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Attention Baltimore: There's still one more election

Anyone peeking in the window at Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's campaign headquarters on Howard Street Friday morning could be forgiven for thinking the mayor's race had ended.

The view included stacks of taped-up moving boxes, cleared desks and a freshly shampooed carpet. None of the mayor's black-and-yellow campaign signs hung on walls. The lights were off.

"This is my least favorite part of the campaign," campaign manager Travis Tazelaar said.

Technically, of course, Rawlings-Blake, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and other Democrats who won the party primary on Tuesday face opponents in the Nov. 8 general election.

But in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 9 to 1, where Democrats hold the mayor's office and all 15 seats on the City Council, and where voters haven't elected a Republican mayor since the 1960s, the odds of any of the challengers delivering a knockout punch — or even raising a black eye — are long.

None of the 10 Republican candidates are known in city power circles, and none have given any sign that they have the resources to introduce themselves to voters in this overwhelmingly Democratic city.

The general election "is going to be very, very boring," said Donald F. Norris, the chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "All it will do is ratify the result of the primary."

The Republicans "will all lose" promised Norris, who pointed to the voter registration figures in Baltimore: 292,000 Democrats and 32,000 Republicans.

Tazelaar and other Democratic operatives insisted last week that they would treat the general election like any other contest, and would not take a single vote for granted.

"We intend to run a campaign," Tazelaar said. But when asked to name the Republican mayoral candidate, he paused and said: "I honestly don't know."

His confusion is understandable. As of Friday afternoon, the two candidates for the GOP mayoral nomination remained locked in a dead heat: Alfred Griffin led Vicki Ann Harding by 21 votes, with absentee and provisional ballots still to be counted.

Elections officials have until next Friday to certify the results of the primary.

Griffin, 38, claims his mother's home on Greenmount Avenue as his residence in voter registration records. No campaign signs stood on the lawn; neighbors said they were unaware that he was running for mayor.

Griffin spent the end of last week ducking in and out of meetings for the international film festival he is organizing for October. He did not attend candidate forums during the primary campaign.

He said he decided to run for mayor to fix long-standing problems in the city.

"Every generation has a responsibility to the generation before and the generation behind it," he said. He spoke of chronic problems with the city school system: "I feel like it's my time to be responsible."

The other Republican candidate, Vicki Ann Harding, did not respond to emails.

She attended several candidate forums, and drew applause with a searing criticism of the city's public schools. As mayor, she said, she would "criminally indict" city schools CEO Andrés Alonso, Gov. Martin O'Malley, former state Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, Rawlings-Blake and "their crew" for failing to improve the system.

Harding, 52, said she would also dismantle the Baltimore Development Corp., which she said was too cozy with billionaire developers. She railed against the city's business community and, in a departure from the Republican position, decried tax cuts for the wealthy.

Together, the two Republicans managed 1,692 votes in the primary. Rawlings-Blake attracted more than 38,000 on her own; the Democratic candidates combined for more than 72,000.

Justin D. Ready, the executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said it can be "tough" to be a Republican in Charm City, but he urged Baltimore's conservatives to send a message in November.

"There are folks who are tired of the constant bad news that comes out of Baltimore. The past corruption. The fact that nothing ever seems to change," said Ready, who is also a state delegate from Carroll County.

"We're encouraging our people to get out and have that conversation," Ready said.

The City Council district with the most Republicans — the 1st, which includes the waterfront neighborhoods of Canton and Fells Point — did not draw a GOP challenger this year.

In the district with the second-most Republicans — the 11th, which includes downtown and Federal Hill — Democratic Councilman William H. Cole IV will face Duane Shelton, the head of the Baltimore City Republican Party.

"We are going to be outspent," Shelton said. "It is time for us to out-hustle."

Shelton aims to elect at least one Republican to the City Council this year. "We want to crack this thing open," Shelton said. "We want to get somebody elected somewhere in Baltimore."

He said he suspects that many of the city's Democrats are closeted Republicans — voters who mark themselves as a "D" to have voice in the primary.

Persuading these voters to show their true colors in the general election will require changing the perception that a Republican can't win in Charm City, he said.

"The goal is to convince people it can be done," Shelton said.

Ready said "having a Republican or two on the City Council would be a very good thing for the city. Having an exchange of ideas and some new ideas."

But with the primary over, the campaigns are likely to be less visible in the weeks before the general election. As former Mayor Sheila Dixon put it, Democrats will ensure that there "is a presence out there" to remind voters to go to the polls in November. But, she said, "you do very little" actual campaigning from here on out."

"You don't put a lot of effort behind it," Dixon said. "The primary is the key election here."

She said she could not remember the name of the Republican she defeated in 2007.

What does the lopsided competition mean for turnout?

If history is any guide, much of the voting public will stay home. In 2007, the general election drew about half as many voters than the primary.

Turnout last week was historically abysmal, which suggests that the numbers in November could be still lower.

Nevertheless, the city has budgeted about $2 million to staff five early-voting centers for six days in the end of October and early November. The local elections board will operate 290 polling locations on Election Day.

After just 23 percent of registered voters participated in the primary, city elections director Armstead B.C. Jones Sr. predicted a general election turnout of 12 percent. He said he's examining ways to reduce the number of staff needed on Election Day to the "bare minimum."

Some have proposed improving turnout by aligning the city's election cycle with those of the federal and state governments. At present, the mayor and city council are elected odd-numbered years; the president, governor and federal and state lawmakers are elected in even-numbered years.

But making such a change hasn't been popular here among elected leaders. One reason: It erases an advantage ambitious city politicians have over colleagues in other parts of the state. Baltimore elected officials — including two of the state's past four governors — have taken advantage of the staggered election cycle to pursue higher office without having to give up their city positions.

Baltimore Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this report.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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