Baltimore’s youngest councilman has high hopes for himself and for his city
Published: January 8, 2014
Snow just stopped falling on an early December Monday and Brandon Scott is late to his 11 a.m. appointment at City Hall. It’s not the snow, per se, that delayed him, though. The city councilman slogged through it on his usual run, he says, in sneakers, at about 6 a.m. Scott says he’s used to having cold, wet feet from years of track-training in high school.
He gets in a nap after that on most days before coming downtown, but today there was snow and so he was awake and delayed to City Hall doing one of his favorite things: riding herd on the city bureaucracy.
He calls 311 to report that a particular block is not plowed, then goes back after the case is closed to see if the surrounding blocks are also clear. He often finds they are not.
“In some cases,” Scott says, “they’d go to the street, then drop the plow and not even plow their way out!” He holds up a phone picture of Parkwood Avenue to prove his point.
This is classic Brandon Scott: hands-on, detail-oriented, rooted in the idea of efficiency and personal responsibility. “This is something we see constantly every year,” he says, sitting in his cluttered fifth-floor office. “They can’t clear 2 inches.” The plowing is the responsibility of the Department of Public Works, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Recreation and Parks. They have mapping, inspectors, Scott says. The system should work.
“I try to tell constituents to be realistic about how quickly they can come,” he says of the plows. “But when they come, I expect them to do a good job.”
Scott will turn 30 this year. When he was elected in 2011 to fill the 2nd District City Council seat vacated by a retiring Nicholas D’Adamo, he was only 27. That makes him the city’s second-youngest-ever elected city councilman after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who came on at the tender age of 25. But there is a caveat: Scott is the youngest elected since the city changed from its old three councilman-per-district system. “I joke with her that anyone can get elected when you have two people helping you,” he says.
The mayor had a lot of help, of course, being the daughter of iconic state delegate Howard “Pete” Rawlings. And she and her team reached out to help Scott too, whose political pedigree is decidedly more modest. Scott’s father works at a family-owned heating, ventilation, and air conditioning company. Soon after graduating from St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland, Scott was hired as a community liaison to then-Council President Rawlings-Blake. “I’ve only had one job outside City Hall,” he says, describing a brief stint working for Big Brothers Big Sisters. “Seven years in City Hall. Don’t ask me where the time went.”
Single, without even a girlfriend to distract him (“it’ll happen,” he laughs), Scott has a confidence and level-headedness unmatched by most men twice his age. The confidence can come across as cocky, as when, during an election debate, he answered a question about how he would handle a constituent who came to him complaining of a $5,000 water bill. “This is an easy one for me, ’cause I just did this yesterday,” Scott said. “I’d call [Public Works] and say, ‘Hey, we got another one.’ Because we’re moving to a new reader system. So I’d assure this person that this is not unusual and not to worry.” He walks a tightrope between working to convince you he is serious and working to not look like he’s working too hard at it.
With two years under his belt on the City Council, Scott is looking forward to a long career in public service. If Scott is Baltimore’s future, that future is bright, tech-savvy, ambitious, optimistic, hard-working, and extremely likeable. The only question is how—or whether—he’ll tackle the knotty issues that will upset the donor class.
“When he was little we kind of knew he was going to do well,” Donna Scott says of her oldest son. “The incident we remember most was when he was 5 or 6. He was talking to his grandmother and grandfather on the phone. They live in North Carolina. He was telling his grandmother how to get here, and he had drawn a map from here, where we live now, to North Carolina. And it was perfect. It had all the signs, and the mile markers, the highway exits—it was completely right.”
Donna Scott depicts a close-knit family on the move: Brandon and his two younger brothers in the backseat of the family car. Thanksgiving dinners rotated among her husband Alvin’s eight siblings, and Fourth of Julys were at grandpa’s in North Carolina—that old farm is still in the family.
“When they were smaller, we did a lot of trips with the kids,” she says. “We’d take an encyclopedia and say, ‘Where do you want to go?’ One year they said Mount Rushmore, so the next week we went. They loved it—you go around a bend and it comes into view. The kids are in the backseat saying, ‘I saw it first!’ ‘No, I saw it first!’
“Later, Brandon would go to friend’s house and say, ‘I bet you didn’t go to Mount Rushmore.’”
That competitive streak helped make Scott a track star at MERVO, Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, but it also got him in hot water—something his mother says she doesn’t remember. Brandon Scott says one teacher decided she didn’t like him—once even accusing him of making the school psychologist’s seeing-eye dog pee on the floor.
This teacher also made mistakes like thinking VIII was the Roman numeral for 15. Brandon would always correct her, and not diplomatically.
“In my junior year, it came to a head,” he says. Scott was writing code in the computer lab, which was laid out like a cube farm, presumably to get kids used to the dreariness of office life. The offended teacher moved young smartass Scott to the “big cubicle” in the back of the class.
Of course, the plan backfired. “The class went buck wild,” Scott recalls. Turns out he was the glue there, albeit a disruptive kind of glue: “I literally had 100 on my report card and ‘conduct interferes with learning.’”
Scott says he later learned from other teachers that his nemesis couldn’t handle that Scott was smarter than she was. That and his voice sounded like her ex-husband’s. She has since died, he says.
Today, Scott’s demeanor is decidedly more patient. He looks restless when his phones are not buzzing with emails, text messages, and actual phone calls from people asking for his help or providing updates. His manner is modest and gentle. He is here to serve. He is reassuring and throws just a little insight into a given problem—a little bit he learned in his seven years riding herd on the city bureaucracy.
The phones are something to see. One is a white Samsung Galaxy with a cracked screen—it was hit by a ball and fell off the bleachers during the annual Thanksgiving flag-football game Scott plays with police officers. The other—the city-issued one—is an identical black model, intact. It is linked to the phone on his desk turning over calls.
And Scott will get back to you, very soon.
The work ethic “comes from my upbringing,” Scott says. “Both my parents worked all the time. My granddad was one step above a share-cropper in North Carolina. For me to be lazy or complain, it would almost be a disrespect to him.”
Both parents worked to support him and his two younger brothers, and in those early years, he says, the family needed help in the form of WIC “to buy milk and cereal.” Scott says his father took the car to work (this was before he had his own business), and his mother once pushed him to a doctor’s appointment in a stroller through the snow.
Growing up in Park Heights, on the same block as “The Ranch”—the nickname given to the Pall Mall Apartments that the city eventually demolished as a “drug nuisance”—gave young Brandon Scott a window into the city’s social ills. It also gave him an insight.
Drug dealers in his neighborhood actually cleared out of the streets when he and his friends came out to play, Scott says. “They told us they didn’t want us doing what they do,” he says.
That mid-1990s corner boys showed that self-awareness tells Scott that everyone makes choices. “We have to realize the truth,” he says. “We have to expect better of each other.”
Scott knows of a family where the parents live in a single-family house, mom and dad or stepdad are both there, and the kid is out doing burglaries.
“He is just turning 18,” Scott says. “I told him, ‘This is your last chance.’”
Referred by police he has befriended, Scott says he gives his card out to 15 or 20 kids like this each year, telling them to call and promising to do what he can to get them onto the right path.
He has not yet heard from this young man, he says; of 15 to 20, only six or seven end up contacting him.
Still, Scott emphasizes the progress he’s seen in the city’s crime over two decades. “It’s not the Baltimore I remember,” he says, and unlike many older residents, he means that in a good way.
Speaking recently to a community leader who was lamenting the lost Baltimore of his youth, Scott says, “I said, ‘Well, it’s a matter of perspective. You remember the tree-lined streets. I remember the junkie-lined streets.’”
Scott’s family moved to West Arlington for his high school years. From there, he went to St. Mary’s, a 2,000-student liberal arts campus on the tip of St. Mary's County, about two hours from Baltimore. St. Mary’s could not be more different from Park Heights. It is lush and green, surrounded by water on three sides, and features marine biology and sailing, along with baseball.
Scott studied political science and learned how to research policy issues.
“We’d look at a policy, then look to see how it affected different places,” he says. With two other students, Scott also made a two-hour documentary video titled “Represent: The Political, Social and Economic Impact of Hip Hop on the St. Mary’s Community.”
That mix of solid research, plus tech- and media-savviness animates everything Scott does.
Shortly after graduation, Scott got the job as public safety liaison with Rawlings-Blake. He went to a meeting and saw D.C. cops were sending text alerts to people after particular crimes or to get their word directly to the public. “The conversation was about something totally different,” he says, “but someone said the police send out text alerts.” Scott was on it.
He’s got the cops tweeting regularly now, and they even post the monthly Comstat reports—data that, just a few years ago, the City Council president couldn’t even look at.
It is a truism in any city that a council member who owes his or her political allegiance to a mayor or other higher-up will almost always vote the way they are told. Scott is a protege of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (and, in turn, of her sponsors and supporters in what is now the Martin O’Malley wing of the party), so it is unsurprising that in controversial matters he tends to vote the mayor’s way.
What is interesting about Scott, however, is the thoughtful way he talks and thinks about these issues. Take the audit bill, a bruising battle fought shortly after Scott’s election, in which Scott’s quote—“these agencies have not been audited in my lifetime”—was often cited. Councilman Carl Stokes introduced a measure to audit every city department every year. Scott backed a mayoral-concocted series of amendments to reduce that schedule. Cries of “sellout” met the council generally (though not Scott in particular, as his position on the matter was steady).
That Scott would be a quiet force for fewer audits was remarkable in another way: He cut his teeth in the Department of Recreation and Parks, the original focus of the audit movement (and a department that remains unaudited to this moment, more than two years after the Mayor’s transition team recommended the procedure). If anyone should understand the case for more audits, Scott should.
So listen carefully as he explains.
“I don’t disagree with Carl,” Scott says, “but I don’t want us to do what we’ve done so much in the past. I don’t want us to promise anything to the public that might not be true.”
Scott had always said that the city did not have the capacity to annually audit every agency. “It would be like me saying there are going to be no homicides next year,” he says. “The public would know I was blowing smoke.”
The question of capacity—of the ability to actually do the things we want to do (and that other American cities do as a matter of routine)—quietly constrains much of the policy debate in Baltimore. We just don’t have the manpower, the expertise, or the budget to accomplish everything. So: hard choices.
This is not a position that Scott takes on every matter. Indeed, mostly he’s a techno-optimist, tirelessly building that capacity while cheerleading. “So, for example, the former police commissioner told me we didn’t have the capacity to do online police reporting,” he says. “Well, we have it now.”
But Scott also cites another issue in the audit fiasco: “I told the mayor and Carl, you both make great points, but neither of you is in control of audits.”
The animating fact of the audit debate of 2012 was that Joan Pratt, the city comptroller and the person in charge of audits, was being talked around.
Something just like it happened in the phone-contract controversy as well. This was the other fiasco of 2012, when the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology (MOIT) bought almost $675,000 worth of equipment for a voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) phone system from a company called Digicon even though IBM had the city’s phone contract. The idea actually came from Baltimore Housing, Scott says, which already had the cheaper and more efficient VOIP system.
As a technical and practical matter, Scott is four-square for VOIP.
But the comptroller has forever controlled the city’s phone contract. Pratt eventually filed a lawsuit and the system was not finished. Again, in Scott’s view it was not a problem with technology so much as with turf and with, for lack of a better term, management capacity. “Frankly, the former deputy mayor and the MOIT director just went about it the wrong way,” Scott concludes.
This kind of yes-but analysis is a Scott hallmark. It can sound like a base-covering platitude, but it’s usually based on fundamentals: a core belief in fairness and personal responsibility. And data.
Scott has pushed for a restaurant-rating system like one he claims helped reduce food-borne illness by 3 percent in New York City. He’s pushed hard for reforms in the police department and he’s drawn criticism for proposing a complicated age-based teen curfew mandating kids under 14 be off the streets by 9 p.m.
The State’s Attorney’s office says it supports that goal but that enforcement would be problematic, since kids don’t usually carry an ID that tells their age.
Scott even introduced a bill requiring a 25-cent fee for plastic grocery bags, an issue that fellow Councilman James Kraft has championed for years.
“For me, it’s also about Baltimore; for some reason, we’re always the last at doing things that are going to ultimately benefit us,” he says. “Baltimore has got to get better at accepting change.”
Scott’s conviction is of a piece with others who share his gifts—the technically savvy go-getters who have remade the country in their own image while leaving everyone else in their wake.
Asked what America should do about the 50 percent of its population with below-average intelligence, Scott has a ready answer. “You have to share that gift so you can help people reach the highest point they can reach,” he says. “That’s the only way things can get better.” And Scott walks this talk, reading to kids in school and serving on the CollegeBound Foundation board to pay forward the lucky breaks he got. As for the rest: Mechanics and trash collectors make a decent living, after all. “Not everyone,” he says, “is going to be rich.”
And what else can he say? In a country whose leaders have turned their backs on the average person as well as the poor and marginal, an exceptional young prospect like Brandon Scott can only hope to be borne along by the rising tide of his people: elite technocrats like himself who have the skills and the gumption to accelerate change—and who would not think of standing in its way.
But what if this accelerating change is itself part of the problem? Or what if, at least, it’s not part of the solution?
Since Brandon Scott’s birth year (1984), the median wage for an auto mechanic in the U.S. has decreased by about 18 percent, after inflation. In 1984 they made the equivalent of about $46,600. Today they get about $39,500, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So on average, today’s mechanics make $7,000 a year less than their fathers did.
A look at the city’s OpenBaltimore database finds a Solid Waste Worker hired by Baltimore City in 1987—two years before a precocious, 5-year-old Brandon Scott drew his grandfather a map from Baltimore to North Carolina—made $32,263 last year—about half of Scott’s current salary as a council member.
It’s still better than the median national wage of $27,000, but everyone knows you can’t raise a middle-class family on $27,000. Or twice that.
None of this is Brandon Scott’s doing, of course. But the trend will likely hold through the next few decades, exacerbating the political problems that people like Brandon Scott will be charged with solving. So far, he’s backed the view of Mayor Rawlings-Blake: that, to tackle the city’s fiscal problems, we must cut workers’ pensions and make them work longer hours while charging taxpayers new user fees for things like trash collection.
“One thing I won’t do is write checks that the people who are coming behind me won’t be able to cash,” he says. “Right now, there are checks bouncing that might as well have the name Spalding on them.”
Looking forward, the city needs to nurture new industries to create jobs. “We have to figure out what’s next,” he says. “What’s the next big thing” that can generate jobs the way Sparrows Point did?
Reminded that policy decisions created much of the economic disparity in the U.S. over the past generation, Scott shifts again. “We’re going to have to have a serious conversation in the future about someone who makes 2 billion dollars,” he says. “Maybe he only makes a billion and five this year . . . and some of that money goes into other [public] investments that can help everybody.”
In the conference room across from the council chambers in City Hall, people pull out folding chairs and set up in front of a makeshift buffet. Grade school kids, most wearing red Christmas hats, scamper around as parents and aunts watch and wait for the pageant.
It’s Dec. 16, 2013, the second annual 2nd District Night Out, and Brandon Scott is building his community while building his career. Cory McCray, a political newcomer running for state delegate in the 45th District, introduces Scott, who, after the kids sing in many languages, hands out awards to the police, community leaders, and city code-enforcement personnel who patrol his northeast district.
“When I call him, he always gets right to me,” Joyce Boyd of the Gardenville community says. “He’s very personable. He makes you feel like you’re working with someone in your family.”
The president of the Gardenville Community Association, Melvin Warren, seconds that notion. “We’ve only been in existence for four months,” he says. “He jumpstarted us. We’ve gotten numerous community issues taken care of.”
Shantel Thigpen is yet more effusive. “I think the world of him and I’ll tell you why,” she says. “I am the director of the Furley Recreation Center. The city actually closed ours. He was my point person. He was very persistent,” she says, and he helped her get the contract and funding to open the program.
“I think he’s going to be our next mayor,” Thigpen concludes.
This is not an unusual—nor unreasonable—sentiment. Scott has clearly set his sights higher, though he knows it’s impolitic to discuss it too frankly.
“Ten years from now, hopefully, I’ll be the mayor of this city at least,” he says in answer to the cliche job-interview question. The pause is almost imperceptible. “Or at least I’ll be serving the city. Maybe at a nonprofit. Hopefully making an impact.”
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