Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young stopped by an elementary school in his East Baltimore district Friday morning to meet with a group of concerned constituents - the school's fifth-grade leadership team.
The children led Young on a tour of the Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School playground, pointing out graffiti, vandalized benches, a basketball court without a basket and a mattress that had been dumped on the grounds. Young, who is expected to be named council president tonight, said he had a schedule packed with meetings and interviews, but started making calls to get the playground repaired.
Young, 55, is one of the council's most outspoken - and unpredictable - figures. He does not hesitate to raise his voice at meetings. Nor does he shy away from controversy. But what he lacks in polish, he makes up for in passion, supporters say.
For Young, the fifth of 10 children raised in a modest rowhouse blocks away from his current home, understanding the needs of city residents, especially those in the city's poorest neighborhoods, comes naturally.
"I want to engage our citizens in just about everything I do," said Young. "Their priorities are my priorities."
In his 14 years on the council, Young has been a member of just about every committee, often in a leadership capacity. As chairman of the budget and public safety committees, he is well-equipped to guide the council through the record shortfalls ahead, his advocates on the council say.
"These are two positions that give him particular insight on the issues that face us this year," said Councilman James B. Kraft, a Young supporter.
Nine of the 14 council members have endorsed Young for the president's seat. They will take a formal vote tonight to fill the vacancy left when Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake replaced Sheila Dixon as mayor last week.
Assuming Young is elected, he will be the first president in more than a decade with strong ties to East Baltimore. He will be the first high-ranking city official in a number of years to come from hardscrabble beginnings - Rawlings-Blake, for example, was raised in Northwest Baltimore's upscale Ashburton neighborhood.
Young embodies a certain "down-to-earth" East Baltimore pragmatism, said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who hired him as an aide in the 1980s. "He would come back from [community] meetings with all these problems people told him about," she said. "He would get on us until we had made sure we had resolved them the best we could."
Young also worked as an aide to other influential East Baltimore leaders, including state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and former council members Carl Stokes and Anthony J. Ambridge.
"He was a community activist, and I liked his enthusiasm. He wanted to serve," said Ambridge.
While some council members move up the ladder using legislative prowess, Young's success is rooted in constituent service, Ambridge said.
When Ambridge resigned in 1996 to become the city's real estate officer, Young was chosen by other council members to fill the open seat and has remained on the council since then.
The son of a forklift driver and a homemaker, Young started working as a child - delivering groceries in a wagon, shining shoes and hawking newspapers.
From an early age, it was clear that he was a "go-getter" said an older sister, Delores Young. "He always said as a little boy that he was going to be somebody."
After graduating from Northern High School, Young started working at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he remained for more than 30 years, working his way up to the manager of the radiation department's file clerks. Except for a brief stint at Baltimore City Community College, he has not attended college.
"I sort of think Jack has a Ph.D. in life," said Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., a Hopkins heart surgeon who has known him for three decades. "You don't have to have a man-given degree. We've had many giants at Hopkins without them."
In April 2007 Young took a job as a mid-level manager at the state Department of Human Resources where he has been responsible for helping local DHR offices address their space needs by working with the state's landlord agency, the Department of General Services.
On Friday, Young said he will quit his state job after he officially takes the reins of the council so that he can focus on his new position and avoid the appearance of a conflict.
Young's rise has not come without controversy.
He is a lifelong Baltimore resident - "always lived in Baltimore City," he said. But from 1993 to 2005, he and his wife, Darlene, also owned a second home in Edgewood and claimed a tax credit that is intended only for homes used as a principal residence.
For all 12 of those years, the Edgewood house was listed in state and Harford County records as "owner-occupied." That qualified Young for a homestead tax credit that would cap property tax increases if assessments rose above a certain level.
Young said the home, which sits on a corner lot, was a "summer place."