With youthful energy and hopeful rhetoric, Baltimore’s newly elected mayor will assume office Tuesday, ushering in a new generation of leadership trying to move the city beyond what many say has been decades of stagnation and backsliding.
But Democrat Brandon Scott, 36, is starting his new job at a historically tough time. The city has recorded more than 300 homicides for the sixth year in a row, and its population, businesses and tax revenues have not been spared by the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, Scott must find a way to balance the public health emergency's long-lasting effects and his campaign promises of reducing crime, investing in schools, streamlining City Hall and creating opportunities for young people.
In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-1, Scott comfortably won the general election. Yet he will have to work to restore trust in the mayor’s office — the last elected mayor is sitting in prison for public corruption.
“While I’m proud, energized and ready to lead this city ... I’m not coming into this with rose-colored glasses,” Scott told The Associated Press. “This is about getting to work because we’re at a critical point for our city. That was the case even before COVID, and even more so now. Here in Baltimore, we have two public health emergencies: We have a pandemic of COVID and an epidemic of gun violence in our city, and we have to tackle both of them at the same time with the same vigor.”
Scott was a city council member since 2011 and became council president last year. His peers selected him for that job after Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned and then-council President Bernard “Jack” Young rose to take her place.
Scott in June defeatedYoung, former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and a slew of other Democrats for the party’s nomination. He then spent part of the summer picking up illegally dumped trash as part of weekend neighborhood cleanup efforts. He went on to defeat Republican Shannon Wright, a nonprofit executive.
With the pandemic limiting indoor and outdoor public events, Scott’s inauguration Tuesday will be a low-key event with no invited guests or dignitaries. He will make a brief address to the media after being sworn in at City Hall.
"Expectations are high because hopes are high," said Mileah Kromer, associate professor of political science and director of a politics center at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland. “Like any executive, he will be given with the public at least a honeymoon period, but in terms of public opinion, we don’t know how that honeymoon period will be affected by the pandemic.”
“Baltimore is a majority Black city, and we know that Black people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. So the stakes are high, certainly,” Kromer added.
Voters' top priority in Maryland’s largest city is reducing violent crime. Scott plans to implement a holistic approach by involving agencies citywide, not just the police department. Scott said using a policing tactic known as “group violence reduction strategy” could be effective, even if it's failed during previous attempts.
Under this targeted deterrence strategy, law enforcement aims to prevent violence by identifying people who might be in a position to become shooters or victims and offering them help, such as job opportunities or substance abuse treatment. Community and faith leaders, police and prosecutors also host group interventions.
Scott said previous attempts to implement this approach failed because they lacked “executive-level buy-in.”
“You need someone who believes in that and will make sure that every single city agency, not just the police, know that it’s also their job to be supportive,” said Scott, who promised to bring annual homicides below 300 in 2021.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who saw targeted deterrence efforts succeed in New Orleans, will continue in his role under Scott’s administration. So will Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, the city’s health commissioner.
Baltimore has reported 26,190 coronavirus cases and 553 deaths as of Sunday.
The public health crisis has led to declining tax revenues in Charm City, which closed the fiscal year that ended June 30 with a $14.3 million deficit. The city has implemented a hiring freeze, furloughed some employees and laid off others.
With those challenges, Scott acknowledged the road ahead will not be pleasant.
“We think we can still be able to deliver on all those promises, but also understand that this is an emergency situation,” he said.