One in a series of profiles of candidates for mayor
Elizabeth Embry tries to make a 20-minute sale to the 50 potential voters jammed inside Bertha's upstairs dining room.
Her pitch: She's a fixer driven to make the "complex, almost $3 billion mess" of city government work just as well for people in West Baltimore as it does for residents of Roland Park.
"If you don't have good leadership in City Hall, nothing else works," the 39-year-old political newcomer tells the crowd at the Fells Point restaurant.
The experience of campaigning for mayor of Baltimore is a little like speed dating for Embry, a former Baltimore prosecutor and division chief in the Maryland attorney general's office. A recent poll for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore found she had the support of just 5 percent of likely voters in the April 26 Democratic primary.
Animated and earnest, Embry knows she must get in front of as many people as possible to have a chance at beating her better-known opponents.
Though her family is well connected in Baltimore's political and business world, Embry doesn't share the mainstream name recognition of some of the other candidates. That makes winning the election challenging, but not impossible, says Todd Eberly, a St. Mary's College political science professor who follows Baltimore politics.
He says she might catch fire once voters hear her message.
"This sense that Baltimore has been mismanaged for a long time is a widespread belief," he said. "Her message, 'I can bring managerial skills to this job that have been lacking,' there is a segment of the electorate that is going to appeal to."
Embry, a runner who lives in Waverly, has taken a leave of absence as chief of the criminal division in the attorney general's office while she campaigns. She spent four years as top deputy to then-Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein after working as acting director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice.
She is the daughter of prominent philanthropist Robert C. Embry Jr. and sculptor and arts advocate Mary Ann E. Mears. She graduated from City College, Yale University and Columbia University School of Law.
As she was growing up, Embry said, dinner table conversations with her parents and three younger sisters often included housing and education policy and how infusing the arts in city life enhances quality of life and learning. Such an upbringing compelled her to want to work to improve the city, she said.
She sees herself as a blend between her mother's artistic spirit and the data-driven approach of her father, the city's former housing chief, past president of the city and state school boards, and the Abell Foundation's president.
But will Baltimore's many residents whose life story looks different be able to relate to her?
"I have spent my life in the city. I was part of the public school system," Embry said. "There's not one common experience in Baltimore. There's 600,000, essentially."
She says her work in the criminal justice system as a prosecutor interacting with "thousands of victims, witnesses and defendants" in traffic, drug and violent crime cases has helped her understand the ways the city and its various systems serve and fail to serve the public.
Susan Leviton, a longtime child welfare advocate who is Embry's campaign chairwoman, said she is convinced Embry's message and vision for Baltimore will sway voters.
"She cares deeply and passionately about our city," said Leviton, a retired University of Maryland law professor. "To be the mayor of Baltimore at this time, you have to wake up every morning and have on your mind, 'How can I make this city better?'
"But passion is not enough," Leviton said. "She knows how to manage people. She knows how to manage programs."
Embry spent most of her time at the Fells Point event talking about her plans to take an active role in overseeing the city school system and its 85,000 students. She wants to find ways to make the system operate more effectively, in part by measuring performance and outcomes through CitiStat.
"Our school system right now is faltering," she said. "We had some real hard-fought gains around graduation rates and test scores, but right now our system cannot count students, cannot pay teachers and cannot account for the money."
Embry said that as an assistant city solicitor, she saw "in intimate detail how our city functions and oftentimes how it does not, how agencies work and how they're held accountable or not accountable." She worked settling contract disputes, writing legislation, representing the city before the liquor board and defending the city on court appeals.
Shelby Skeabeck, like others at the Bertha's gathering, left intrigued by Embry, thinking she was personable, articulate and qualified for the job — but not sold.
"I'm still learning about the other candidates," said Skeabeck, an attorney from Fells Point.
Embry's political adversaries have questioned whether she can be independent despite her well-connected family. Real estate developer David S. Cordish — a family friend Embry has known since childhood — and others who have ties to him have given more than $60,000 to Embry's campaign.
Half of her $393,000 in contributions, as reported in January, came from 35 donors, including $24,000 from four members of the family of developer John A. Luetkemeyer, also a family friend.
Embry said her donors have given to her campaign because they believe in her ability to lead the city.
"I have roots in the city, which means I have friendships," she said. "Some are developers. I have friendships with people who are coming out of prison. I have friendships with people who are community leaders. That's the nature of growing up in the city."
Eberly, the political science professor, said the donations raise legitimate questions for voters.
"Does she have the support of the people, shall we say, or does she have the support of the establishment or a political class?" Eberly said. "This is not a good election year for people whose connections come from the political class. You have an electorate that is angry, that is pushing back against politics as usual."
David Nitkin, policy adviser and communications director for Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, said Embry has shown an ability to listen, react to new information and implement big-picture ideas.
"Elizabeth came in with a mission — to re-energize and refocus the criminal division in the attorney general's office," Nitkin. a former Baltimore Sun editor and reporter, said in an email. "There are important cases that if not pursued here would really fall through the cracks. Elizabeth saw this, and made it her focus.
"What she really wanted to do was root out fraud and corruption in government, and make sure that vulnerable populations were protected. So she built a team, and energized a team, to do just that."
As Embry works to make her case directly to the voters with each community association meeting, neighborhood forum and house party, she tries to leave them with a simple message:
"Right now, more than ever, it matters that we have a mayor who can get the management of city government done, make city government effective, responsive and predictable.
"I understand how systems work, and I know how to fix them, and I know how to bring people together."
Job: Chief of the criminal division, Maryland attorney general's office
Experience: Top deputy to then-Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein; felony prosecutor; acting director of Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice; assistant city solicitor
Education: City College High School; bachelor's in ethics, politics and economics, Yale University; Columbia University School of Law