Here’s the main reason I’m voting nay on Question K — David Smith supports it. He’s the suburban millionaire who has put half of one of his many millions into the campaign to impose term limits on Baltimore’s mayor, members of the City Council and the city comptroller.
There would be no Question K on the city ballot without his money.
He’s an owner of Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcasting, one of the largest — and demonstrably conservative — television station operations in the country. The Sinclair station in Baltimore, Fox 45, constantly portrays the city as a dystopian hellhole. The city has plenty of problems, particularly with crime, but Fox 45 largely reports these problems not as complex issues requiring enlightened approaches, but as mere reflections of incompetent (read that, Democratic) leadership.
The station’s ongoing “City In Crisis” series goes beyond the reporting of crime and other problems to contrive issues. Brandon Scott had been mayor of Baltimore only a few months when Fox 45 dispatched a reporter to gather public opinion about a so-called “renewed debate” on whether the mayor should face recall by voters. I have a pretty good memory, but don’t remember a popular debate over whether voters should have recall power. Didn’t matter. Fox 45 raised the issue out of the ether, and David Smith and his checkbook turned it into a petition drive.
His point man for that effort was Jovani Patterson, a Republican and failed candidate for City Council president who also serves as the face of a separate effort to make city government look as bad as possible. Patterson and his wife are plaintiffs in a lawsuit claiming that incompetence and corruption in the city school system deprive children of an education. The lawsuit has all the makings of a political stunt; it appears to be based almost exclusively on Fox 45 reporting about problems with the schools, in an apparent effort to give those reports a second life and provide opportunity for more “crisis” reporting by the station.
While the recall petition effort failed and the lawsuit against the school system remains in court, the term limits question made it to the ballot. It’s Question K.
So far, David Smith has put some $525,000 behind it. But he doesn’t say why, and that’s in keeping with the Smith family’s way of running Sinclair as it became a broadcasting conglomerate. Reporters and media critics have documented over the years the various ways Sinclair injected conservative ideology into its newscasts. Once upon a time, it was discreet, even secretive, about that. In more recent years, less so. With his check writing, Smith makes it clear what he’s after — to portray Baltimore as a disaster caused by Democrats and to provide more controversial content for Fox 45.
Over the years, a lot of people have argued for term limits for members of Congress, and from time to time ballot questions show up in states and municipalities where limits do not exist. I can understand why many people think limiting a mayor to two terms is a good idea. A mayor can become entrenched and arrogant, protected from challenges by supporters with loads of money to spend on campaigns.
But consider the history. William Donald Schaefer was mayor from 1971 until 1987. If Baltimoreans wanted to give him the boot, they had three opportunities after his first election. Instead, they chose to keep him on the job. He won each election convincingly; in his last Democratic primary, in 1983, he received 72% of the vote. Kurt Schmoke was elected to three terms and chose not to run for a fourth. Martin O’Malley was mayor from 1999 to 2006; he probably could have won a third term had he not, like Schaefer, decided to run for governor.
And speaking of governor, do you think Larry Hogan would have won a third term this year had he not been term-limited? Would the Never Trump incumbent have beaten back a challenge from Trump-endorsed Dan Cox? That’s an interesting question — if I do say so myself — that you didn’t have to think about until this very moment.
So term limits are … limiting; they close the door to possibilities like the one I just described.
The best term limit is the one that comes from voters on each Election Day. If you don’t like a mayor, vote for a challenger. That’s the position I take in the tired debate over term limits.
But this year, I have the David Smith position. Some rich conservative who lives in a house with eight bathrooms in Cockeysville, and has a vested interest in made-for-TV controversy, tells us we should have term limits in the city? I don’t think so.
This reminds me of one of the great scenes from Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life,” when George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, comes close to accepting a tantalizing and lucrative job offer from Mr. Potter, the miserly old banker played by Lionel Barrymore. Suddenly, George realizes he’s being seduced to the dark side and refuses. “You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money!” George says. “Well, it doesn’t, Mr. Potter. In the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider.”
So that’s a Nay on K for me.