In 1987, a black man from the streets of East Baltimore rose to become Baltimore City’s first African American mayor. A locker room attendant at Dunbar High School, Clarence ‘Du’ Burns rose through the ranks of the city council before being elected by his council colleagues as the city’s first black council president, before ascending to the city’s highest political office.
Yesterday, Bernard ‘Jack’ Young, another black man from the streets of East Baltimore, was officially sworn-in as the city’s 51st Mayor. A file clerk and cafeteria worker for the powerful Johns Hopkins University, Young followed a similar path to the city’s top post, from councilman to council president to becoming the city’s most powerful politician promising to get back to the basics of city service.
Neither Young nor Burns were graduates of any ivy league universities, but rather both received their PHD’s from the streets of Baltimore. They both carried nicknames that many would refer to before ever thinking of calling them by their first or last names, and they both rose through the ranks of one Baltimore’s most influential political clubs, Eastside Democratic Organization.
In fact, the most glaring similarity between the two political leaders was the admiration and respect they both received from their peers and the African American communities of Baltimore; humble servants looking to serve the interests of the people without worrying about the politics of higher office, but rather becoming the living embodiment of a true public servant by bringing the focus back to the basics.
They both got their start in local politics by focusing on just that, learning how to service the most basic needs of constituents for their political groups or bosses. Burns got the nickname ‘Du’ because that’s what he would be known for, doing for others; while Young got his nickname “jack rabbit” because of his constant running on behalf of the people, which was later cut down to just “Jack”.
In 1982, Du Burns rose to the position of council president following the resignation of Walter Orlinsky, who resigned as president due to a bribery scandal he got caught up in. After a decade of service on the council, and five years as the council vice-president, Burns was now a heartbeat away from the Mayor’s Office. This came to fruition in January 1987, following the swearing-in of Schaefer as the state’s new governor, which automatically elevated Burns to the city’s top job.
However, that was also an election year, and despite making history as Baltimore’s first black mayor, Burns was defeated at the polls by another black man, former State’s Attorney Kurt Schmoke. The 1987 election, which was one of the closest mayoral elections in city history, was a contrast between a Rhodes Scholar (Schmoke) and a scholar of city roads (Burns); but ultimately the fairy tale dream that began in 1971 came to a crashing halt for the man many still celebrate today as a man whose service was truly For, Of and By the People.
Young, who was elevated to the Office of Council President after Stephanie Rawlings-Blake became Mayor following the resignation of Sheila Dixon, had to fight for the eight votes of his council colleagues, since the incoming Mayor was pushing for a freshman councilman to get the position over the three-term councilman from East Baltimore. Ultimately, the jack rabbit outran the mayor, landing the coveted position in 2010, and was elected to the position by the people of Baltimore twice since.
However, it appears that Young would rather forego the glory and the limelight of being Baltimore’s top political boss to instead go back to doing the work of the people as the leader of the Baltimore City Council. When you look at the Office of Council President, a position most Baltimoreans have no clue as to its role or responsibilities, you uncover a kingdom built by a man many overlooked as having the political gravitas to ever achieve such heights.
An office that under previous administrations had roughly a dozen or so staffers, now has over thirty staffers that answer to the man who controls the chambers of the City Council, as well the budget of its fourteen members. It’s a position that chairs the city’s spending board known as the Board of Estimates, as well as having absolute autonomy when it comes to the legislative process, which includes how and when bills are put forward by the Mayor and local council members.
Now Young may or may not face the same fate of Du Burns during next year’s election, but it will almost certainly not be for Mayor. However, when you look at the rise of both of these street educated black men, it gives you hope that someday we will look past all the fancy degrees and well-articulated speeches, in order to get to the soul of the man, or woman, who can best serve the interests of our city by getting back to the basics.