Mayor Brandon Scott rubs his temples from behind the mayor’s desk as Baltimore Police Commissioner Richard Worley runs through the week’s shootings and homicides.

A man found strangled with a shirt tied around his neck. Another man who refused to tell investigators who shot him before he died at the hospital. Two men shot and killed over what investigators think was a dispute over a girlfriend.

“I’m so sick of hearing this shit,” Scott says quietly, leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed. “These dudes think they own these women.”

Worley, seated with Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Anthony Barksdale and City Administrator Faith Leach at a gleaming wooden table across the room from Scott’s desk, continues down the list of mid-December violence. The mayor is visibly frustrated about enduring problems. Some suspects and victims were recent returnees from brief sentences in jail tied to gun violence. Others are tied to addresses that Scott is well aware of; he instructs Worley to send additional police units to those blocks.

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Worley nods before moving to details of an attempted murder. Another man drove himself to the hospital and survived after being hit by a shooter who fired off nearly two dozen rounds.

“That’s personal personal,” Scott said grimly.

As the primary election nears, the very private mayor has gotten more personal himself. A soon-to-be wife; a newborn son; therapy to deal with the job’s burdens.

The 40-year-old can count clear successes: There’s evidence his strategy of targeted interventions has reduced Baltimore’s persistent violence. 2023 was the first time in eight years that Baltimore recorded fewer than 300 killings. The city is on track to finish 2024 with even fewer deaths. Young squeegee workers, who have persistently occupied busy intersections for years, have been diverted away from corners and to jobs and education, thanks to a city program. The city’s unemployment rate is at its lowest rate in decades.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott is seen during a press conference at the SBA’s Business Recovery Center at the CareFirst Engagement Center in Baltimore on Thursday, April 4, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

But as he asks voters to give him a second term, his opponents have found no shortage of things to criticize: slogging city services, administrative turnover and a persistent cynicism among some residents. That sentiment has made its way into attack ads that label him “nice guy, bad mayor.”

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Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who narrowly lost to Scott in the 2020 Democratic primary and remains his toughest rival this cycle, has lodged a competitive campaign on the premise that she is a more competent executive than Scott, despite a corruption scandal that forced her to resign the office. Her allies paint Scott as inexperienced.

Scott is adamant that his work has just begun, that his campaign promise to overhaul the status quo requires more than a single term — and that the bulk of criticism toward him is about style, not substance.

‘A pandemic term feels like 10 years’

While the faces are familiar, this year’s primary will occur in drastically different circumstances than in 2020.

Wide availability of COVID-19 vaccines was more than half a year away, and deaths in Maryland were pronounced among the state’s Black and Latino populations. The city was in the early days of a nationwide reckoning over racism and police brutality in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Baltimore was still reeling from yet another corruption scandal that led to jail time for former Mayor Catherine Pugh.

As Scott declared victory in the crowded Democratic primary from his grandmother’s Park Heights rowhome, he delivered the same pitch that helped him win: When this pandemic is over, Baltimore will not return to the status quo.

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“Normal in Baltimore was leaving generations of people, neighborhoods behind, families behind. And that’s not the Baltimore that we’re trying to build,” he said.

Getting the city through the first uncertain period of the pandemic was an immediate test for Scott. He spent hours of his first year and a half in office studying the latest COVID trends and weighing the risks of large indoor gatherings. It’s a transition that many other mayors didn’t survive.

“The other pandemic mayors and I, we have a saying,” Scott said. “A pandemic term feels like 10 years.”

Now Scott again faces Dixon and Bob Wallace, who ran against Scott in the 2020 general election as an independent and argues that City Hall would benefit from his experience as a businessman.

Polling suggests that Scott and Dixon are close: According to a recent survey from The Baltimore Banner and Goucher College Poll, 40% of likely voters said they would cast a ballot for Scott, while 32% said they supported Dixon. About 10% said they would vote for Thiru Vignarajah, who dropped out of the race and endorsed Dixon last week.

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“Being a mayor of a large American city is the hardest job in American politics, full stop,” said Marc Morial. At 35, the Democrat was elected mayor of New Orleans in 1994 and served the city’s maximum of two terms. He was the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors during his last year in office and is now the president of the National Urban League.

“The president has unlimited staff, unlimited resources. A mayor has anything but,” Morial said. “And you are held responsible by everyone for everything.”

Take recycling. When Scott arrived in the mayor’s office, the service was already shifted to a biweekly schedule. He reinstated standard weekly services, but had to reduce it once again a few months later, citing a lack of staffing and certain trucks. The reduced service has been a headache for both residents and the administration. Baltimore finally restored weekly service in early March.

Headline after headline has detailed the departure of a senior aide, some after just months on the job. Others have detailed what critics are quick to call dysfunction: millions lost in federal funding due to blown deadlines; a deal with Baltimore Gas and Electric for access to the city-owned conduit; an increase in car thefts in line with nationwide trends.

Paige Cognetti, the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, entered office in 2020. Like Scott, she succeeded a placeholder who replaced a mayor who left office amid a corruption scandal.

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“When an institution hits rock bottom, there’s a chance for true change,” Cognetti said during a panel at the 2023 Bloomberg CityLab Conference. “But you need to try to under-promise and overdeliver, because folks are just waiting for you to mess up.”

From City Hall to the school pickup line

Scott could live out of his Suburban. A clothes rack in the back seat hosts a Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School sweat suit, a City Hall-branded Under Armour polo and a firefighter jacket, plus a suit or two.

After his weekly meeting with Worley, Barksdale and Leach, and after a quick press conference to announce a new fleet of electric vehicles, Scott hops into his city-issued car, tidies the clothing rack and moves a small cooler into the trunk. It’s time for school pickup.

The very private mayor made waves last summer when he announced he was expecting his first child with his now-fiancée Hana Pugh, a nonprofit director and entrepreneur. They named their son Charm Jamie Scott: his first name after Charm City Live, where Scott says he and Pugh met in September 2022. They live with Pugh’s 8-year-old son, Ceron, in Scott’s new white-brick single family home in Hamilton, along with Madam Scarlet, a long-haired calico, and Lord Grogu, a Yorkie mix.

His driver, who serves as a bodyguard when he’s not behind the wheel, begins the trek to Hamilton. Scott occasionally offers directions; he says he usually picks up Ceron twice a week.

The oldest of three sons, Scott describes becoming a father as equally cool and surreal. Friends with kids were quick to give advice on living with no sleep. “But I haven’t gotten much of that the last few years,” he quips from the school parking lot. Becoming a father has added a new, literal layer of urgency to his mission to improve outcomes for city youth.

When the laughs of students being let out for the day echo into the parking lot, the mayor and his executive protection officer walk toward the courtyard alongside other parents, who seem unfazed by the pair. Ceron finds Scott right away.

Mayor Brandon Scott and stepson Ceron walk back to his car after school pickup. His security detail follows behind. (Emily Sullivan)

As Scott signs him out and chats with his teacher, Ceron jumps onto a tall courtyard ledge. Now, to Ceron’s delight, they appear to stand nearly the same height. The two hug. Lines that were not on the mayor’s face a few years ago deepen as he breaks into a grin.

‘We need an adult in the room at City Hall’

To become a self-made mayor raised in an impoverished neighborhood in an unequal city takes brawn and calculated politicking, things that Scott generally saves for behind closed doors. He has never been a flashy politician, nor a kingmaker. His mayoral tenure has not changed this understated nature.

Scott rented the same one-bedroom apartment as a councilman, City Council president, and for more than half of his tenure as mayor before purchasing his first home at 39. He keeps a small circle; he refers to both former high school classmates and teachers as his closest friends. He is a trim pescatarian who doesn’t drink. He keeps a bench press and a puppy crate for Lord Grogu in his office, where the walls are lined with Mervo track medals from his time as a sprinter.

His political opponents avoid rebuking his character and instead argue that the youngest mayor in generations cannot fully impose his will in City Hall. Though he has now been mayor for longer than Dixon was, she and other detractors argue that he remains too inexperienced for the top seat.

“I love Brandon Scott as a person. It pains me to say his leadership is failing the city,” Councilman Eric Costello said after endorsing Dixon last year. Before Thiru Vignarajah ended his mayoral campaign and endorsed Dixon over Scott, he described the choice as between corruption and incompetence.

Scott has netted endorsements from most of the region’s unions, and endorsements from some — but not all — of his usual City Hall allies, suggesting some uncertainty from politicians usually on his team. A super PAC funded through labor chapters has collected $135,000 to support his reelection.

Meanwhile, business leaders including real estate magnate Jack Luetkemeyer Jr. and Sinclair executive David Smith have coalesced around Dixon. A super PAC supporting her candidacy has raised more than $600,000 and spent heavily on ads that feature a photo of a younger-looking Scott from 2019.

At a debate earlier this month, Dixon, 70, twice declared that City Hall needs an adult in charge. Vignarajah has joined in the rhetoric after throwing his support behind Dixon. “We gave the keys to the kids to the car a little too early,” he said at a Dixon rally last week.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott speaks at a press conference about the collapse of the Key Bridge. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

“I‘m 40 years old. I’m clearly an adult,” Scott says, bewildered. “I was an adult when I led us through the COVID-19 pandemic. I was an adult when I had to work through all the tragedies that we’ve had with firefighter deaths and police officer deaths. And I was an adult, for sure, when we had to stand up and stand tall for Baltimore during the Key Bridge collapse.”

When a cargo ship crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge, causing the structure to collapse and kill six construction workers in the middle of the night, national cable outlets beamed Scott into living rooms across the country. At a 6 a.m. news conference, a reporter asked him when the bridge may be rebuilt. “Right now, there are people in the water,” he replied adamantly. “That’s the only thing we should be talking about.”

The exchange went viral. It prompted both local warmth for Scott — residents gave him high marks for his response in a recent Banner/Goucher poll — as well as a barrage of racist harassment from across the globe. Critics labeled him a “DEI mayor,” a slogan that Scott repurposed for a sweatshirt labeling him a “Duly Elected Incumbent.” To Scott, rhetoric about his age and ability to operate Baltimore suggests his opponents can’t fault him on homicides or other policy initiatives.

“What matters to me is the work that I put in, the respect that I give to my residents,” he said.

‘And that broke me’

While homicides were down last year, Baltimore’s youth were shot at the highest rate in at least a decade. The figure and the suffering and deaths of the young people behind it haunt the mayor. One day in particular is burned in his mind.

Around 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 2, 2022, Scott was performing his most dreaded aspect of the job: announcing a death — the passing of Capt. Anthony Workman, who died in a motorcycle crash.

Afterwards, Scott planned to head to Mervo’s first home football game of the season. His connection to the team goes beyond his alumni status; his godson TJ would play that season.

Standing outside Shock Trauma alongside fire officials, as reporters peppered officials with questions, his Android buzzed with a text: “Child has been shot at 3500 Hillen Rd.”


“My first reaction,” Scott recalled, “was ‘Oh, fuck.’ TJ.” He spent the first half of the 20-minute ride to his alma mater frantically dialing his godson and fielding desperate calls from his parents, aunts, and uncles. The high schooler wasn’t picking up.

Eventually, the mayor got through. But as he messaged his family to let them know TJ was safe, he felt a cold, fearful pit in his stomach.

Jeremiah Brogden, a 17-year-old Mervo running back, had been shot and killed by fellow student Nizah Daniels. Scott was his mentor.

Later, Brogden’s mother told Scott that her son was planning on seeking him out before the game to ask for help in getting a job that would allow him to still play football and take care of his newborn son.

“And that broke me,” Scott said. “Because I don’t know whether he was looking for me at that moment.” He’d been in therapy before; the pain from that September afternoon sent him back.

Then there’s the Brooklyn Day shooting, which turned an annual neighborhood block party into the city’s worst mass shooting, with two dead and 28 injured. The 2023 event ignited a torrent of grief and exasperation from residents, who angrily wondered why police were not preemptively monitoring the yearly festivity. On the scene of the shooting, he and BPD commissioner Worley were “very, very, very upset, very animated, and the city administrator had to kind of calm us both down,” he remembered.

Those days motivate Scott to continue his Group Violence Reduction Strategy. But they also remind him how fragile progress is — how it can all be reduced in an instant. And for a new father, youth violence reduction feels more timely than ever.

Mayor Brandon Scott walks through the streets during a community walk at Woodbourne - McCabe in Baltimore on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

The voters who cast ballots for Scott this spring will weigh his tenure as an incumbent instead of his promises as a candidate. He’s betting that residents see the progress Baltimore has made in reducing violence and hire him once again.

The most important thing to come out of his tenure, the mayor said, “is that more people are alive in Baltimore that did not die.”

No one will be able to take that away from him, he said, “though they may try.”

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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