One week before Baltimore's Democratic primary, the race for City Council president remains extremely tight, with Michael Sarbanes, a longtime activist, and incumbent Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake attracting nearly equal support, according to a new poll conducted for The Sun.
With a sizable number of undecided voters -- 28 percent -- the candidates are battling for every vote in the final stretch of the campaign in what will likely be the closest election Sept. 11.
Thirty-three percent of likely Baltimore Democratic primary voters polled said they would vote for Sarbanes versus 30 percent for Rawlings-Blake. The difference is within the poll's margin of error, which is no more than 4.1 percentage points.
But there are signs that the race could be shifting in Sarbanes' favor, said Steve Raabe, president and founder of OpinionWorks, the independent, nonpartisan Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll for The Sun.
Sarbanes has a slight edge among undecided voters who say they are leaning toward one candidate or the other, as well as among those who have made their decisions within the past month, according to the poll.
"It's a totally different race from the mayor's race, and [Rawlings-Blake] has every possibility of winning this race and very well could, especially depending on the turnout," said Raabe. "But at the moment, the trend is toward [Sarbanes]."
The race is shaping up to be far more competitive than the mayor's race. The Sun reported yesterday that in the same poll, Mayor Sheila Dixon has a nearly insurmountable lead over her opponents. Dixon leads her closest competitor, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., by 46 percent to 19 percent, with none of the other candidates garnering more than 5 percent.
Sarbanes, who is on leave from his position as executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, is the son of Paul S. Sarbanes, the longest-serving senator in Maryland's history. His brother, John P. Sarbanes, was elected to Congress last fall. A former top aide to former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Michael Sarbanes is making his first run for citywide office.
Rawlings-Blake, the daughter of the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings, was elected to the City Council in 1995, the youngest person ever to win a seat. Her colleagues elected her City Council president in January, making this her first citywide campaign, too.
Rawlings-Blake and Sarbanes are among four candidates running in the Democratic primary for City Council president. Also running are City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who captured 7 percent in the poll, and Charles Ulysses Smith, a frequent candidate, who failed to register any support.
OpinionWorks interviewed 559 likely Democratic primary voters from Aug. 26 through Aug. 28 for the poll.
Both Rawlings-Blake and Sarbanes picked up support since The Sun's last poll. In that poll, conducted from July 8 through July 10, 27 percent of voters said they would vote for Sarbanes versus 26 percent for Rawlings-Blake, with 37 percent of the electorate undecided.
Both candidates had high favorability and recognition ratings in the more recent poll. "Her recognition is just slightly lower than his," said Raabe. "He obviously benefits a lot from the association from his family, but so does she."
Rawlings-Blake -- who has been endorsed by Dixon -- had a higher crossover rate with the mayor, according to the poll results, but it wasn't a "one-for-one thing," said Raabe.
Rawlings-Blake was ahead among African-American voters, getting 38 percent of voters, compared with 20 percent for Sarbanes. Sarbanes captured 50 percent of the white voters polled, compared with Rawlings-Blake's 21 percent.
Among women voters, the two were nearly even, and among men, Sarbanes was ahead by 6 percentage points. "She's not getting the women's vote the way that Dixon is." said Raabe. "She has not really locked down the African-American vote, and even though it's on balance leaning toward her or it's for her... it's not the Dixon phenomenon."
Donald F. Norris, professor and chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said he was surprised by the results. "I am very, very surprised that Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is not doing better," said Norris. "He's doing twice as well as white candidates in the past running against credible black candidates. He's doing twice as well among whites as Kurt Schmoke. Both results are really interesting."
Still, Norris thinks that if voter turnout is high and a large percentage of African-Americans come out to vote, Rawlings-Blake will win.
Meanwhile, Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs, said if turnout is not as high --which is likely, given the large number of undecided voters at such a late stage -- the race could break in favor of Sarbanes since white and more affluent voters will tend to vote for him.
Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, noted that Sarbanes has not been using his father, while Rawlings-Blake has invoked her father in a radio and a television ad. Sarbanes' brother referred to his father in two television ads in his successful congressional race last year.
"The interesting difference in this is that he doesn't trade explicitly on his father's name, she does," said Crenson. He said Sarbanes' slight edge might be because voters want a City Council president who is not as close to the mayor as Rawlings-Blake is perceived to be.
Sarbanes frequently says he will not be a "rubber stamp" for the mayor if he is elected and believes the job's potential has not been fulfilled by previous officials.
Arnold Paskoff of Otterbein said he is not happy with the way the City Council is being run and will likely vote for Sarbanes.
"I'm very displeased with a lot of the things that are happening in the city right now," said the 65-year-old investment counselor, who responded to the poll. "I'm hoping that a City Council president that's new and somewhat independent of the mayor will do a good job. I don't want another City Council president that will just be a lapdog to the mayor. I'm tired of the old regime. I think we need some new blood in there."
But Paskoff said Sarbanes' father was another draw. "I like his heritage, I like the bloodline," he said. "I'm a fan of Senator Sarbanes."
Clarence Barnes said he intends to vote for Rawlings-Blake because of her extensive experience and her father. "She's been there a pretty good while," said Barnes, 72, a retired librarian who lives in Northwood. "I like her experience and having her dad's tutelage. And I think she loves politics and loves what she does. I tend to like foot soldiers and people who are rock-steady."
Melanie Hood-Wilson said she will likely vote for Sarbanes, though she could change her mind. She pointed to his involvement in his own community in West Baltimore as appealing. "I like that he's a person who works with his community association and neighborhood watch," said Hood-Wilson, 36, an educator who lives in Fells Point.
Hood-Wilson grew in a neighborhood near Sarbanes' Irvington home. "The fact that he has options and he chooses to be in Irvington, which is a neighborhood that has a lot of potential but has some significant issues that they're struggling with, is really impressive."
Rawlings-Blake has been stepping up attacks on Sarbanes in recent weeks, focusing on his public safety record as head of the state's Office of Crime Control and Safety between 1996 and 2000. On Friday, City Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young, a Rawlings-Blake supporter, held a news conference criticizing Sarbanes for what Young said was exaggerating his record.
But observers say attacks on Sarbanes will likely not help because his favorability ratings are high.
"This is still anybody's race," said C. Vernon Gray, a Morgan State University political scientist. "They're going to have to do some intense campaigning and ads over the next week. It may come down to get-out-the-vote campaigns."
Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.
How the poll was conducted
The poll of Baltimore's Democratic primary voters was conducted for The Sun by OpinionWorks, a nonpartisan, independent firm based in Annapolis.
The company conducts independent surveys for other news media outlets, as well as surveys for nonprofit organizations, government agencies and corporations. It is not involved in any of the city races for any candidate or political party.
OpinionWorks identifies likely voters by purchasing the most current data on Baltimore registered voters and creating a call list of those who have voted in previous primary elections and those who have registered to vote since the last election. Using previous elections as a guide, the company estimates turnout and sets quotas for poll respondents in each City Council district in the city. The quotas are set before voters are contacted by telephone.
After the results are collected, the sample is statistically weighted to ensure that race, gender, age and city geography are accurately accounted for.
The current Sun Poll surveyed 559 likely Democratic primary voters in the city and has a margin of error of no more than 4.1 percentage points for most questions at a 95 percent confidence level.