In Bal­ti­more, the most im­por­tant may­oral elec­tion of the 21st cen­tury

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - MARYLAND - Dan Ro­dricks

No­body asked me, but the cur­rent mayor of Bal­ti­more, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, might have a bet­ter chance of win­ning the Demo­cratic pri­mary on June 2 with a punchy cam­paign slo­gan like the one he’s been us­ing lately: “I’m al­ready do­ing that.”

I watched and lis­tened to two on­line de­bates among six can­di­dates, and the per­son with the clear­est, sim­plest mes­sage seemed to be Young. He re­peat­edly re­minded view­ers that he’s al­ready do­ing every­thing the other can­di­dates in­tend to do if elected.

“I’m do­ing al­ready every­thing they just said,” Young de­clared af­ter the others de­scribed how they would han­dle the coron­avirus cri­sis in the year ahead.

At sev­eral mo­ments in the de­bates — one via Zoom and Face­book, the other on local tele­vi­sion — Young used some form of the ex­pres­sion as a re­frain: “I’m al­ready do­ing that.”

Of course, this does not nec­es­sar­ily mean that Young is, in fact, do­ing what he says he’s do­ing, or that what he says he’s do­ing has been ef­fec­tive. For cam­paign pur­poses, that’s be­side the point. Just imag­ine a TV com­mer­cial — a se­ries of quick sound bites of other can­di­dates ex­press­ing their ideas for the city, and each time Jack’s right there with his come­back: “I’m al­ready do­ing that!”

Pic­ture the cam­paign signs: “Jack Young:

Al­ready do­ing it!”

But, alas, no­body asked me. No­body seems to give Young a chance of win­ning, ei­ther. He came into of­fice af­ter the Cather­ine Pugh mess and de­serves credit for be­ing a sta­bi­liz­ing, if unin­spir­ing, leader. And, since the health cri­sis, his earnest­ness has been on dis­play in some way al­most every day. Still, based on the polling we’ve seen to this point, a Young win on June 2 would be con­sid­ered a ma­jor up­set.

For one thing, while the coron­avirus is the ma­jor is­sue now, Bal­ti­more­ans are sick of the mis­er­ably-high-per-capita homi­cides that con­tinue at vir­tu­ally the same aw­ful rate in 2020. Young has been in City Hall — first as a coun­cil­man, coun­cil pres­i­dent, and now as mayor — since the 1990s. Given the crime and cor­rup­tion of re­cent years, and the sense of mu­nic­i­pal floun­der­ing, I’m guess­ing that my fel­low Bal­ti­more­ans are not look­ing to re­ward in­cum­bency.

One thing about the polls: When they were con­ducted, they showed a lot of un­de­cided vot­ers, and since then the coron­avirus has be­come the big­gest dis­trac­tion of our life­time. Only now, as cam­paign fly­ers and mail-in bal­lots show up (hope­fully) in city house­holds, is the cam­paign com­ing into fo­cus.

And speak­ing of cam­paign fly­ers ... No­body asked me, but Thiru Vig­nara­jah is cer­tainly one of the smartest may­oral con­tenders in the room and a pro­lific thinker with the most orig­i­nal ideas for a bet­ter Bal­ti­more. But his ac­tions dur­ing that con­tro­ver­sial traf­fic stop last year on Green­mount Av­enue showed up to haunt his can­di­dacy again last week.

A flyer ar­rived in the mail with this head­line: “Pulled over with sus­pended tags, Thiru Vig­nara­jah pres­sured po­lice to turn off their body cam­eras.” The flyer came from the now-dis­banded po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee that sup­ported the can­di­dacy of Mary Miller.

As The Sun re­ported, the PAC was tar­get­ing white vot­ers in an ef­fort to erode Vig­nara­jah’s sup­port among them.

While the PAC might have since shut down, with Miller wisely dis­avow­ing it, the flyer prob­a­bly did some dam­age to Vig­nara­jah by re­mind­ing vot­ers of the traf­fic stop.

I went back to the po­lice video to re­view what hap­pened. While sit­ting in the driver’s seat of his car, Vig­nara­jah asked if a po­lice sergeant’s body cam­era was on. “Ab­so­lutely on,” said the sergeant, who then asked Vig­nara­jah if he wanted the cam­era turned off. “If you want to take it off,” Vig­nara­jah said. Mo­ments later, as the sergeant ques­tioned him, Vig­nara­jah asked that the cam­era be turned off. Was that a pre­sump­tion of priv­i­lege on Vig­nara­jah’s part, or was he just tak­ing the sergeant up on his of­fer? I’m not sure. But, ei­ther way, it’s not good. Most of us would not think to ask about the cam­era to be­gin with. Is the in­ci­dent dis­qual­i­fy­ing? Politi­cians have done a lot worse.

Which takes us to Sheila Dixon.

No­body asked me, but ... If a plu­ral­ity of Bal­ti­more vot­ers give Dixon a vic­tory in the pri­mary, they will have de­cided that a city rocked re­peat­edly by cor­rup­tion in City Hall and the po­lice depart­ment needs as its next mayor a for­mer mayor who was forced to re­sign in a plea deal with pros­e­cu­tors 10 years ago.

Bal­ti­more is in the midst of a six-year run of de­bil­i­tat­ing vi­o­lence, po­lice and po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion, loss of pop­u­la­tion and, now, the coron­avirus pan­demic. Given all that, a good num­ber of vot­ers ap­par­ently think the lead­er­ship rem­edy is a woman who was con­victed of theft while mayor in 2010.

This seems in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to some peo­ple; I hear ex­pres­sions of their in­credulity all the time. They don’t un­der­stand how, on the heels of the Pugh scan­dal, par­tic­u­larly, vot­ers would want to bring Dixon back. But I also hear from Dixon sup­port­ers. They think she was an ef­fec­tive mayor who de­serves another chance, and they ac­cept her mo­ti­va­tion: Bal­ti­more is in worse shape to­day than when she left City Hall, and she wants another shot at fix­ing things. I don’t ac­cept that. I just try to un­der­stand it.

No­body asked me, but I of­fer this ad­vice to my fel­low Bal­ti­more­ans who are un­de­cided and hun­kered down at home be­cause of the coron­avirus: Be­fore you fill out a bal­lot, take some time to con­sider all the can­di­dates — those I’ve men­tioned, plus two others, T.J. Smith and City Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Bran­don Scott. Dig into their web­sites. Lis­ten to fo­rums and de­bates. Read our sto­ries about them. Bal­ti­more needs a mayor with vi­sion, in­tegrity and grit to get us through some tough years ahead. I know that sounds like a lec­ture about civic duty, but I make no apol­ogy for it. This is the most im­por­tant city elec­tion of the 21st cen­tury.

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