Top Ten Local News Stories of 2015

1. Freddie Gray dies, outrage ensues. When police chased down and arrested Freddie Gray, 25, on April 12, they could not have known what forces they were unleashing. Gray's death seven days later from severe spinal-cord injuries he received in the back of a police van touched off a week of protests that culminated in the April 27 riot, which commenced just hours after Gray's funeral and resulted in a weeklong citywide curfew. The city eventually agreed to pay $6.4 million to Gray's family and when Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby criminally charged six police officers who were involved with the arrest and its aftermath, she touched off celebration in the streets, a concert from Prince, outrage among police partisans, and a new celebrity for the young state's attorney.

2. Three hundred murders, and counting. Baltimore had a population of 736,000 in 1990. There were 353 murders in 1993, a rate of 48 per 100,000. That is a horrific homicide rate, on par with the worst years of the worst cities in the United States ever. This year Baltimore is worse. With a population of 623,000 today, the 336 murders already recorded as of Dec. 21 puts the city at 53.9 per 100,000. St. Louis, Milwaukee, and other municipalities are seeing a similar spike, but Baltimore's 2015 homicide rate is on par with some of the most dangerous municipalities in Brazil. It exceeds the murder rate in Cape Town, South Africa, which, outside of officially recognized war zones, is considered the most violent city on that continent. The carnage is especially devastating in African-American communities. As of mid-December at least 290 of those murdered—86 percent of the total—were African-American men. Approximately 30 percent of Baltimoreans are African-American men. This means that, within the black male population of Baltimore City, the murder rate is more than 150 per 100,000—nearly three times the city's murder rate as a whole. The homicide rate in the U.S. nationally is 5 per 100,000. That means that a Baltimorean is 10 times more likely to be killed than the average American, and a black male in Baltimore City is 30 times more likely to be murdered than the average American. If black Baltimore were its own city, its rate of killings would put it fifth in the world, behind only San Pedro Sula, Honduras; Caracas, Venezuela; Acapulco, Mexico; and João Pessola, Brazil. Why is this happening? Is it because the police "took a knee" after the Freddie Gray protests and subsequent riot? Is it because criminals are emboldened by charges against police officers in Gray's murder? Or is there some other reason, perhaps revolving around unseen changes in the immense drug trade that serves as one of the city's largest industries by both revenue and employment? Whatever the reason, Baltimore has regained its ignominious distinction as one of America's most violent cities, and while that creates thousands of personal tragedies citywide, it also hurts everyone in the region.

3. Tenants sue Baltimore Housing, saying maintenance workers demanded sex in exchange for home repairs. On Sept. 28, seven women, all public housing tenants, filed a civil suit against two maintenance employees at the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC), charging that they sexually abused and demanded sexual favors from the women in exchange for needed repairs. Since then, another maintenance employee was named in the suit and 12 more women have come forward with affidavits, bringing the total number of plaintiffs to 19. The Afro broke the story in July, but it was not until the suit was filed that other media picked it up and State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby opened an investigation. The alleged extortion of sex for repair work was but the latest in a string of scandals at the housing agency, which is among the largest in the U.S. and enjoys unusual budgetary autonomy, sitting on an average annual surplus of $112 million while more than 29,000 people languish on a waiting list for housing. HABC Executive Director Paul Graziano has shaken off demands by activists that he resign, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has pledged her support for the longest-serving agency head in Baltimore City.

4. Gov. Hogan gets cancer, beats it. On the afternoon of June 22 Gov. Larry Hogan, then in office for just five months, called a press conference to announce that he had been diagnosed with stage-three non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a "very aggressive" cancer, in the governor's words. With a reported 60 tumors in his body, the governor began an 18-week course of chemotherapy in Baltimore, which had the salutary effect of extending the normal "honeymoon period" a newly elected governor enjoys. Out rolled "Hogan Strong" wristbands and away scurried political critics. The critics have stayed away even since the governor's Nov. 16 announcement that his cancer is in remission.

5. Sen. Mikulski announces retirement. On March 2, after nearly three decades in the U.S. Senate, Barbara Mikulski announced that she will not seek re-election in 2016. The 78-year-old, who President Obama called "an institution in the United States Senate," surprised political types and set off a fierce game of political musical chairs to see who will succeed her. Every sitting Maryland congressman considered a run, along with former governors, former lieutenant governors, and the various ambitious wannabes that any race attracts. So far only eight candidates have announced—Democratic U.S. Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards and Republican Baltimore County state Del. Kathy Szeliga, former aid to Gov. Robert Ehrlich Chrys Kefalas, Joseph Hooe, Daniel Schroeder, Anthony Seda, and Richard Douglas, a former Pentagon official who lost a Senate bid in 2012. Something like a dozen more potential candidates are said to be jockeying for position, however. Mikulski, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1976 and is the longest-serving congresswoman ever, rose to become the first woman chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee—among the most powerful roosts in American politics—before losing it last year as Republicans took control of the Senate. She said she wants to spend her last year or two in office fighting for her constituents.

6. Mayor declines to run for mayor; everyone else jumps into race. "Over the past few months, as I've been making plans for what I know is a vigorous campaign, I've realized that every moment that I spent planning for a campaign for re-election was time that I was taking away from my current responsibilities to the city—to the city that I love, to the city that I took an oath to serve," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a press conference on Sept. 11, reading from a prepared statement. That she was facing likely defeat—with even her campaign runners jumping ship—was not a consideration, the mayor said. Her departure opened the floodgates for well-meaning and, well, scheming pretenders to the city's throne, with 16 people currently officially filed and more sure to come. There is one candidate standing above the rest, however: former Mayor Sheila Dixon, whose chaotic and scandal-plagued term ended with her probation before judgment on theft charges and abrupt retirement. Baltimoreans love and miss her, though—as evidenced by the standing ovation she received from those gathered at Freddie Gray's funeral.

7. Gov. Hogan kills the Red Line. Gov. Hogan announced in late June that he was killing the proposed $2.9 billion Red Line light rail/subway project that was slated to connect the east and west sides of the city. The governor pledged to apply the money that was earmarked for the Red Line to highway projects across the state, and then focus on improving the city's beleaguered bus service. (Soon after, in releasing his map of planned state road improvements, the governor completely left out Baltimore City.) The death of the Red Line disappointed transit partisans and political players alike, who saw in the project hundreds or thousands of well-paying construction jobs leading up to even more jobs made possible by the transit line itself. Nope, said the governor.

8. Mayor fires police commissioner. Anthony Batts' three-year shift as Baltimore's police commissioner was marked by rancor and rising distrust within the ranks of police officers, many of whom thought the California transplant was insensitive to Baltimore's needs and unwilling to support the rank and file. Batts considered himself a reformer, and he tried to professionalize a department that has for decades dealt with high crime, low pay, and spotty training (to put it kindly). His abrupt dismissal on July 8 as city crime spiked and some officers still nursed wounds received in the April 27 riot put an end to all that, and Batts got a $190,000 payout plus a big pile of unused leave. Kevin Davis, Batts' replacement, so far seems more in keeping with Baltimore's police traditions, for better and worse. Batts shared his analysis of the situation in an October police management forum: "Is this going to be the tactic, where police don't feel supported, so they allow the crime rate to go up, and the reformers lose their job?"

9. Kevin Plank's big plans. More so than Domino's, H&S or—certainly by now—Sparrows Point, Under Armour is the corporate face of Baltimore City. A fortune-1000 company on a growth path to hit the 500 rankings within a year or so, Under Armour represents the most dynamic and powerful home-grown marketing empire the city has ever seen (the actual manufacturing is subcontracted to unaffiliated companies in Asia, Central and South America, and Mexico). So CEO Kevin Plank's move to re-establish a new headquarters and mixed-use development in Port Covington is huge.

Sagamore Development, named for a spectacular and historic horse farm that Plank bought a few years back, already has more than 240 acres and is reported to be angling to buy two city parks as well. The master plan has not yet been unveiled, but certainly includes a huge "campus" for the company's bushy-tailed young go-getters, plus lots of gentrified, hip, "disruptive" style favored by the nouveau riche. He even has his own "starchitect" in Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the firm behind the glass-box Apple stores that dot high-rent districts around the world.

10. The dirigible and the dirg, risible. Two over-budget gasbags escaped Maryland in search of bluer skies. Both crashed ignominiously and immediately, but the national media only noticed the Army's JLENS aerostat, which deflated, tangled in trees, in Anthony Township, Pennsylvania on Oct. 29. This put a sharp and public end to a $2.7 billion waste of taxpayer money, as the Pentagon suspended the JLENS program indefinitely. Meanwhile, in Iowa, New Hampshire, and desolate elsewheres, former Gov. Martin O'Malley, still unaccountably inflated, cartwheels like a tumbleweed in obscurity. His campaign has wasted only $2.5 million, so far.

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