Baltimore’s upcoming primary election will be notable and not just because residents will primarily vote by mail due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The mayoral election on June 2 comes after a massive corruption scandal led to a federal indictment against the previously-elected mayor in 2019. As a result of that corruption scandal, there is a heated debate over whether the city should reform its “Strong Mayor” system of governance that gives more power to Baltimore’s City executive than any other major city, offers few checks on their power and many argue, enabled the 2019 scandal.
One leading mayoral candidate, City Council President Brandon Scott, is opposed to Baltimore’s “Strong Mayor” system which is favored by business interests, and features limiting the power of the office he is seeking as part of his campaign.
“I used to think the system was fine and we just had bad mayors, but now I’ve grown to know that our system is broken and needs to be changed,” Scott, who has served on the council since 2011, told The Real News.
Scott and his city council allies proposed a number of reforms to Baltimore’s governing document, the City Charter, to make the mayor more accountable to the city council by distributing control over city spending, and by making it easier to override the mayor’s decisions or impeach a mayor charged of a crime.
“I’m not running for mayor of Baltimore so I can have all the power,” Scott said. “Even plugging great people into a broken system means they are doomed to fail.”
According to a May 20 Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore/WYPR poll, Scott is polling at 15%. He trails Democratic primary candidates former Mayor Sheila Dixon—who was convicted of embezzlement herself in 2009, resigned in 2010, and is now running again—and millionaire finance executive Mary Miller, who are both polling at 18%. 22% of voters said they remained undecided, and the poll’s margin for error is 4.9%.
In a deep blue city like Baltimore, the Democratic primary is the deciding election. Currently no Republican candidates have garnered much support and Baltimore has not had a Republican mayor since 1967.
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The charter reforms faced a setback on May 18 when current Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young—who replaced Pugh following the scandal—vetoed two reforms that would make it easier to override a mayoral veto, including reducing the number of votes required from 12 to 10 of the council’s 15 members.
“What was vetoed would have simply put us in line with other neighboring jurisdictions,” said Scott. “This is about building a better system of governance for Baltimore.”
Pugh campaigned on her support of a $15 minimum wage bill only to veto that legislation once in office under intense pressure from the business lobby. The council was unable to muster the votes necessary to override that veto.
Baltimore’s mayor controls three of five seats on the city’s spending board, the Board of Estimates (BOE), which approves city contracts greater than $100,000 (the other two votes on the BOE are the city comptroller and city council president, who are selected by voters).
In 2019, it was revealed that then-mayor Catherine Pugh sold hundreds of thousands of dollars of her self-published “Healthy Holly” children’s books to entities that did business with the city. Those contracts were approved by the BOE.
“I am working to weaken the control of the mayor over the BOE because we know it has been used for corruption,” said Scott. “You have to learn from your mistakes and make it extremely hard for anyone else to repeat them.”
The mayor also sets the budget. Unlike Congress, Baltimore’s City Council does not have the power to appropriate any funding. Another proposed charter amendment would give the Council the power to appropriate money in the budget.
Along with making it easier for the council to override a mayor’s veto, the proposals would create a city administrator to oversee day-to-day operations, grant the council to add money to the budget, and reduce the power of the mayor to approve city spending proposals, and give the council the power to remove a sitting mayor.
Former Mayor Catherine Pugh is now serving three years in prison for her role in “Healthy Holly,” but the unraveling scandal shed light on the power Baltimore’s mayor wields, and how few checks on that power exist. Pugh stayed in power despite weeks of growing calls for her resignation, and seven days after a high profile FBI raid on City Hall, because no legal mechanism exists to remove a sitting mayor absent a criminal conviction.
Lawrence Brown, author of the forthcoming book “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America,” argues that to fight corruption, Baltimore must reduce the power of the mayor, and invest in racial equity.
“You have a city that spends more on policing than it does on health, housing, art, parks, workforce development and Civil Rights combined,” Brown said. “Can Baltimore dismantle its own apartheid to create a city where racial equity is a reality?”
After decades of disinvestment, Baltimore’s African-American neighborhoods experience dramatically lower wealth, income and life expectancies. To correct this, Brown argues for participatory budgeting, which gives residents a direct say in how a portion of the city budget is used, but is not included in the current proposed reforms.
“There’s no way fulfil the practice of racial equity if you have an apartheid budget in place,” Brown said.
Scott says he would consider implementing participatory budgeting if elected, particularly in capital expenditures, which he said tend to be the most inequitable.
“In Baltimore for every year I have been alive, they have been investing in the failure of our young people instead of their promise, and we need to flip that around,” Scott said.