Only weeks before Election Day in Annapolis, it seemed the Democratic Party was in peril.
Its nominee for mayor stepped down amid revelations about financial problems, and party leaders worried that any new candidate was up against almost insurmountable odds and that voter dismay over the mayor's race would negatively affect the city council contests.
But on Tuesday, Anne Arundel County Councilman Joshua Cohen won the mayoral race, and Democrats picked up two seats on the council, a formidable showing. The council now has just one Republican - Ward 2's Frederick M. Paone.
"There's no ambiguity," said Dan Nataf, the director of the Center for Local Issues at Anne Arundel County Community College. "The Democrats are in control of City Hall."
At his victory party Tuesday night at the Loew's Hotel in Annapolis, Cohen said voters wanted change.
"Today Annapolis voters sent a clear message that they want to raise the bar at City Hall," he said. "I want voters to know how things are going to be different, and how things are going to be better."
Cohen said he plans to hire an experienced city administrator, rein in city spending and "set new standards for transparency" when he is sworn in Dec. 7.
Just six weeks before the election, it wasn't so certain that Cohen - or any Democrat - would become mayor in the Democrat-majority city.
Zina C. Pierre, a political consultant, won the Democratic primary in September in what some described as an upset over Cohen, but ultimately stepped aside after some embarrassing financial problems were revealed and questions arose over whether she complied with residency rules to run for mayor.
The Democratic Party was harshly criticized in blogs and other forums for failing to properly vet Pierre, who worked in the White House under President Bill Clinton but was unknown in Annapolis politics, although Nick Berry, chairman of the city Democratic Central Committee, said the group does not investigate candidates.
The Central Committee nominated Cohen, who came in second in the primary, as the new candidate. Although there is a 2-1 Democratic registration advantage, Democrats worried that voters - particularly African-Americans who had supported Pierre - would stay home on Election Day.
Cohen, in his remarks on election night, heaped praise on Pierre, telling her, "This is your victory, too."
Though turnout in the general election was low, Cohen bested Republican Alderman David H. Cordle Sr. by about 240 votes. Independent candidate Chris Fox garnered about 1,000 votes.
Mike Dye, chairman of the city's Republican Central Committee, said he was "bewildered" by the low turnout - about 8,000 voters - and thinks it hurt Cordle.
"Obviously, we're very disappointed with the results and surprised," Dye said. "The best way to describe my feelings is disgust. You'd think after eight years of [Mayor] Ellen Moyer, that more would have come out to vote. I'm just really disappointed in Annapolis."
Despite Cohen's and the council's overwhelming Democratic majority, some argue that the low voter turnout and Cohen's returns in some parts of the city don't indicate a mandate.
For example, in Eastport, where Cohen was an alderman, he received about 200 fewer votes than the alderman who currently represents the area and supports a city-manager form of government, which Cohen rejects.
"It's a mixed picture on a good day," said Nataf. "There's not at all a strong mandate to do everything Josh wants. The things that have support are not necessarily his."
Eugene Peterson, a member of the county school board who served as an adviser to the Cohen campaign, said that Cohen's victory was impressive because it didn't rely on winning the old Annapolis power structure of Wards 1, 2 and 8, but doing well in Wards 3, 4 and 6, home to large blocks of African-Americans.
"Even with the crazy Zina stuff, African-Americans came out," Peterson said. "They're a reliable Democatic vote. He could not have won. Without the African-American community, he's toast."
Peterson added, "As he said at the party, Annapolis wanted a change. They didn't want a tax cap or any of the other crazy tea party ideas. They wanted progressive, efficient government."
Democratic incumbents Richard E. Israel, the alderman from Ward 1, and Sheila M. Finlayson, who represents Ward 4, ran unopposed and were re-elected. Ward 8 incumbent Ross Harold Arnett III, also a Democrat, was re-elected after beating Republican challenger Rock Toews.
Ward 3 Alderwoman Classie Gillis Hoyle defeated Republican challenger Scott Bowling by 130 votes. Democrat Mat Silverman, a county police officer, won Cordle's Ward 5 seat by beating Republican challenger James M. Conley. In Ward 6, Democrat Kenny Kirby bested Republican Greg Stiverson for the seat currently held by Independent Julie Stankivic, who did not seek re-election. In Ward 7, Democrat Ian Pfeiffer was victorious over Republican Jennifer J. Monteith for the seat currently held by Sam Shropshire, who mounted an unsuccessful bid for mayor.
House Speaker Michael Busch of Annapolis heaped praise on his fellow Democrats as he spoke to the crowd at Cohen's victory party.
"I can't think of a more dedicated group of people," Busch said. "I'm so proud tonight."