BALTIMORE — On his first weekend as mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young visited a neighborhood where a gunman’s stray bullets outside a corner market wounded five people, including two toddlers.
“My heart breaks for our babies,” said Young, standing in the rain alongside the police commissioner, himself only recently hired. They were seeking to reassure a raw and frazzled city three days after a scandal forced former mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) to resign.
Their audience was skeptical.
“How can we feel any assurances over anything when there’s corruption in the mayor’s office?” said Florrane James, 23, smoking a cigarette on a stoop leading to a tattered rowhouse. “What real assurance can they give us?”
The shake-up at City Hall was another cataclysm for a city that has been battered by unceasing violence since 2015, when rioting erupted after Freddie Gray suffered fatal injuries while in police custody.
Pugh’s departure resolved weeks of uncertainty, as she stayed out of public view on medical leave and investigators tried to sort out her financial dealings, including those involving her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books.
Yet crucial questions remain unsettled, the main one being who will emerge to lead Baltimore and restore trust in a city where corruption has shrouded the police department and forced two mayors to quit in the past nine years.
Then there is next year’s mayoral election, which is drawing the interest of well-known potential candidates such as Ben Jealous, the Democrat who lost Maryland’s gubernatorial race last year; and former mayor Sheila Dixon, who resigned from that post in 2010 as part of a plea bargain as she faced embezzlement charges. At the same time, at least three seats are opening on the City Council as a new generation of lawmakers pushes the body leftward and pledges accountability.
The nature of the scandal involving Pugh — one that touched prominent institutions such as the University of Maryland Medical System, Associated Black Charities and Kaiser Permanente — feeds concerns that investigators may unearth more misconduct.
Just after federal agents seized records from Pugh last month, residents became aware of billboards that the FBI had installed around the city that read “End Corruption Now” and that include an email address where the public can send tips.
“The fact that corruption has run so deep in the police department and political system itself has created a complete loss of public confidence,” said the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, a community organizer. “It creates a lot of uncertainty and becomes a distraction when we need to focus on the real issues.”
Baltimore’s litany of difficulties includes poorly functioning public schools, declining population, an annual homicide toll exceeding 300 in each of the past four years, and a crime rate that city leaders fear deters new investment and potential visitors and residents.
In the past decade, a trio of mayors — Dixon, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Pugh — have failed to complete more than one term. In that same period, five police commissioners have run the department, including one who pleaded guilty to income tax evasion.
“People are scared that we’re a city that doesn’t know how to solve its problems,” said Dan Sparaco, who was an assistant deputy mayor under Rawlings-Blake (D). “Can our political environment produce people who know how to lead this city, who can understand not just the basics but move the needle on problems that have festered for years?”
At the moment, the person steering the city is Young, who moved from council president to acting mayor when Pugh went on leave April 1, then formally took over the role when she resigned a month later. Young says he won’t run for mayor next year, though many Democratic leaders say his thinking may change as he adjusts to the spotlight and trappings of the job.
A veteran of two decades of Baltimore politics, Young, 64, casts himself as more of a problem solver than a visionary. He has gone out of his way to assure residents that city government is functioning no matter the chaos.
“I’m at the helm,” the new mayor announced to roars of approval at his ceremonial swearing-in Thursday, an event punctuated by bipartisan support from Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D). They spoke of a new start for a city that since the 2015 riots has careened between crises and endured an unceasing crime wave.
During Young’s first weekend as mayor, there were seven homicides and 18 shootings, including an incident in south Baltimore involving two children — a 1-year-old shot in the leg and a 2-year-old shot in the torso.
“You’re not going to change anything,” Stewart Nash, 73, who grew up in the neighborhood, snapped as Young and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison arrived at the corner where the shooting had occurred 40 hours earlier. “Nobody’s doing anything. It’s just a bunch of talk.”
Derwin Hannah, 55, a community leader, said the Pugh book scandal made it more difficult to convince his neighbors that city hall is working on their behalf. “You’re asking people to trust a system that’s broken,” he said. “It’s hard to get people to buy into it. A lot of this community has lost hope.”
On the Monday after Pugh resigned, the all-Democratic council convened over lunch to review the agenda for its next meeting, a list that included rezoning proposals, tax legislation and a resolution to declare May “Older American Month.”
But the subject preoccupying everyone was the ongoing political tumult. Three long-serving council members — Mary Pat Clarke, Ed Reisinger and Bill Henry — announced they would not seek reelection. A fourth member, Brandon Scott, who ran for lieutenant governor last year, garnered enough of his colleagues’ votes to replace Young as council president.
The promotion will raise Scott’s profile as he, too, considers running for mayor next year. At 35, Scott is part of a group of young liberals seeking to redefine the 14-member council, in what some touted as a silver lining after Pugh’s departure. Seven of the council members were elected in 2016, a cast that includes a schoolteacher, the owner of a software company, an art school graduate and a political science professor.
“It’s fresh talent coming not from some political organization or old boys’ club but from the neighborhoods,” said Clarke, 77, whose intermittent council stints date to the 1970s. “They’re new, and I think people are ready for a new generation.”
Henry, 50, who plans to run for comptroller next year, said the Pugh scandal presents “a great opportunity” to confront larger questions, such as whether the city charter grants the mayor too much power. In recent weeks, council members proposed legislation that would make it easier to override a mayoral veto and remove a mayor.
“How much of what we need to fix is about the structure?” Henry asked. “And how much is it about finding different people for the important roles?”
At the moment, former prosecutor Thiru Vignarajah is the only declared mayoral candidate, though a large field is expected. As someone who has never held political office in Baltimore, Jealous, the former head of the NAACP who recently bought a home in Fells Point, is signaling that he would cater his message to voters who are fed up with the Democratic establishment.
“The public’s trust in the institutions have taken a hit from this most recent scandal, and, in a lot of ways, that’s a huge advantage that Ben would take into the race,” said Kevin Harris, a Jealous adviser. “He’d be able to credibly say, ‘If you want different results, maybe you should elect a different kind of mayor.’ ”
A recent poll showed that Dixon, who is mulling another campaign, holds a slight edge in a prospective field of Democrats. Yet it’s an open question whether voters would embrace her just after a scandal forced another mayor to resign.
In her 2016 comeback bid, Dixon lost the Democratic primary to Pugh by only 2,400 votes.
“I know how to get this city where it needs to go,” said Dixon, who was sentenced to probation as part of the plea deal. “There are a lot of people who’ll be running. There will be a lot of splitting of votes. It may not take a whole lot to win.”
Four days after Pugh resigned, Young told a meeting of the Garrison Hill Community Association that he’s “not big on speeches, I’m big on action,” and that he would clean up the city and go after criminals who hold Baltimore “hostage.”
“We’re the laughingstock of the country,” he said.
Young took questions, none of which touched on “Healthy Holly,” Pugh’s resignation or next year’s election. Instead, residents wanted to know what he was doing about trash, vacant properties and the prostitutes on their corners.
Young said he shared their concerns and added that his own worries included “all those kids coming out of school” for summer break.
“Especially when we have all these visitors coming to our city — we depend on tourism,” he said. “And to come downtown, and just run havoc down there, snatching pocketbooks, threatening people — it’s just not helpful. We need all the revenue we can get in this city — trust me.”
As he listened, the Rev. Terry Thornton said he would hold off on judging Young until he sees whether the new mayor “really does what he says he’s going to do.”
“If not, I’m going to toss him back in the barrel,” the pastor said. “Baltimore will still give people a chance. But their patience is shorter, and their tolerance is lower. They’re tired of swallowing a bitter pill.”
By then, Young had followed two residents to an alley across the street, stepping past discarded condoms to inspect dilapidated garages, weeds and an abandoned vehicle, its seats covered in garbage, the keys on the console.
A group of boys approached on bikes, and Young turned to greet them.
“I’m council presid— ” he said before correcting himself.
The new mayor was still learning his lines for a role he never expected to fill.