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Baltimore mayor's race draws new money, same methods

Has there been enough media – or the right kinds of media – in Baltimore's mayoral campaign?

For many in Baltimore, the media campaign for mayor started in December with an attack ad featuring Sheila Dixon as the Grinch who stole Christmas.

By February, it seemed as if Baltimore viewers were being invited for a ride in David Warnock's old pickup every time they turned on TV.

And now on the eve of one of the most important elections in Baltimore history, the media conversation is largely about chicken wings, questionable campaign contributions and Catherine Pugh. That's when it isn't about countercharges from Pugh of voter intimidation by Dixon's campaign, or fliers from Elizabeth Embry characterizing both front-runners as behaving illegally.

If you add in presidential TV ads and all those "dark" dollars from super PACs in the hotly contested race for Barbara Mikulski's Senate seat, more money has been spent on Baltimore TV in advance of Tuesday's vote than in any other primary in recent memory, according to TV executives here. And yet, the question must still be asked: Has there been enough media — or, at least, enough of the right kind of media?

What happened, for example, to civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson's message and all the social media change his candidacy promised? With all our new and compelling ways to communicate, how is it that we in Baltimore are back to a media discourse dominated by TV ads and fliers from Pugh, Dixon and now Embry trading last-minute accusations of voter suppression, buying votes and possibly criminal behavior? Is it still all about the money, TV and old-school attack fliers in Baltimore politics even after all the talk of digital media, democracy and how last year's riots were supposed to have changed everything?

"In talking about media and an election like this, you have to look at two different things: media spending and media performance," says Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs. "So far, we have seen a huge amount of spending by individual candidates, PACs and others on paid-for media in Baltimore."

Dan Joerres, president of WBAL-TV, estimates that $5 million will be spent on all political advertising on broadcast TV in Baltimore between April 1 and Election Day. He estimates overall spending since the start of the year at $7 million.

And that figure does not include money spent on cable TV, because the Federal Communications Commission does not demand the same standards of disclosure for cable as it does for broadcast stations. By my count, six mayoral candidates, two presidential contenders, both Senate candidates and at least four PACS have advertised on cable in Baltimore since the start of the year. That's a lot of undisclosed dollars.

And while it is hard to calculate direct cause and effect for political advertising, the ads do appear to have made a difference in some cases.

After spending more than $100,000 in two weeks on the launch of a TV ad campaign, Pugh surged from 2 points behind Dixon to 9 points ahead, according to a poll done for The Baltimore Sun and University of Baltimore

And of the voters who made up their minds about a candidate during that period, 45 percent decided to back Pugh. Before her big ad buy, she was getting less than half that at 21 percent.

"Candidates who have invested in television have moved in this race," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that ran the poll.

Beyond Pugh, Raabe also pointed to David Warnock and Elizabeth Embry, who moved into third and fifth place, respectively, in that poll, which was released on March 10.

Meanwhile, Dixon has had to cope since Christmas with attack ads online and on TV. The latest efforts from the PAC behind the negative ads, Clean Slate Baltimore, include one now running on multiple channels with speakers talking to the camera as if they were talking to Dixon. They say they can forgive but not forget that she "stole money meant for poor folks at Christmas."

Less-costly fliers have become the place for the nastiest attacks in recent weeks, with Embry hitting as hard at Pugh and Dixon as the two front-runners were at each other.

"Pugh & Dixon: Caught Red-Handed," the latest Embry flier shouts beneath a montage that blends photographs of Pugh and Dixon to make it seem as if both have engaged in illegal activities.

Hartley, who came to Baltimore in July, describes the TV ads in this campaign as "same-old, same-old." And while he believes that negative ads can "educate" as well as "tear down," he says he's not seeing much educating taking place in the final days of the election.

"But what happens here that I've not seen in the many other places that I have studied and lived are these forums that take place on an almost nightly basis," Hartley said. "I've been amazed at the sheer number of forums that are held — and that most candidates attend. Hard questions are asked, issues are explored, and that's impressive. And as result, there is a deeper conversation about this election that's taking place beyond the ads and television."

Because he considers such forums, which are often staged by newspapers and radio and TV stations, part of media performance, Hartley gives Baltimore media "a pretty high grade" for the their work in the Democratic primary.

"If people are paying attention, there's no way they are coming out of those forums with only sound bites," Hartley said.

"But are they paying attention?" he added. "If you're watching TV at home every night and that's all you're doing, and you're not going to any of the forums, then you are probably just seeing the ads, and like most of America, you are only getting a broad brush stroke introducing the positives of one candidate or tearing down another."

While involvement in such forums is only one aspect of media performance, I think Baltimore media have performed pretty well overall in this election.

The media are not to blame for the level to which the mayoral conversation has sunk. We mainly report on what the candidates do and say. And if there is one thing some candidates and campaigns have traditionally done in Baltimore and Maryland politics is behave badly the closer it gets to Election Day. Remember Julius Henson, a consultant to Robert Ehrlich's campaign, and his conviction for robocalls intended to keep city voters from going to the polls in the 2010 gubernatorial election?

But there is one aspect of our performance that does trouble me. I keep feeling the conversation about what we want our next mayor to be should have included more space for Mckesson's voice, no matter how low he polled. Beyond reporting, we do have an obligation to help shape such conversations.

We in the media are constantly calling for more transparency and an end to dark money in campaign funding, and who has told voters more about where his money comes from than Mckesson?

It's all there at crowdpac.com, a nonpartisan campaign crowdfunding site. DeRay Mckesson: $265,777 raised from 5,420 donors. And you can see the names and the amount each gave.

Mckesson "raised more online donations than any local candidate for office in the country," according to Liz Jaff, political director of Crowdpac. "DeRay's average donation was $48. That's not typical in local politics."

Voters will not have any answers by Tuesday on various complaints filed about the sources of campaign contributions and PAC funding for some of the other candidates. We will probably never know where some of that money came from.

But everyone does know how desperately new ideas and reform are needed at city hall. And putting your body on the line in the streets of Ferguson or Baltimore, as Mckesson did with Black Lives Matter, certainly shoots you to the head of the class in my mind when it comes to serious reform credentials.

I understand all the arguments about when you have 13 candidates, you can't have a coherent debate with all of them onstage. And I understand making that cut based on polls.

But when you do that, you marginalize and minimize the voices of those candidates who are on the wrong end of it.

"The problem with the polls is that they become predictive," Mckesson said in a telephone interview last week.

Mckesson did dozens of neighborhood living-room forums and streamed them live on Facebook. Watching some of them, I couldn't help but feel we are poorer for not seeing and hearing on the larger stage of TV debates what this former head of human resources in Minneapolis public schools had to say about reforming Baltimore's troubled system.

Instead, what we're mostly hearing about this week are old-school campaign attacks about chicken wings and allegations as to who is more ethically challenged — The Grinch or the candidate handing out junk food.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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