Bernard C. “Jack” Young remains bitter. It’s been three months since the former mayor of Baltimore departed City Hall after finishing a disappointing fifth in the Democratic primary last June.
Before he left office, and since then, Young has declined all interview requests, saying he was fed up with negative media coverage of his time as mayor.
But now, in an exclusive interview with Maryland Matters, Young is reflecting on his brief time as mayor and the many challenges he faced running a city that recorded more than 300 homicides a year over the past six years.
“I’ve never done anything against the law,” says Young, 66, who was first appointed to fill a vacant city council seat in 1996. He later served as City Council president and became mayor in April 2019 when then-mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) resigned amid political corruption charges. In November of that year, Pugh pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and tax evasion. She remains in prison serving a three-year sentence.
Just days after Young took office, Baltimore City was hit by a ransomware attack, which crippled its computer system and severely interrupted city services for weeks.
“I refused to pay the ransom because I felt we shouldn’t be paying criminals for criminal acts,” Young says. However, the city still wound up spending more than $18 million to resolve the crisis.
Known for his plain-talking style, Young was criticized for his blunt response to a reporter’s question about what he was doing to reduce the city’s homicide rate. “I’m not committing the murders, and that’s what people need to understand,” he said. Young now says he responded out of frustration. “When I said that of the violence, I meant to say I can’t do it alone, the police commissioner can’t do it alone and the city council. We need the community and community partners to help drive down the murders in the city.
“I had three nephews and a cousin who were gunned down on the streets of Baltimore. I know how it feels to have people in your family murdered with no closure. But when I said I didn’t commit the murders, the story ran for months.”
Young was also criticized for suggesting that the city’s violence could be reduced by building a public boxing ring, which would encourage young men to put down guns and pick up boxing gloves. “If they really want to settle disputes, put a boxing ring up and let them go a box it out. And if the best man wins, the beef should be over,” he said at the time.
Young now says that idea was just one of many floated to try to keep teenagers out of trouble.
Solomon Omo-Osagie, political science professor at Baltimore City Community College, says Young’s blunt statements often came with a price. “The man was frustrated. Anybody in his shoes would be. I think he was a good mayor, but the issues in Baltimore City are simply overwhelming for anyone. I don’t think he really campaigned as vigorously as the other candidates did, because he was too focused on leading the city.”
Young received just 9,256 votes in the Democratic primary,
He says: Reporters “killed me about controlling the squeegee kids, but they still got squeegee kids out there. No one is saying anything about the squeegee kids anymore.”
The former mayor says, “I opened up recreation centers on Saturdays and created the Mayor’s Office of Children and Success to help needy families.” But he adds: “A lot of positive things I did got no traction with the news media, because they didn’t want nothing good coming out about what I was doing.”
Young also defends his handling of the city’s initial COVID-19 shutdown last year. “I followed the advice of our medical professionals and my health commissioner. Our business community was really hard on me, but this was about saving lives and also about saving businesses, because some of the COVID money we set aside was to help businesses.”
Before Young became mayor, Pugh and the city had filed suit against the Stronach Group, owners of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, in efforts to prevent the company from moving the Preakness out of Baltimore. But Young says he played a major role in prompting the city to dismiss its suit and revive negotiations with the Stronach Group to reach a compromise.
“I feel great about that,” said Young, who met privately on Preakness Day 2019, with Belinda Stronach, chair and president of the Stronach Group. He says he told her, “Let’s get this thing done because the Preakness belongs in Baltimore.” Last year, the General Assembly approved a multi-million dollar public financing deal which calls for a major overhaul of the aging race track at Pimlico and continued renovations at Laurel Park.
Alan M. Rifkin, the attorney representing the Maryland Jockey Club and the Preakness Stakes, says Young should be credited for resolving a longstanding dispute with the Stronach Group. “It was really smart of Mayor Young to consider resetting the relationship, which Ms. Stronach was willing to agree to. It was a pivotal moment to help keep the Preakness in Baltimore.”
Young declined to assess the performance of Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D) in his first 100 days in office.
“I really don’t want to second guess the mayor because he is the mayor, and I really didn’t want people to second guess me even though they did. I will not do that to him.”
Scott, who served on the council with Young and succeeded him as council president after Young ascended to the mayoralty, delivered his first State of the City address Thursday evening.
“Bringing real change to Baltimore will be a difficult journey,” he said during his 28-minute speech. “But in these first 100 days, I am proud to say that we are moving in the right direction. We are governing from the ground up, by ensuring that everyday basic services are being met efficiently and effectively. And we are achieving this first-rate coordination amid a global pandemic. The State of our City is strong. And I can assure you that the future of Baltimore is bright.”
Young, the former mayor says he intends to hold all elected officials accountable. “I’m going to community meetings, and I’m going to be active and I’m going to be vocal.”
John Rydell has covered state politics for more than 30 years with WBFF-TV and Maryland Public Television. He can be reached at [email protected].