Bill Henry paints an unflattering image of the influential state senator he's trying to unseat.
Joan Carter Conway, he says, doesn't attend enough community meetings. She has a history of siding with special interests. And, he contends, she has let her powerful committee chairmanship in the General Assembly lead to an inflated view of her significance.
"There's this whole culture in Annapolis where these people are treated as though they're tremendously important, and after some time, that goes to their heads," says Henry, 45, a two-term city councilman who is challenging Conway in the Democratic primary in Baltimore's 43rd District. "They forget they're the people we chose to speak for us."
Conway, a member of the Assembly since 1997, has a concise response for that line of argument: If Bill Henry wins, North Baltimore will be stripped of its leverage. As a freshman senator, he would be chairman of nothing, and his legislation would go nowhere. "He won't have the same influence," she says.
At the center of the contest is a debate about power. Has Conway, 63, wielded it wisely? And is it worth sacrificing for a fresh start?
Chairwoman of the Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, Conway has influenced countless pieces of legislation. She summarily killed a bill to ban fracking, drawing some criticism. She played a key role in securing $1.1 billion in construction funding for Baltimore schools, winning applause.
She cast a key, if reluctant, vote for same-sex marriage. And as an Ultimate Fighting Championship event descends upon Baltimore this weekend — generating millions of dollars in projected economic activity — mixed martial arts fans can thank Conway, who sponsored the legislation to legalize the sport in Maryland.
The veteran lawmaker — who once ran on a City Council ticket with now-Gov. Martin O'Malley — views her greatest achievements as supporting funding for education and senior housing. She said voters should support her for her "leadership skills, the position that I hold and the influence that I bring to the table."
Henry and his supporters argue her effort in the community has been lacking, and her priorities are often misplaced. They say she's too cozy with some in the liquor industry, who are donors to her campaign.
"She is far more concerned with protecting moneyed interests than I would like," Henry says.
Jody Landers, a real estate agent and former city councilman, who is supporting Henry, says Conway has been reluctant to accept change at the city liquor board, where her husband, Vernon "Tim" Conway, works as an inspector. Conway's campaign treasurer, Harvey Jones, is a liquor board commissioner.
After a state audit found widespread inefficiency, poor record keeping and inconsistent enforcement at the agency, legislation to impose changes cleared the General Assembly this year. As it moved forward, Conway added a last-minute amendment to ban new licenses in the Belvedere neighborhood — drawing criticism that the measure had not been discussed with the community. Others intervened to put her ban on hold for a year to give citizens time to weigh in.
"I don't think Joan has been very helpful with these whole liquor board issues," Landers says. "She was very close to that situation and really just accepted the status quo."
Conway brushes away such criticism, calling it "craziness" and saying she is not in fact close to the board. She notes her committee authorized the audit into the liquor board.
She has many supporters. With $134,000 in the bank, she has raised much more money than Henry, who has $8,000. She's also picked up endorsements from City Council members Mary Pat Clarke and Robert W. Curran.
"Bill is a very dear friend of mine. and we work together very well," Clarke says. "But Joan has been a great, great help for me and our mutual constituents — especially what she's done for children in my district." Clarke credits Conway with helping preserve funding for two child care centers.
For his part, Henry points to his tenure on the City Council, where he's gained a reputation as an active and independent voice. He has introduced legislation aimed at weakening Baltimore's "strong mayor" system of government, called on the state to cover costs from Maryland's tax bill errors, and opposed the $107 million in public financing for the Harbor Point development, arguing for a smaller incentive package.
Henry was a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage years before Conway endorsed the measure. "I introduced the first resolution for marriage equality on the council, years before it was fashionable," he says.
He realizes he's outgunned when it comes to campaign money, but he says he's not worried. He's been attending community meetings regularly for years, he says, and his signs proliferate in the district, which includes the neighborhoods of Charles Village, Better Waverly, Homeland, Lake Walker and Lauraville.
Henry says his grass-roots campaign will beat out a flood of glossy fliers.