As yet another Democratic hopeful enters into the crowded 2016 Baltimore City mayoral race, little attention has been paid to Baltimore City’s highest legislative office, the Office of the City Council President. Indeed, outside of his recent response to protestors disrupting Council meetings at City Hall, there has been very little discussion involving the man who has occupied this powerful office for the last five years, Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young. During his tenure as a legislator, President Young has accomplished a great deal in his nearly two decades in the Baltimore City Council. However, if you ask President Young whether he receives the proper accolades, he would likely say that his focus is on the policy side of government in Baltimore City and he prefers to keep a low profile in the media. “That’s one of my big criticisms from people, you know, that they don’t see me enough on the news. Then I hear some people saying that when I am on the news, I’m there just to get brownie points. So I can’t win from losing.” So what do we really know about the current City Council President or the office he holds? In a rare one on one interview, I sat down with President Young to learn about the role of the City Council President, his upbringing, and his legacy as a legislator.
Born and raised in Baltimore City, Jack Young was first elected to the Baltimore City Council in 1996. A Paul Lawrence Dunbar attendee and Northern High School graduate, Young’s interest in government and politics began at a young age. He recalls “volunteering” to pass out campaign literature for Senator Robert Dalton, for 25 cents per day. While attending Dunbar High School, Young went on to meet the late former Mayor Clarence H. “Du” Burns during a voter registration drive, and credits this memorable experience as the first time he realized he wanted to pursue a career in government and politics. Speaking of Burns, Young states, “He was my big inspiration. He’s the one that got me my first job working for the city.” Motioning to his office, Young smiles, remembering that, “This was his office too,” with a sense of pride and admiration for the former City Council President and First African American Mayor in the City’s history. However, while Young aspired to follow in the footsteps of Du Burns, his road to the City Council Presidency would be far from easy.
Following high school, Young worked a series of unique jobs, including making cans for Coca Cola as an employee of Crown Cork & Seal Co. and working in the pot cleaning room at Johns Hopkins Hospital. For a period of time, Young even worked as a trash man in the Baltimore City Department of Sanitation. While working these less than glamorous jobs, Young continued his journey in public service, serving on the Democratic State Central Committee and being an active participant in his community association. After making his first run for City Council in what was then the 2nd District, Young was defeated by a narrow margin. Ever determined, Young continued his involvement in City government by serving as a special assistant to then Baltimore City Council President and current 14th district city councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. Thus when a vacancy for the 2nd district opened in 1996, Young was an easy choice to fill the position. Young served the 2nd district until 2003, when single member districts were adopted and he then continued to serve as the representative for the 12th District. After then City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was appointed to the office of Mayor, Young was voted by his peers to take her place as City Council President. “And here I am, President of the City Council because I went to my committee meetings and I learned the process.”
But what exactly is the key function of the City Council President? Because the City Council President is not often viewed as the figurehead of government in Baltimore City, there is a lack of understanding about role the Council President plays. Similarly, not many people know what goes in to being an effective legislator in Baltimore. “They don’t understand the process,” Young says with a sense of frustration. In a city known for the dominant personalities who have served as mayor -William Donald Schaeffer, Kurt Schmoke, and Martin O’Malley to name a few- the City Council President’s office has often taken a backseat. However, while the office of City Council President may not be the most glamorous position in City government, it plays a vital role in influencing legislators to put aside differences and work together to pass legislation through to the Mayor. Young states, “I just realized over the last two years how important the Council President position is because if the Council can work together they can balance the power of the Mayor. We have a strong mayoral system but also a strong council. If they stick together the Mayor can’t do anything without the Council. And the Council can use that as a tool to get priorities of the Council pushed through for once.” Young believes that when the Council works together they can both challenge the Mayor and make their respective voices more powerful.
So what has President Young been able to accomplish in his role as City Council President? One of Young’s notable legislative achievements includes pushing for police reform both before and during his reign as City Council President. As President, Young called for a Federal investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department. He was instrumental in securing the signature of every Baltimore City Council member in a letter written to then Attorney General Eric Holder. Thanks in large part to Young’s leadership, Attorney General Loretta Lynch will conduct the investigation. Other notable achievements include co-sponsoring body camera legislation, placing a moratorium on unpaid water fees due to excessive billing, capping penalties for unpaid parking tickets at ten times the ticket price, and introducing affordable housing legislation. Young also introduced the Transparency and Accountability Bill requiring the Board of Estimates, Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals and the Liquor Board to have televised proceedings. These various bills have aimed at protecting citizens and making government more responsive to the concerns of the public.
While Young has had a successful legislative career by most accounts, he acknowledges there is more work to be done to cure some of the City’s ills. Particularly in wake of this year’s unrest and protests, Young has refocused his efforts to help the City’s youth. “What I really, really want to do is work with youth.” Young discussed a bill he is working on that would donate 3 cents on every dollar in the general fund to youth programs and homeless youth in the City. With the exception of Federal and State money, Young estimates this will lead to about $31 million going toward youth programs.
Young also did not rule out the possibility of legislating on the State level. However, while Young acknowledged that he has thought about joining the Maryland General Assembly in the past, he assured me that he first wants to finish what he started in the Council before moving on to Annapolis. Only time will tell if President Young garners more attention for his legislative accomplishments or moves on to the General Assembly to legislate on a statewide level. One thing that for certain, however, is that President Young appreciates the work regardless of the attention he attracts. “I think this is one of the best jobs in government,” states Young as he speaks of his role as City Council President. “It’s all about the people in Baltimore City and making sure the government works for them,” states Young. “I didn’t come here to get a big name.” Spoken like a true Baltimore City Council President.
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