Baltimoreans are torn over Mayor Brandon Scott’s leadership, according to a new poll of city residents from the Baltimore Banner: 47% of respondents said they disapprove of his performance in office, while 43% said they approved.

The poll captures a city gripped by the long-standing issues Scott inherited: the homicide rate has surpassed 300 murders a year since 2015, basic services are mediocre and Baltimore’s population is still trending downward as nearby cities see growth. Crime remains at the top of everyone’s minds by a wide margin: 90% of respondents called it a major issue; more than half said they feel unsafe in Baltimore.

“You can’t have a mayor with a really high approval rating at the same time that an overwhelming majority of folks say crime is a major issue,” said pollster Mileah Kromer, the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics and an associate professor of political science at Goucher. “He’s the CEO, the person who’s in charge, and he’s who will get the blame.”

The Baltimore Now poll, conducted by Goucher College and commissioned by The Banner, surveyed 1,002 Baltimoreans representative of city demographics by cellphone and landline from May 17-23. The poll has a 3.09% margin of error.

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Scott, 38, entered office in December 2020 pledging to approach gun violence through a public health lens, purge the rot of mismanagement and steer Baltimore through the pandemic.

With 2 1/2 years remaining in his first term, the progressive Democrat has failed to deliver on a promise to reduce gun violence by 15% each year, but is seeing tentative progress with a focused deterrence pilot program. He increased the police budget, after cutting $22 million from it as city council president. When Baltimore received a historic federal stimulus package totaling $641 million, he invited city agencies and nonprofits to apply for a piece of the pie.

Most respondents are not swayed: 67% say Baltimore is headed in the wrong direction. But many of those who approve of Scott, like Terri Toomer of East Baltimore, said that needed transformative changes wouldn’t come easy to anyone.

“Scott’s doing the best he can with the hand he was dealt,” the 52-year-old said. “It ain’t like Baltimore wasn’t like this when he became mayor.”

She described Scott as a gentle young man committed to serving Black, low-income communities, who is guided by his experiences growing up in Park Heights. “He’s still young, still thriving, and he’s reaching out to troubled kids,” she said.

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For other respondents, like Ronald Anderson of Old Goucher, Scott’s progressive focus on the social roots of violence doesn’t make sense in “the real world” where Baltimoreans remain beleaguered by the homicide rate.

“Giving people universal basic income, his approach to violent crime — it’s all stuff that sounds politically correct, but it’s worthless crap that doesn’t move the needle,” the 51-year-old said.

To Scott, the numbers serve as a reminder that “we’re not where we need to be in Baltimore.” He likens his first term to constructing a foundation strong enough to dismantle the city’s systemic problems.

“The decay, the mistrust, the violence, all of these things happened over generations. To be quite blunt, many of them happened before I took my first breath,” he said. “But what you won’t get from me is claiming that it’s not my job to start to handle those issues.”

Polling analysis suggests his coalition still stands

Scott ascended to the mayor’s office by selling himself as a change agent amid political instability. His campaign touted him as something of an oxymoron — a fresh face with more than a decade of City Hall experience. He began working as an aide to then-City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in 2006; five years later, he was elected to represent the city’s 2nd District in Northeast Baltimore. His stature rose as he chaired the public safety committee.

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In 2019, Scott vaulted himself to City Hall’s second-highest office in a game of political musical chairs. Former Council President Jack Young automatically replaced former Mayor Catherine Pugh after she resigned amid scandal, leaving his seat open. Scott convinced the council to unanimously elect him instead of Vice President Sharon Green Middleton, arguing the city needed a sea change in the wake of yet another corruption scandal. The win placed Scott in an office held by four of Baltimore’s last five mayors.

Scott clinched the Democratic mayoral nomination in the summer of 2020, as the pandemic made inequities in Baltimore even more apparent. Police violence against Black people was at the height of voters’ minds, as were demands for progressive criminal justice reforms. In a teeming field that included former Mayor Sheila Dixon and then-Mayor Jack Young, Scott made the same pitch to voters as he did to the council: Baltimore needed a leader who wasn’t entrenched in the ways of old-school City Hall. He beat former Mayor Dixon by just over 2 percentage points.

“Progressives in Baltimore have been organizing for decades, at least as early as the 2000s, and he is really the first progressive mayor elected,” said Lester Spence, a professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Scott eked out the victory in part due to double-digit support from Black and white voters, which no other candidate achieved. The Baltimore Now poll found that his base has generally maintained its racial diversity: 44% of white respondents, 43% of Black respondents and 48% of respondents of all other races approve of the mayor.

“I love him,” said Carl Moffett of Cedonia. He has his frustrations with Baltimore, particularly with distrust in police. But if anyone who can turn things around, it’s Scott, the 20-year-old poll respondent said. Both men attended Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School; Moffett has seen Scott at Mervo football games — community outreach he hasn’t seen from other officials.

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Scott also maintained support from the Left: 63% of progressive respondents approve of the mayor, compared to 41% of moderates and 32% of conservatives. Wealthier respondents were more likely to disapprove of him, as were those who feel unsafe in their neighborhoods.

Respondents were slightly more inclined toward the mayor when asked their general opinion of him: 48% have favorable opinions, 42% have unfavorable opinions.

“It’s certainly not where he wants to be — and yet not as bad as he could be,” Kromer said, pointing to the approval ratings of City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Council President Nick Mosby, which are at 30% and 28%, respectively. “This is a hard job. It’s not as if the murder rate has spiked up during his term — this is a trend that he walked into, and when you became mayor in the middle of a global pandemic, you have to make some really tough, oftentimes unpopular decisions.”

“It has to be a balanced approach”

On the day before the 2020 primary, when thousands took to the streets to protest police brutality, Scott joined them. The idea that Baltimore’s‌ ‌police spending was not serving the city was central to his campaign: we need to responsibly reduce the budget, he said. As council president, he cut $22 million from BPD’s $550 million budget.

A year later, Scott increased BPD’s budget by $28 million. His 2023 proposal includes a $5 million increase. The mayor is pedantic — Scott said he does not want to defund the police, per se, but he does want to reimagine public safety and the role that police serve.

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A large majority of poll respondents do not want to cut police spending: only 16% said BPD’s budget should decrease. When asked if police funding should be allocated to various social, mental health onsonand drug treatment programs, 67% expressed support. The poll found 80% approval for increasing police presence and the number of patrols throughout the city, which Scott also supports.

“It has to be a balanced approach, right?” Scott said, recalling how his grandparents used to say they wanted constitutional policing, not less policing. “They said they didn’t want me, every time I left my house, to be threatened with handcuffs just because I was young, Black and living in Park Heights. They wanted the police to be focused on actual problems: violence and crime. And that’s what we are moving towards.”

His signature approach to crime is that police alone cannot quell Baltimore’s bloodshed. How can they, he asked, when so many killings are rooted in petty trivialities? He counts egregious examples on his fingers: “Over Instagram, because someone sent someone else’s girlfriend or boyfriend a message. Someone thought someone was sleeping with someone’s wife. Someone got into a basic dispute at a gas station.”

Scott diverted $50 million in federal coronavirus relief money to crime prevention, including violence interruption programs such as Safe Streets, which trains community members to mediate conflicts at risk of escalating. The poll found such programs have widespread support; they’ve also been shown to work.

Scott launched a 911 diversion pilot program to direct certain calls to trained mental health clinicians, hoping to both connect residents to the help they need and free up officers to deal with violent crime. He created the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement to connect residents to trauma services, victim support and mental health care, as well as to implement his crime plan. When introducing that plan last summer, he pledged it would lower fatal and nonfatal shootings by 15% each year.

But neither figure has come close to declining at that pace, and Baltimore’s homicide rate remains historically high.

Other systemic issues have reared their heads over the last 18 months. The city was reminded of the devastating costs of vacancy when three firefighters were killed in February while responding to a burning vacant building. Scott has allocated tens of millions in federal relief funding to reduce the city’s more than 15,000 vacant properties.

When Scott was inaugurated, it had been nearly four months since residents got their recycling picked up after service was suspended amid a worker shortage. Scott announced his first week in office that recycling services would resume the following month. But hit by another worker shortage, Scott moved the city to a biweekly collections schedule earlier this year.

Poll respondents who approve, disapprove or are unsure of Scott agree, by and large, on one thing: his work is cut out for him.

“Honestly, I don’t think anybody would be able to be a mayor right now in Baltimore and be successful,” said Natasha Gibson, 49, of Beechfield in Southwest Baltimore, who gave Scott a negative performance review. “I think he’s pulled in every direction, by different people with their different ideas.”

Chris Broome of Charles Village said it’s too soon for him to evaluate Scott’s tenure. “He’s instituting a lot of interesting programs that I don’t expect to bear fruit in his first term,” the 43-year-old said. “Politics is a long game. We don’t treat it that way, but it is.”

The mayor’s group violence reduction strategy pilot is seeing tentative results, however. The strategy connects those at high risk of involvement in gun violence to support from law enforcement officials, community groups and social services. Since the program was launched in the Western District in January, homicides and nonfatal shootings are down 40% and 18%, respectively. Scott hopes to eventually expand the pilot to other police districts.

Scott said he doesn’t regret publicizing ambitious goals that haven’t come to fruition. “That’s one of the things that was missing in Baltimore. There were no goals and metrics,” he said. “If we’re going to achieve great things in Baltimore, you have to set high goals and hold yourself accountable.”

“I know it’s not a one-man job”

“In a way, asking the mayor to single-handedly reverse all that is unfair, because he inherited a place hollowed out of its capacity to provide service — the product of three, four decades of treating policing as the only thing government can do,” Spence, the Johns Hopkins University scholar, said.

But even respondents who appreciate the complexity and length of Baltimore’s perennial issues say the buck has to stop somewhere. Asked about her evaluation of the mayor’s job performance, poll respondent Shanicka Rice took a long pause before delivering her verdict.

“I know it’s not a one-man job, but if I have to go one way or another, I disapprove,” the 42-year-old financial manager said. Not only is violent crime so widespread — it’s brazen, she said.

Rice recalled a recent walk on Greenmount Ave. with her 18-year-old son, near the Giant grocery store in Waverly. En route to her favorite beauty supply store, she noticed a car speeding toward them. She felt time stop as the passenger window lowered to reveal a young man pointing a gun. As he fired, she counted the blasts: six shots, one after the other. They landed about 25 feet away from Rice and her son. The car sped off.

After ensuring her son was OK, Rice turned toward a nearby bus stop, where about a dozen kids were waiting. “I thought, ‘My God. Are those kids all right?’ This was around 3:30 on a weekday. They were probably going home from school. And this is what they see,” Rice said.

The registered Democrat said she’s always voted — but from now on, she’s sitting out.

“I vote and vote and things haven’t gotten better,” she said. “I haven’t noticed a difference in years. It’s like it’s a waste of my time.”

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Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news.

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