can tell you, they said they still want to have a big presence in the city of Baltimore and will continue to serve on the boards here in the city of Baltimore.
I’m doing everything I can to make sure that we try to keep them here. But just like if I go and buy something and I want to move it, I don’t care who’s the mayor, who’s the governor, if I want to move it to Minnesota, that’s what I’m going to do.