We couldn’t help ourselves. In looking back on 2023, we wanted to review the biggest stories in Baltimore City politics, including the abrupt change in leadership atop the Baltimore Police Department, the mayoral election, the Artscape fiasco, and much more.
So what started as a robust discussion in The Banner offices moved over to Slack, where we were able to share our thoughts more formally. Here is an edited version of that conversation, which features some members of our politics team and their editor, John O’Connor. O’Connor leads the discussion.
Our favorite stories
John O’Connor: Let’s talk about the year in city politics. A LOT happened in 2023. What was your favorite story this year?
Emily Sullivan: That’s so difficult! For now, I’ll pick a positive one ... especially as I’m eyeing the calendar for Baby Charm’s due date of Jan. 1. Mayor Brandon Scott announced earlier this year that he’s having a baby boy with Hana Pugh, his partner. It’s been a minute since Baltimore’s mayor welcomed a newborn — since Martin O’Malley’s tenure, to be exact. And the announcement was a rare glimpse into Mayor Scott’s private life, which is kept very much under wraps.
Hallie Miller: That’s a good one! I’m exhausted just thinking about being a new parent and running for office. I wish anyone well who takes that endeavor on. Now that you mention it, we really don’t hear a lot about the mayor’s personal life. I’d say that’s both a plus for Team Scott (no personal scandals/liabilities) as well as a potential weakness (people, at least nationally, seem to flock toward politicians they can crack open a beer with).
Emily Sullivan: Mayor Scott doesn’t drink, so Baltimoreans can crack open a Diet Coke with him instead. Or a crab.
Hallie Miller: As a Diet Coke fan myself, I can relate to this.
Baltimore homicides will be below 300 in 2023
John O’Connor: Justin, the city will be under 300 homicides this year — the long-running benchmark in Baltimore — how did this happen and is it sustainable?
Justin Fenton: That’s a great question we’re trying to answer. There was a lot of change this year. The year started with a new state’s attorney. Months later there was a new police commissioner and a new head of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. But officials are hopeful that it was the culmination of long-running efforts at police reform and to engage the most at-risk offenders. This year’s decline seems to have started in the fall of 2022, and we’ll be watching to see if it holds and improves further.
Adam Willis: On the topic of homicides, an area I think we all have eyes on is the mayor’s Group Violence Reduction Strategy, the wonky name for the city’s flagship approach to gun violence. The strategy, which has been tested and fizzled in Baltimore twice before, got off to a really encouraging start, corresponding with a 33% drop in shootings in the Western District over 2022. But the city is having trouble expanding it citywide, and some of the biggest drops we’ve seen in shootings this year have been in police districts that aren’t actually implementing the strategy yet.
Hallie Miller: We saw the rockiness with this shake out in real time this year, tragically, with the Brooklyn Day shooting, which claimed two very young lives and injured more than two dozen others.
John O’Connor: But even with the drop in homicides, the city is still plagued by high-profile incidents that people don’t forget: 30 people shot (including two fatally) at Brooklyn Day celebration and the killing of tech CEO Pava LaPere. Also many, many young victims.
Hallie Miller: Yeah, these high-profile incidents are the ones that linger in the collective memory, and they make Baltimore feel way more scary and dangerous than it is statistically. (This also is largely due to how we as media respond to these more violent, click-baity events, and we should take ownership of that). Mileah Kromer from Goucher College and I talked about that this year after Brooklyn Day during a discussion about how the shooting and the mayor’s response to it could influence his political fortunes. Mileah’s theory is that no one can prevent tragedy from happening, necessarily, but they can control how they respond and how present they are during the aftermath.
Adam Willis: Brooklyn is in the Southern District, which doesn’t have GVRS yet, but the shooting there showcased failures across a lot of different agencies, including the police department. That happened within weeks of Worley’s appointment, and his response was to own up to mistakes in pretty candid terms. The department used the word “indifference” in their internal investigation of the shooting, and that term came up a lot in the aftermath in discussions of the department’s connections to the communities they police.
Worley, Harrison and the state of Baltimore’s police department
John O’Connor: Speaking of the new police commissioner, did we ever figure out what happened?
Emily Sullivan: Creative differences?
Justin Fenton: They sought to have a seamless handoff, but there were so many questions that came up that they really, really refused to answer.
Remember when they wouldn’t even release Harrison’s pay stubs to us? And they never released his resignation letter, backdated well before they announced he was leaving.
John O’Connor: What is the biggest difference in the department under new commissioner Richard Worley compared to Harrison?
Adam Willis: Harrison came in from out from out of town and had his difficulties with the police union while trying to reform the department. As a homegrown cop, Worley started on different footing with the union.
Emily Sullivan: Also, the Scott administration has suffered from a lot of turnover, especially in the first half of 2023. Worley’s appointment, however quick it was, stood out to me because the mayor had someone ready to step into that role, unlike the resignations of the [Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement] director and the deputy mayor of public safety.
John O’Connor: Have you seen evidence that turnover has affected city government? What has the mayor said about it?
Emily Sullivan: Definitely — the more people that leave, the more replacements that need to be recruited and onboarded. This takes time, money and resources from City Hall, and can result in things like [Mayor’s Office of Homeless Service’s] blown deadlines with HUD, costing Baltimore millions.
Hallie Miller: The senior leadership holes have gotten a lot of press, and for good reason, of course, but I think the non-managerial staff problems are far worse than perhaps even we realize. I’ve spoken with union leaders about how vacancy and turnover in one agency can result in a domino effect in several others. It might mean fewer crossing guards during school hours so 911 dispatch has enough people, and so on.
Justin Fenton: One thing that’s caught my eye as well as our colleague Ben Conarck’s is that, at least for now, there’s a major emphasis on operations. When Worley rolled out his new organizational structure, he added top positions in operations and consolidated. He has vacancies in compliance and internal affairs. Federal oversight meetings were also canceled. Part of that may be because of a high-level departure of a Harrison aide, but at the moment it really sticks out!
John O’Connor: What’s the best theory you heard about Harrison’s wife’s cryptic Instagram post?
Justin Fenton: I just remember it struck me and others that Harrison had pulled off some major gambit with the city, especially amid the aforementioned silence from city officials. But in the end, his wife said it came from a member of their church with a meme generator, and she just thought it looked cool.
City events, Artscape and Ja Rule
John O’Connor: Hallie, it seems like you were writing about the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts nonstop this year. Is the office back on track? Is City Council happy with where the city’s events are? Will Ja Rule appear at a future Artscape?
Hallie Miller: It was a busy year for them for sure, and probably way more high-profile than they would’ve liked it to be. Between Donna Drew Sawyer’s resignation (which is a whole thing) and then BOPA’s attempt to trademark Artscape, and then the ups and downs with actually staging Artscape. (Remember when Ja Rule was going to perform, and then Kelly Rowland, and then finally DJ Pee Wee aka Anderson. Paak?!) It was a lot. And then having to cancel a full day of Artscape due to the rain is the icing on the cake. But hey, at least we got 1.5 Artscape days. And it would appear that they are putting in a good-faith effort to get back on track. The council restored the funding that they cut, and everyone has had good things to say about the interim CEO Todd Yuhanick.
The jury’s out about Ja Rule. That bridge may have been burned.
Sheila Dixon’s latest run
John O’Connor: Is anyone surprised that Sheila Dixon is running for mayor again? What do you think about her campaign so far?
Emily Sullivan: Since this is her third attempt to reenter City Hall — nope! It’s clear from our polling that she’s a viable candidate and that people are interested in what she has to offer. I’m interested if endorsements from public officials — like Councilman Eric Costello — will sway voters, and I am eagerly waiting for the next round of campaign finance reports to publish in January. That will give us a real window into the resources and enthusiasm for both her campaign and Mayor Scott’s.
Adam Willis: One thing Dixon has done really effectively so far is appealing to some nostalgia for her time in office. I noticed this when I was talking to residents about the spike in car thefts, and Mileah Kromer told me it’s stuck out to her, too. A lot of residents remember how low city homicide numbers fell during Dixon’s term in the late 2000s. That was a different era for crime in Baltimore, half a decade before Freddie Gray’s death. But she’s focused a lot of her campaign around crime and appealing to people’s sense that Baltimore isn’t safe, and that seems to be working for her right now.
John O’Connor: She’s taken the gift card issue head-on and seems to be making a compelling argument that it’s forgivable?
Adam Willis: Yeah, I mean she’s done an effective job of narrowing the scope of the scandal. People hear Sheila Dixon and think of stolen gift cards, so she’s talked about it up front. I think apologizing was one of the first thing she did in her campaign announcement. I think she’s been successful there. But gift cards weren’t the only scandal from her time in City Hall, and the rest hasn’t been a major point of discussion in the campaign cycle yet.
Marilyn Mosby’s legal predicament
John O’Connor: Justin, what’s next for former State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby after her federal perjury conviction?
Justin Fenton: In the near-term: another trial. Her indictment got severed into two separate cases, and the second is moving forward, scheduled for next month. It has to do with lying on mortgage forms, and part of her defense, the latest filings show, is that she plans to in part blame ex-husband, City Council President Nick Mosby.
John O’Connor: How likely is jail time and what could she do after?
Justin Fenton: The counts she was convicted of, as well as the ones that are pending, bring heavy maximum penalties, and we’ve seen convicted officials go to prison in the past. And taking cases to trial often has consequences. Still, one veteran defense attorney I spoke to last month did not think it was likely in her case. We will see.
Development dominated the city’s agenda
John O’Connor: Hallie, there’s a lot of big live/work/play developments in the pipeline — Harborplace, Baltimore Peninsula, the former Perkins Homes — and other established projects still growing. Can Baltimore support all of these and what does it say that so many are happening at once?
Hallie Miller: There’s so much going on. Everyone is betting big on Baltimore.
Baltimore Peninsula and Harborplace tend to suck a lot of the air out of the room, which makes sense, but when you step back and consider Perkins-Somerset-Oldtown, Park Heights, Uplands, Canton, Downtown, East Baltimore, and so on ... it’s tremendous.
The argument that seems to have prevailed is the “if we build it, they will come” one. But obviously that’s a speculative argument, and oftentimes these things get built with a lot of public $$ and a ton of risk attached. So there is a cost, and with the city’s population still not growing in most areas, it’s hard to see the benefit of all this yet. Harborplace has the potential to be a really interesting connective tissue in a lot of ways. And voters in the end will have the final say with the charter amendment, which I’m not sure folks truly realize yet.
John O’Connor: Give me some predictions for 2024 — good, bad, whatever. What do you expect to see happen? And what do you want to see happen? I expect to see some Oriole contract extensions.
Emily Sullivan: Orioles win the World Series.
Adam Willis: Recycling every week? (Don’t tell Yitzy.)
Emily Sullivan: And voters will be subject to Scott and Dixon stacking their tenures as mayor up against each other as the mayor winds through the last year of this term. I expect a lot of discourse about competency and management from Dixon, and questions about whether we want to return to a leader with a corruption record from Scott.
Hallie Miller: Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump live televised presidential debate somewhere in Baltimore.
John O’Connor: Michelin star for Ekiben.
Hallie Miller: Give Cindy Wolf her James Beard first!
Justin Fenton: I’ll be positive and say we see another decline in gun violence. It could very well be that several things have snapped into place over the past 18 months and continue to improve. We also know how fragile such progress can be and major underlying issues remain, so don’t hold me to it.