Key Bridge collapse puts Gov. Wes Moore, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott in political spotlight at pivotal moment

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BALTIMORE — The sun rose over the wreckage as two Baltimoreans stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the edges of the Patapsco River, gazing out at a previously unimaginable problem that was, in many ways, now theirs to fix.

Baltimore’s iconic Francis Scott Key Bridge had collapsed just hours before. Rescue efforts were still in their frenzied first stages as Gov. Wes Moore and Mayor Brandon Scott walked along the water.

Scott had rushed there in the darkened moments after the crash six hours earlier. Moore, awakened in a Boston hotel room during a trip to receive a leadership award, booked the first flight home, viewing the damage from the plane. Thirty minutes later a photo showed them side-by-side along the waterway, lit by the glow of morning light.

“All I’ve ever known is the Key Bridge,” Moore would say later in an interview with The Baltimore Sun, reflecting on the image of a 47-year old bridge he’d grown up knowing, now vanished.

Moore, 45, and Scott, 39, have become the most public faces of Baltimore’s latest tragedy — one that has immediate regional, national and even global implications as the Port of Baltimore remains blocked to shipping traffic.

Much is at stake for the future of Baltimore’s economic recovery, for the families of the six men killed, and — like in any disaster response — for the leaders at the helm.

Neither Moore nor Scott are new to the national spotlight. But the Key Bridge is a test on a different level, with an impact on both a mayor who is six weeks away from a tough Democratic primary election and a governor who political observers say could have a real shot in a crowded Democratic presidential race in four years or beyond.

“It’s on the table,” Chryl Laird, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said of a possible Moore run in 2028. “Which means he really does have to show that he can rise to a crisis. It’s one thing to just kind of maintain things in a situation but to rise to a crisis is an important one, and it gives him name recognition. It gives him standing within the Democratic Party. It makes him known at the national level. If anyone wasn’t paying attention before, they are now.”

Moore, just 15 months into his first term in elected office, has shied away from all questions about his political future since even before his 2022 election. Both he and Scott appear to be meeting the moment right now, Laird said, with a kind of focus and sincerity that Baltimore needs.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who’s advised Moore both before and during his governorship, agreed. He applauded Moore’s steps to coordinate agencies, convey public information in plain language and, “maybe most importantly,” ask questions and listen.

Patrick led his state through the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, a national frenzy that lasted for days, and he briefly sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.

He said he’s not surprised by the attention to the Key Bridge and to Moore given the national impact of the incident. His advice to the governor, he said, “is what it’s always been — do the job first.”

“And the job is about serving the people of Maryland, not his own media profile and poll numbers,” Patrick said. “Marylanders are getting that kind of servant leadership from the governor right now.”

From the earliest press conferences to the daily updates since, both Moore and Scott have refused to stray far from talking about the victims and the thousands of people and businesses who rely on the port.

The information, crucially, has also been accurate — a common-sense but extremely tricky task when moving quickly in response to a major accident, said Michael Czin, a crisis communications expert at the Washington, D.C.-based SKDK firm.

“You’re talking to a national audience who doesn’t know you. You need credibility,” said Czin, a former spokesman for Democratic campaigns like President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid.

“Maryland tough, Baltimore strong,” written by the governor and his speechwriter, became the mantra. Uttered often and appearing on a custom-made black sweatshirt with big, bold white letters worn by Moore, the phrase has already been an important symbol for focusing on the work at hand, Laird said.

Keeping that public image and being transparent will be vital for the success of the response and how Moore is viewed both in Maryland and elsewhere along the way.

“He’s being held to a standard, but in many ways he’s probably even being held to a higher standard,” Laird said. “There are more eyes watching him now than if he wasn’t someone that was the only Black governor in the United States, in a city that is 60% Black and with a Black mayor who is being criticized for, essentially, being African American.”

Racially motivated attacks on both men, but in particular Scott, came swiftly following the collapse. A tweet on X referring to Scott as a “DEI mayor,” an acronym used to refer to diversity, equity and inclusion, set off a firestorm of replies. The criticism and defense of Scott were fierce. Conservative commentators buzzed. Rapper Chuck D tweeted a fist-bump emoji at the mayor.

Scott himself clapped back in an appearance on MSNBC’s ReidOut, saying people who use the term DEI in a negative connotation “don’t have the courage to say the N-word.” The mayor reappropriated the term, saying it should mean “duly elected incumbent.”

“The fact that I don’t believe in their untruthful and wrong ideology, and I am very proud of my heritage and who I am and where I come from scares them,” Scott said during the appearance for which he wore a hooded sweatshirt, a fixture of his mayoral wardrobe. “They should be afraid because that’s my purpose in life.”

Laird said the Republican attacks against Scott and his responses could actually help him if voters feel like they’re the ones being criticized for not knowing how to pick their elected officials.

“What is being suggested by that kind of commentary is akin to things we’ve seen historically with racial rhetoric,” Laird said. “What it is suggesting is that African American leadership is incompetent. I don’t know how else to say it.”

TJ Smith, a Baltimore radio host and former candidate for mayor, saw Scott’s response differently. The DEI mayor tweet was not worthy of acknowledgement, he said. The sentiment was too stupid, too foolish to entertain. Moore, for his part, wouldn’t comment on the same issue other than calling it “foolishness” when asked in a CNN interview Sunday.

“Why even stoop to that level?” Smith said. “I would just laugh and say ‘Yeah, I am way too intelligent to continue a conversation with you.’”

The political boost the Key Bridge exposure has brought Scott in the midst of the heated campaign, however, is undeniable, Smith said. For more than a week, the mayor was front and center as his competitors were essentially sidelined. Attack ads that had aired against Scott for much of the month ceased on the day of the bridge collapse. The PAC behind them did not renew the contract amid the crisis.

“If you’re forced to be on a stage, there’s no better one to be on,” Smith said, noting Scott will appear with Democratic President Joe Biden on Friday. “It doesn’t matter if a $100 million check is written on Friday, and you can get a piece of that pie … It looks like you had something to do with it and perception matters.”

Observers cautioned it’s still early in the crisis response, however, leaving ample time for missteps for both Moore and Scott.

Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore, said Moore and Scott have both been given significant credit thus far for showing up and communicating well. Maintaining that goodwill could be difficult, Hartley said, particularly given the length of time it will likely take to clear the port. Rebuilding the bridge will take even longer, potentially spanning administrations, he said.

“Things can change, people can be frustrated,” he said, pointing to pandemic responses as an example. “Some people … may come out of the gate looking very strong and over time things devolve and even things out of their control get attributed to them.”

Any missteps on Scott’s or Moore’s parts could also potentially have an impact on federal funding for the bridge cleanup and rebuild — particularly as disaster relief has become politicized in Washington, D.C., and House Republicans could look for “anything they can latch onto to deny funding and support,” said Flavio Hickel, an assistant professor of political science at Washington College.

That scenario could also impact Biden, who is in the midst of his own campaign and, by many accounts, trailing former Republican President Donald Trump.

Political implications could be extended even further in Maryland. Whoever wins the race to succeed Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin will be expected to be a fierce defender of Baltimore and advocate for the federal funding. Former Gov. Larry Hogan is expected to be the Republican nominee for the seat, and the leading Democrats in the May 14 primary are U.S. Rep. David Trone and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks. Hogan has met with longshoremen in the wake of the collapse, while Trone has appeared at news conferences and was along for an official boat tour of the wreckage. Alsobrooks visited county dive teams at the site.

But for now, the pressure will most likely continue to fall on the two men leading the public response.

“This is already a really challenging, dicey moment in an election context and unfortunately the mayor and governor, they just have to be perfect to try to avoid giving Republicans any fodder to oppose any reconstruction efforts,” Hickel said.