Today, Holton poll seems quaint

The Baltimore Sun

It may be the second-most-noteworthy thing about the now infamous poll conducted during City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton's 2007 re-election campaign - the response to a name-recognition question. After serving on the council since 1995, and thinking she might have a shot at a citywide office in the future, Holton surely had to be taken aback by these results:

More than half of the respondents in her district either didn't know who she was or were only vaguely familiar with her.

The most noteworthy thing about the poll, of course, is why Holton is probably better known at this point: The survey was paid for by developer Ronald Lipscomb, and it forms the basis of her indictment in January on charges of bribery, perjury and misuse of office. After Lipscomb footed the bill for the poll, Holton helped push through millions of dollars of tax breaks for development projects he had a stake in.

The poll emerged this week as part of the developer's efforts to get bribery charges against him dismissed. Lipscomb claims that paying for it was not a bribe but a legitimate campaign contribution - which is fast becoming quite the oxymoron the more we learn about how City Hall doles out contracts and tax breaks.

"Baltimore, 8th City Council District, The Political Landscape: An Analysis" may not be quite the page-turner that previous documents in the long-running investigation into City Hall corruption have proved to be. There's nothing about whirlwind trips to New York or shopping jaunts on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, as Lipscomb is accused of taking with Mayor Sheila Dixon; there aren't even any gift cards that were supposed to go from the developer to needy families but, prosecutors allege, took a detour through the mayor's own mall-hopping.

And yet, the poll offers a behind-the-scenes look at one slice of the entangled saga of Dixon, Holton and Lipscomb, whose Doracon construction company has its hand in some of the most prominent developments in town, from the convention center hotel to Silo Point to the ones that have gotten him in hot water because of his influence at City Hall, such as the Four Seasons/Legg Mason tower under construction at Inner Harbor East.

For one thing, we find out that the apparently free-spending Lipscomb - among other past revelations, he gave Dixon a $2,000 gift certificate to a furrier and dropped $500 at a Saks makeup counter during their Chicago shopping spree, according to court documents - isn't necessarily someone who always goes top-of-the-line.

Pollster Ron Lester offered two levels of polling to Holton - a sampling of likely voters could be queried for 15 minutes each for $12,500, or more extensively for 20 minutes for $15,000. It is unclear who ultimately decided to go with the cheaper poll, although, strangely, the invoice that was sent to Lipscomb's company noted that, "The confidential survey is prepared for Doracon and not any particular candidates."

Mostly, though, the poll makes you wonder why a relatively easy political race - the incumbent Holton was found to have 37 percent support at the time of the poll; her nearest challenger had a mere 12 percent - merits 14 pages of analysis and 32 pages of mind-numbing results, cross-tabbing the answers by the respondents' age, race, income, education level, neighborhood and whether they're for Adam or Anoop, for all I know since my eyes glazed over before the end.

The most sausage-making part of the poll is when it tests out which messages might be most persuasive for Holton to use during the campaign. Less than two years later, the messages already seem dated: Her instrumental role in getting blue light police cameras installed? They're now being phased out. The improvements she demanded at a neighborhood center? It faces the same cutbacks as all rec centers in the current Dixon budget proposals.

And, most of all, that message about her chairing the City Council's "powerful" Taxation and Finance Committee? Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stripped her of the chairmanship after she was indicted in January on charges that she perhaps wielded that power a bit too blatantly. (The council prez giveth and the council prez taketh away - she had given the post to Holton in January 2007 after taking it from then-Chair Kieffer Mitchell, a move widely viewed as political coming as it did right after he announced he would run for mayor against Dixon.)

Holton's indictment now makes the poll seem quaintly optimistic - it lauds her strong support, particularly in the west side of the district where she resides, and it raves about her potential as a candidate for citywide office given her "crossover appeal" to both blacks and whites.

Maybe the indictment won't change that - she hasn't been convicted of anything, of course. And, as the polling company notes in its pitch to Holton for her business, it has worked for an entire range of politicians, from Bill Clinton to Kurt Schmoke, including that most phoenix-like of city officials, Marion Barry, whose career has continued through various drug and tax problems and a six-month stint in federal prison.

Still, her recent newsmaking can't be what the pollsters meant when they wrote that she could "substantially improve" her support by "increasing her name recognition and better informing voters about her record."

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