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Baltimore's waterfront a political battleground

Dodging raindrops Thursday night, the incumbent senator sped from door to door in a South Baltimore neighborhood.

"I'm George Della," he said at one door. "Keep me in mind on election day." Then he was off to the next.

A few miles south in Westport his young upstart of an opponent, Bill Ferguson, was leading a group of supporters in the same activity.

"We've had the same senator for 27 years," he said. "I don't think he's pushing hard enough."

In a city where most incumbents face little or no opposition at the polls, the contest in Baltimore's 46th district is shaping up to be the most dynamic legislative race. Della and Ferguson each embody a different force tugging at the gentrifying district, an area that encompasses the entire waterfront from Curtis Bay to Dundalk.

Della, 67, is the old-school pol who started his public career as a Baltimore City councilman, winning a Senate seat the year Ferguson was born. When he knocks on a door, Della often knows the current occupants — and sometimes the families that lived there before.

Ferguson, 27, is a Teach for America import from Rockville with bundles of energy who is using social media to spread his message of school reform. He moved to Baltimore five years ago, though his campaign stresses that he's a "fifth-generation Marylander."

Only one other of the city's six senators faces any opposition in the Sept. 14 primary — the meaningful Election Day in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 9 to 1.

In that other race, former city Fire Department spokesman Hector Torres is challenging feisty Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the chair of the Senate Health, Education and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Conway irked some of her colleagues in the last legislative session for bottling up a bill that would have allowed Marylanders to order wine over the Internet. She denies that she killed the legislation, saying it perished in the House. But Torres has brought up the issue on the campaign trail.

"It smacks of the liquor lobby having undue influence on a legislator," he said.

Conway rejects the charge, and says the issue fails to resonate in her Northwest Baltimore district.

"They don't care about wine," she said. "Most of the time they say 'Huh? What are you talking about?' " She says the bill will likely pass, eventually.

Two of the city's 18 House members are retiring this year, leaving openings that have attracted crowded races. But in each case, the Democratic establishment has coalesced around a candidate, putting the new names on yard signs with incumbents.

The only House race where an incumbent appears vulnerable is in West Baltimore's 44th District, where former City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell is running for a seat in a district that some member of his family has represented for 34 years.

"Everyone claims that this is a year where incumbents are in trouble, but at least in the state legislature it does not seem that way," said retired Johns Hopkins political scientist Matthew Crenson, a longtime observer of local politics. "Many are completely unopposed."

The Della-Ferguson race is the big exception: "Two different political eras fighting it out with one another," is how Crenson described it. The candidates even live on opposite sides of the district: Della has a home in Federal Hill; Ferguson lives in Canton.

Ferguson runs a sophisticated and aggressive operation with a well-organized band of supporters.

"We measure everything we do," he said while walking in Westport, clutching a list of registered Democrats who vote in primary elections.

He says he knocks on 100 to 120 doors a night, and the campaign has so far hit 9,000. People who are not home or don't answer can expect a phone call. When contact is made, each potential voter is rated on a scale of one to five. Those with a rating of "one" are identified as strong Ferguson supporters, to be targeted for early voting efforts.

Ferguson's website showcases his Twitter feed and YouTube videos. His Facebook page has attracted more than 500 fans.

Della, in contrast, has no online presence. But Ferguson's camp took no chances about that: online records show that Friends of Bill Ferguson purchased the domain name http://www.georgedella.com the end of May.

"This view from the catbird's seat is really interesting," said Del. Carolyn Krysiak, who has declined to seek reelection after representing the area for 19 years. "We are seeing what changes have come about socially and how have those changes affected politics."

Krysiak listed factors in play: Will the young Obama voters come out? Will early voting make a difference?

"Are we going to see a shift to include the 30- and 40-years-olds voting?" she asked. "Or is the voting going to continue to be dominated by the 50-, 60- and 70-year-olds?"

Della says social media doesn't suit his style. "I'm accessible in person," he said. "People do not hesitate having a conversation with me and explaining their problems."

True to form, when he knocked on a South Baltimore door, he was greeted warmly by Joe Kotofski, 51, who said he's voted for Della since he was 18.

"If you ever need something he will try to help you," he said. Kotofski remembers landing a job as a lifeguard at a city pool, but being assigned across town. He turned to Della, who helped secure a transfer to a closer pool.

Kotofski choked up as he spoke of a godson who was murdered three months ago. Della came to his door to help. "He's not just a politician, he's a true friend," Kotofski said.

Ferguson, in contrast, must introduce himself to each potential voter. In Westport, he quickly runs through his history: he taught government at Southwestern High School, he's disgusted with the facilities at the city's public schools. He asks voters for their opinions — a tactic that goes over well.

"Some of the politicians talk over you, they don't give you a chance to talk," said Michelle Newkirk, 24, who gave Ferguson an earful about the condition of Curtis Bay Elementary School, where her son is in the fourth grade. She liked that he listened to her, and said she'd vote for him.

Ferguson also has found an ally in powerful developer Patrick Turner, who is building a $1.2 billion housing, retail and entertainment center on the Middle Branch. In a fundraising letter for Ferguson, he attacks the incumbent, saying that the district "cannot thrive with the anti-economic development representation" in the state Senate.

Turner and Della are longtime foes, and the two battled last legislative session after Della introduced a bill that would have prohibited Turner from obtaining any new liquor licenses in the footprint of Turner's planned Westport development. Della says the project was accidently included in a bill intended to reduce the number of corner liquor stores in that part of the district.

It remains to be seen if Ferguson can transfer his energy and endorsements into votes. On his website, he touts that he lives among "real people" in Baltimore. He notes his association with popular Baltimore City School CEO Dr. Andrés Alonso, who Della criticized last year after learning that the schools chief accepted a $29,000 bonus.

"It just didn't sit well with me," Della said.

Another high government contact has been edited out of Ferguson's online resume. Though he includes an award he received from Baltimore's Office of the Council President, he fails to mention that the office holder at the time was Sheila Dixon, who became mayor and then stepped down as part of a plea agreement earlier this year.

Asked about that omission, Ferguson said there are a lot of "distractions" in campaigns.

"Too often they get us away from the real issues," he said.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

http://twitter.com/annielinskey

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