Josh Kurtz: The Questions for Baltimore Voters

Clockwise from top left are the leading Democratic candidates for mayor of Baltimore: Sheila Dixon, Mary Miller, Brandon Scott, Bernard "Jack" Young, Thiru Vignarajah and T.J. Smith

Woody Allen is not in favor right now, which is understandable due to his reprehensible personal behavior over a period of decades.

But there’s a line from one of his movies that resonates with me as I think about the Baltimore mayoral election. Please stick with me here:

In “Sleeper,” Woody Allen plays Miles Monroe, a man who is cryogenically frozen in aluminum foil in 1973 and is woken up 200 years later by a band of revolutionaries who want him to participate in a coup against the leader of a fascist American government. Hilarity ensues throughout the movie, which lands a surprising number of pungent political blows.

It turns out the dictator was already the victim of an assassination plot, and all that’s left of him is his nose, which is being kept alive clinically so it can be cloned and the leader resuscitated in full.

The revolutionaries, led by a handsome, charismatic guy named Erno (John Beck), plot to steal the nose and thwart the cloning. Miles and Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton) execute the plan by posing as doctors, removing the nose from the operating table and throwing it under a steamroller in the medical center parking lot.

But Miles is not triumphant.

“In six months we’ll be stealing Erno’s nose,” he tells Luna. “Political solutions don’t work. I told you that. It doesn’t matter who’s up there. They’re all terrible.”

Which brings us to one of the leading candidates for mayor in the June 2 Democratic primary, City Council President Brandon M. Scott.

Scott, as the athletic scouts might say, has a lot of upside. He’s young and handsome, energetic and savvy. He’s got an appealing life story. Although he’s only 36, he has been in political office for nine years. He knows his way around City Hall, knows what ails the city, and has a sense of how to get things done.

Scott is clearly more progressive than the man he is trying to oust, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D), and Young’s predecessor, the soon-to-be-incarcerated Catherine E. Pugh (D). And he’s in many ways the unofficial leader of an impressive collection of young Baltimore officeholders who’ve been accumulating power since the dawn of the last decade.

But here’s the crux of the matter: Is Scott the change agent the city of Baltimore so badly needs, or is he just an incremental improvement? Is he prepared to shake up institutions and tackle problems that have festered for so long? Is he prepared to go after the grifters in the city, both on the street corners and in the power suites, who have held on to power and influence for too long?

Or is he, for all intents and purposes, just another machine politician — albeit one who happens to be a few decades younger and several degrees more dynamic than the machine pols who have impeded progress in the city and state for too long?

In other words, will someone be stealing Brandon Scott’s nose six months after he becomes mayor?

This may sound like a fanciful question, but in some ways, it encapsulates the entire Democratic primary for mayor. You can look at the field of leading contenders and see a glass that’s half-empty or a glass that’s half-full.

When you look at Brandon Scott, do you see a dynamic, next-generation leader, or a younger version of an old-line political insider?

When you look at Jack Young, do you see a steady hand who stabilized the city after the Pugh scandal with his regular-guy sensibilities, or a machine hack who has been around too long and is in over his head?

When you think about Sheila Dixon, do you see one of the city’s most successful mayors in recent history, back to serve again, or the woman who cadged gift cards meant for poor kids and seems to be frozen in an earlier decade?

What about Thiru Vignarajah, the former prosecutor and assistant attorney general? Is he a disrupter and teller of uncomfortable truths who will focus like a laser beam on the city’s intractable crime problems? Or is he unproven and impolitic, a man whose past engenders too many uncomfortable questions?

And consider Mary Miller, the former T. Rowe Price executive and U.S. Treasury Department official who dropped into the mayoral race late and has dropped over $1.5 million of her own money into the race. Is she the tried-and-true public servant and accomplished government numbers-cruncher and innovator that the cash-strapped city is going to need to pick up the pieces after the pandemic lifts? Or is she an out-of-touch dilettante from the city’s wealthiest precincts with zero knowledge of the grittier aspects of municipal life and governance?

The answer to all of these questions, of course, is yes.

Look: Franklin Roosevelt was perceived as an out-of-touch dilettante, but he came along just at the right time to lift the struggling country out of the depths of the Great Depression. Thiru Vignarajah is obviously a very smart guy. Jack Young, Sheila Dixon and Brandon Scott know a lot about how to pull the levers of power in the city.

It’s a shame you can’t combine the best qualities of the five leading Democratic contenders for mayor into one uber-candidate. But that’s not the way politics work.

Baltimore voters have a difficult choice to make in the days ahead — if their ballots ever arrive. A half-empty glass seems inadequate for the nourishment the city so desperately needs. But when you’re dying of thirst, it’s a start.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.