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A big-money challenger roils Southeast Baltimore's election with focus on crime, safety

From mailboxes to doorways, billboards to yard signs, Baltimore’s 46th District has been flooded with the image and name of Nate Loewentheil — a political newcomer who has ties to President Barack Obama and who is hoping to win his first elective office by knocking off one of three incumbent state delegates.

Loewentheil, who moved to the city about 18 months ago, is trying to win Tuesday’s Democratic primary over a slate of incumbents: Luke Clippinger, chairman of Maryland’s House Democratic caucus; Brooke Lierman, a civil rights lawyer; and Robbyn Lewis, a public health professional who is the first African-American to represent the district.

After moving to Highlandtown in 2017, Loewentheil decided to run for office with a focus primarily on fighting crime in a south and southeast Baltimore district that includes all of the city’s waterfront neighborhoods. To compete, the graduate of Baltimore County’s private Park School, Yale University and Yale Law School has tapped donors from across the country and amassed more than $430,000 — nearly equal to the total raised by the other candidates combined.

“I have tried to run a competitive race against an entrenched, powerful slate,” said Lowentheil, who grew up in the city and Baltimore County.

He said he has knocked on close to 6,500 doors and attended community meetings across the district. And, so far, he has spent $347,500 trying to win the June 26 primary — mostly by highlighting escalating violence and saying the incumbents have failed to keep city residents safe. It’s a message some have labeled as “fear-mongering.”

While his name may not have been familiar to Baltimore voters before the campaign, it’s hard to escape these days. And Loewentheil, 32, is quite familiar with Baltimore: In 2015, Obama appointed him to lead a special White House task force to identify resources for Baltimore after rioting that year.

He has formed his own slate with the only other Democratic candidate: Dea Thomas, a hospital administrator who has also never held elected office.

Three of the five Democrats on Tuesday’s ballot will advance as strong favorites in November’s general election in a city where Democrats vastly outnumber the rare Republican candidate. In the GOP primary, two Republicans — Jeremy Baron and Nicholas Wentworth — are on the ballot, but neither has raised or spent any money.

The amount of money Loewentheil has raised — much of it from outside Maryland — is highly unusual for a delegate’s race. But D. Bruce Poole, a former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said he thinks the best investment in a city race is “a pair of running shoes.”

“If you’re going door-to-door and finding people who actually vote, you can turn things in a way large expenditures of money can’t touch,” Poole said. “I have driven through the district enough to notice there is a lot of money being thrown around. Money is always a substitute for direct voter contact, but absolutely the best contact is direct contact.”

And that’s precisely the type of campaign Lewis and the incumbents say will triumph over Loewentheil’s cash.

With less name recognition and a smaller track record in office, Lewis is perhaps the most vulnerable of the incumbents to get picked off. This is the first time she has had to campaign for a seat she was appointed to two years ago after former Del. Pete Hammen gave it up to work for Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration.

Lewis, 54, of Patterson Park, has raised $111,000 and spent about $90,000, according to the latest reports filed in June.

“In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, when so many of us were feeling personally afraid, I wanted to protect vulnerable neighborhoods,” said Lewis, adding that her community is divided in thirds among blacks, whites and Latinos. “Like so many people, I asked, ‘What can I do? How can I help my community?’

“I thought maybe this is what I am called to do in this historic moment.”

Lierman, a 39-year-old civil rights lawyer who lives in Fells Point, said money matters for getting a message out to voters but working hard to build and sustain relationships matters more. Lierman, a mother of two and the daughter of a longtime Democratic operative, has raised the second most amount of money to Loewentheil with $165,000 in campaign funds. Records show she spent $149,000.

“Organizing meet-and-greets, knocking on doors, and going to community meetings — that kind of grassroots organizing is important to both being an effective delegate and a good candidate,” Lierman said.

Thomas, 34, of Otterbein, said her motivation for running for the District 46 seat is to make Baltimore safer. She raised $68,000 and spent $60,500, records show.

“I share with voters when I knock on their door that I am the only candidate who grew up in this district, I’m starting a family here, and there’s nothing I care about more than to make our neighborhoods safer for all of us,” Thomas said.

She said, along with Loewentheil, she has raised the money necessary to share their message with the voters.

Owen Silverman Andrews lives in Patterson Park and said his mailbox has been jammed with campaign fliers. Although he is a registered Green Party voter and co-chairman of the city Greens, his brother-in-law, a Democrat, is drawing campaign literature like a magnet.

“I’ve been getting the Dem experience,” said Andrews, who lived in the neighborhood for three years. “While the amount of money being pumped into the race is disproportionate to what we’ve seen before, it’s important to look back at 2016 into the Democratic primary when candidates raised over six figures; it is kind of a trend. The developers are here — and the money is here, too.”

No Green candidates have yet sought a place on November’s general election ballot for the legislative seat.

City Councilman Eric Costello, of Federal Hill, said he is supporting the “Team 46” slate of candidates, which includes Clippinger, Lewis and Lierman.

“It’s been a barrage of mail,” Costello said.

The tone of the mailings from Loewentheil and Thomas, Costello said, have been “unsettling and factually misleading” — specifically about the incumbents’ records on public safety. He said the slate stands out for seeking state government resources for violence prevention, including money for the Safe Streets programs. The incumbents have also focused on more police oversight, Costello said.

On some of Loewentheil and Thomas’ literature, they pledge to fight for “getting more cops on the beat and lighting up city streets” and “refocusing our criminal justice system on violent criminals.”

One flier claims, “Baltimore is facing a crisis of crime and violence and our Delegates have failed to make us safer.”

Lewis said many people have told her Loewentheil’s messaging feels like “fear-mongering.” She said public safety is an issue of fundamental importance to the district’s voters but, like the human body, an illness is rarely caused by a single issue. And so her focus will be on the root causes such as poverty, employment and education, she said.

“Public safety is an issue with a thousand contributing factors and variables,” Lewis said. “Putting a slogan on a mailer is one thing; societal problems are complex.”

Responding to those comments, Loewentheil said: “From the first day of the campaign until now, voters have been sharing stories with me about the impacts of crime and violence on their lives. It's their stories and their concerns that I've been sharing.”

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

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