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Conaway loses City Council seat in an upset

Primary election defeat is part of power shift in city government

By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

8:44 PM EDT, September 14, 2011

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In an election with few surprises, Baltimore City Councilwoman Belinda M. Conaway stood out. The two-term incumbent lost to a political newcomer in a relatively close race that was called Wednesday morning.

With the possible exception of one council race that is still too close to call, Conaway was the only sitting member defeated in Tuesday's Democratic primary. After being dogged in recent months by questions about where she lives, she lost to Nick Mosby, an electrical engineer from Reservoir Hill, by 648 votes.

The upset not only deals a blow to a West Baltimore political machine — three of Conaway's immediate family members hold public office — but it also means that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has secured a supermajority of allies on the council. Baltimore already has a strong-mayor system of government and a city charter that gives very little power to the council.

Rawlings-Blake endorsed Mosby and Brandon M. Scott, who won the Democratic primary in the council's only open seat this year — a Northeast Baltimore district that had been represented by former Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo for 20 years.

Securing the party nominations means an almost certain win in November's general election because Baltimore's electorate is heavily Democratic.

In a brief interview Wednesday morning, Conaway said the defeat had not left her dismayed and said she looked forward to spending more time with her family.

"I don't have any regrets — none," said Conaway, 43. "There's a lot of support for me and for my family. We remain positive and remain committed to the community. Life goes on. The world keeps on turning."

Conaway's family has won re-election to various offices over the years with a core group of backers, some of whom have been known to dress up in bear costumes.

The Conaway political machine, which has advertised itself in campaign literature as "The Four Bears," includes the councilwoman's father, Frank M. Conaway Sr., the clerk of the city's Circuit Court; her mother, Mary Conaway, the city's register of wills; and her brother, Frank M. Conaway Jr., who represents the city in the House of Delegates.

Frank Conaway Sr., who has mounted four campaigns for mayor, lost his latest bid on Tuesday. He was one of several challengers to Rawlings-Blake, who nonetheless garnered more than 50 percent of the vote. Conaway retains his court job.

In Belinda Conaway's race for District 7, her residency became an issue. She filed a $21 million libel lawsuit against a blogger she claimed had defamed her by reporting that she signed a document that claimed a Randallstown home in Baltimore County as her primary residence. Conaway dropped the suit last month.

Some political observers say the lawsuit likely cost her the election.

"Belinda's Conaway's mistake was not so much that she may have had a place of residence out of her district, but she chose to make such an issue of it by filing a lawsuit," said Matthew Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.

"If she had just let it go by," Crenson said, "she may very well have been re-elected. She was the victim of her own political miscalculation."

Mosby said he saw an opportunity when Conaway filed the suit. In 2007 he ran unsuccessfully for City Council against William H. Cole IV, before Reservoir Hill was redistricted from District 11 to District 7.

"I can remember the day I was driving to Northern Virginia and my wife called and said, 'Councilwoman Belinda Conaway just filed a $20 million lawsuit,'" said Mosby, 32. "My initial reaction was why would she draw more attention to this issue?"

"I knew they had the Conaway name, but I saw it as now or never," he added. "If she was going to be able to escape this, she would be untouchable. It was now or never."

While the council's other incumbents largely sailed to easy victories, Warren Branch, who represents District 13, garnered just 15 votes more than challenger Shannon Sneed, a television news producer. With such a slim margin, Sneed said in an e-mail Wednesday that she was waiting on all the votes to be counted. "It is not over," she wrote.

The shifting power dynamic on the City Council also has implications for Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who won his party's nomination Tuesday against four challengers. The Democrat faces Republican David Wiggins in November.

Rawlings-Blake initially supported Cole for council president, a position she vacated when she was elevated to the mayor's office after Mayor Sheila Dixon's resignation. As for Conaway, Young called her "one of the most effective" council members and "an excellent budget chairperson."

"I'm going to miss her," said Young.

Crenson said that because of the mayor-council president dynamic, Young could suffer politically if he challenges Rawlings-Blake.

"Usually the mayor and the president work pretty closely together," said Crenson. "If he does, in fact, challenge her, it could be serious trouble. The City Council president is sort of the floor manager for legislation, putting together a majority of support. If you want to get bills passed, you don't want to be an antagonist of the mayor."

Scott, winner of the District 2 Democratic primary and a protege of Rawlings-Blake who previously worked for the mayor's Office of Neighborhoods and for Rawlings-Blake when she was council president, played down any potential clashes. Scott said he counts both Young and the mayor as mentors.

"They can be at odds, and guess what, I can be odds with both of them," said Scott, 27. "It won't be awkward for me."

The council president, who won 75 percent of the primary vote in his first citywide election, said he's ready to work with all of council members, whether they're supporters of the mayor or not. He said there's no lingering animosity.

"Anybody who knows me knows I don't hold grudges," said Young. "I'm looking forward to a whole new working relationship with the mayor, and I'm pretty sure she's looking forward to it too."

Nonetheless, he added: "We're not going to be a rubber stamp for the mayor."

"There's going to be some things that we're going to agree on and some that we're not," he said. "I'm looking for a cordial relationship with the administration because the ultimate thing is doing the work and the will of the people that we serve."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com