Steuart Pittman’s inauguration took place today at the old Crownsville State Hospital — a symbolic choice.
Pittman convinced the state last year to give ownership of the long idle psychiatric hospital to the county to redevelop into a park and nonprofit center. And as the Democrat began his second term Monday, he drew attention again to the horrific story of the state-sanctioned racism that haunts the 544-acre, rolling green campus and its 69 buildings at the center of Anne Arundel County.
He titled his inaugural address, “It’s time to heal.”
“We are here today standing upon this ground because today it is ours, and today we begin that healing,” Pittman said from under a large white tent before several hundred people, some wearing heavy winter coats against the chill.
County Court Clerk Scott Poyer administered the oath of office before Pittman signed the register of elected officials under the previously signed spot from four years ago.
Pittman said he chose Crownsville as the site of his inauguration because of its failed history of being a place of healing, and because he wants his administration to focus on helping people who are the most vulnerable. “You know, the way Crownsville attempted but did not.”
But in an interview Friday, Pittman also said the hospital wouldn’t be the centerpiece of his second term.
“It’s a major project that’s ambitious, but not the only major project,” he said. “We have major state highways projects that we’re working together with the state on, we have a lot of capital projects that have been started that we have to finish. It’s a good setting to talk about that.”
A second four years for any county executive in Anne Arundel is no guarantee. Pittman becomes the sixth of 10 former county executives to do so.
Janet Owens and O. James Lighthizer both won reelection in the early 2000s and the 1980s. Each said finishing priorities of the first term is the best thing a reelected county executive can do.
“I felt I had a rock-solid team in place,” Owens said. “And it took a while to get the department heads and the administrators that I thought were really competent and able. So, when I entered the second term, I felt like we were ready to finish projects and build my Gold Coast at west county.”
Owens dubbed the area around Odenton, Fort George G. Meade, Northrop Grumman and BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport the county’s “Gold Coast,” and focused economic development efforts there to kickstart job and tax revenue growth.
Lighthizer said having the skills of a good executive is just as important as an effective team of advisors and department heads for a second term. His second term finished a massive expansion of county parks.
“If you’re a good executive or have an aptitude, it’ll start to click in. The kind of glory term is always, in my opinion, the second term.”
Just as there is promise in a second term, there are perils. Two former executives ended up going to jail for their second-term actions.
A decade ago, John Leopold was brought down by his personal conduct toward women and the abuse of his office. Joe Alton was convicted of taking envelopes of cash for contracts.
“Are you comparing me to them?” Pittman said when I pointed out the history to him.
Let’s be clear. No, I’m not. But it is worth having a grip on just how wrong things can go after a day when the future can seem so bright.
Today, though, Pittman can fairly focus on the positives and the plans ahead. He’s happy not to worry about electoral politics again. Hopefully, COVID and the aftermath of the Capital Gazette mass shootings will be his only unexpected crises.
“When you’re in a second term, term-limited, you don’t think about getting reelected,” he said. “You think about leaving the county in better condition than you found it. And I think about leaving the electorate in a better position to make good decisions that will prevent a future candidate from winning, or even running from either party, with an agenda that is to dismantle the institutions of local government.”
Pittman’s legacy might be validation of his view of government. He raised taxes — cut them too, but no one ever remembers that — and figured out how to get around the limitations imposed by the 40-year-old, voter-imposed tax revenue cap.
He was never shy about this, saying that the revenue cap starved county investment in schools, public safety, infrastructure and professional government. He successfully sought the power to increase income taxes on a sliding scale to lessen the impact on those who can afford it least.
Pittman hopes his victory halts rhetoric about cutting property taxes and an active local government. He wants the narrative to focus on whether government can effectively do more to improve the lives of county residents.
“If we do a good enough job, people will appreciate the work of their local government institutions and want to improve it. Like I said in the speech, they won’t want to shrink it. They just want to make it work better,” he said.
In his speech, Pittman made a lot of promises. I counted nine or 10, depending on how you look at his language. They included living wages for all school employees, creating income equality, eradicating racism and hate crimes, creating affordable homes and more.
Pittman qualified his promises as aspirations more than a second-term to-do list. He knows he can’t wipe out income equality, or end racism, or solve the shortage of affordable housing.
“We’re committed to doing housing for all income levels that’s livable. But no, we’re not going to house everybody in four years,” he said. “I tried to word [the promises] in a way that it was confronting these issues. A 21st-century, multimodal transportation system — I know that’s not going to be built out in four years. But these are things that we’re aiming for.”
All of Pittman’s plans for a second term depend on having the right people in place within his administration and being able to work with a County Council that includes a few potential candidates to succeed him in four years.
He had dinner Thursday with all but one council member, something he won’t be able to do once they take office this afternoon. A meeting like that once they’re in office would have to be open to the public, or be limited to a very tight agenda that fits in with public meeting laws.
“The purpose was to get that group together in a social setting and let our hair down a little and talk to each other, get to know each other,” Pittman said.
Pittman’s own team — department heads and executive staff — is changing. Seven high-profile members announced their departure after election results, including Public Works Director Chris Phipps. It’s a crucial position for a term focused on finishing capital projects, such as roads and the transformation of Crownsville.
Both Lighthizer and Owens said the departures, some of which already have been filled from within, could mean trouble unless Pittman has a strong bench ready to step.
“That’s not a good sign because everybody’s got a learning curve,” Lighthizer said.
Pittman said Phipps in particular leaves behind a group of strong deputy directors, but acknowledged that his administration has recruited heavily from outside the county.
The long history of the tax cap made salaries less competitive, but there also hasn’t been a strong record of diverse leadership in county government. Pittman chose the first Black woman to serve as chief of staff, the first full-time woman fire chief, and the first Black LGBTQ woman to serve as police chief.
“Well, there’s no question that in order to get diversity, we’ve often had to go outside the county in particular, because there’s not much of a bench in Anne Arundel County of people with experience at a high level of county government that aren’t white dudes,” he said.
That is also something worth noting about Pittman. He is the first county executive to frequently call out racism. It fits in with the decision to hold his inauguration at Crownsville. This fall, he said that anyone who opposed his tax break policy for affordable housing projects was supporting racism — including his November opponent, Jessica Haire. A few weeks earlier he called his predecessor, Steve Schuh, a “racist-type person” during a video conference on Latino justice because of his immigration enforcement policies.
Pittman, reminded about that, said he hadn’t intended to call anyone a racist and said he owes Schuh an apology.
“Did I really? OK, well, then I shouldn’t have. I don’t believe he’s a racist. And I, I don’t want to be a person who calls other people racist,” he said. “But I am comfortable calling out racist policy, talking about structural racism.
“I know that it raises a few hackles. And I’m comfortable doing that, particularly when we’re talking about housing issues, because I want to wake people up and make them think hard about the real impact of ending tax breaks for workforce housing that had been done for decades.”
In his speech, Pittman offered thanks to his family and celebrated his accomplishments so far. The minute he finished his oath, conversation among political observers shifted toward what comes next.
No Anne Arundel county executive has won higher elected office, although some have tried. A few served various governors as part of their administrations.
Pittman described himself as not politically ambitious. Yet he admits that if the time and opportunity line up again, he might not be finished with electoral politics.
“I feel like I came into this job because the path opened. And there’s a chance that if a path opens for some other office, and I didn’t feel like there was anybody else who could do the job or do it as well, that I would. …”
“I am more comfortable still as an outsider and an advocate than I am as the focus of all the attention.”