An increasingly negative state Senate race between members of two storied Baltimore families pursuing a seat vacated by a felon whose name remains on the ballot is dividing powerful city Democrats.
State Sen. Jill P. Carter, the 53-year-old daughter of renowned civil rights leader Walter P. Carter, has been the subject of negative online ads from challenger J.D. Merrill, the 27-year-old son-in-law of former Gov. Martin O’Malley.
On a website called “Where Was Jill?” Merrill accuses Carter of missing 1,600 floor votes — out of nearly 13,000 — during the 14 years she served as a delegate in the General Assembly.
Carter’s supporters have hit back, defending her record in Annapolis and accusing Merrill of embracing a racist stereotype. Some Carter supporters have launched personal attacks against the O’Malley family on social media. Merrill is white. Carter is black.
Each day, more influential Democrats are choosing sides.
Mayor Catherine Pugh, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, pastors, unions and activists are backing Carter, the former director of the mayor’s Office of Civil Rights and a longtime critic of O’Malley.
Merrill has picked up support from activist DeRay Mckesson, state Sen. Bill Ferguson, City Councilman Brandon Scott and community association presidents. This week, former Mayor Sheila Dixon endorsed Merrill.
“What we are seeing is a new struggle where fault lines in the Democratic Party are emerging,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. “Since Merrill is not as established, his campaign is picking fights to raise name recognition.
“There’s going to be a little blood left on the mat.”
The two candidates in the Democratic primary on June 26 are running for the 41st District Senate seat in Northwest Baltimore, previously held by Nathaniel T. Oaks. Oaks resigned in April before he was convicted of federal corruption charges. His name remains on the ballot, despite efforts by Oaks and others to remove it, potentially complicating the election.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, a harsh O’Malley critic, appointed Carter to fill Oaks’ seat, bestowing her with the benefit of incumbency.
Political strategist Catalina Byrd, who is not working for either candidate, said Oaks’ name on the ballot will likely help Merrill because Oaks is likely to draw votes from Carter. She said Carter’s team needs to ramp up door-knocking efforts to let voters know Oaks is no longer in the race.
“Some people might still vote for him,” Byrd said.
The 41st District — which snakes through north, west and southwest Baltimore — is composed largely of predominantly black neighborhoods such as Edmondson Village and Forest Park, but it also includes majority white neighborhoods such as Roland Park and Mount Washington. For years, its delegation has included both black and white lawmakers.
Merrill has a significant financial advantage. He reported $115,000 in campaign funds in his most recent fundraising report. Carter reported $41,000.
Merrill has received financial support from the leaders of several powerful Baltimore organizations, including the Abell Foundation, the Goldseker Foundation, the Kearney-O’Doherty Public Affairs firm and the Gallagher Evelius & Jones law firm.
Merrill began knocking on doors and meeting voters months before Carter. He argues his negative ads are not attacks, but educational.
“As Delegate, Jill Carter had the worst attendance record of any member of the Baltimore City Delegation,” Merrill said. “That is a fact, not an attack."
Carter, who served in the House of Delegates from 2003 to 2017, was the highest vote-getter in her campaigns before she resigned to become Pugh’s director of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement. She said some of her missed votes came when she was dealing with serious health issues and caring for her dying mother.
Other times, Carter says, she chose to skip votes on bills bound to pass so she could focus on buiding support for other proposals.
“Sitting down there and punching buttons to help the leadership further their agenda was not the most effective use of my time,” she said.
Carter says she produced a legislative record of advocacy for the poor and disenfranchised.
Carter led a legislative effort opposing the construction of a new youth jail in Baltimore, and sponsored a law that requires police to undergo more training on use of force, cultural diversity and lifesaving skills.
Carter was a prominent critic of Mayor O’Malley and his Police Department’s use of what she characterizes as the illegal mass arrest of thousands who were released without charges.
Carter also sponsored a law that requires state officials to publish lists of missing children and oversee local search efforts.
She says she often felt marginalized in Annapolis by lawmakers who resisted her proposals to increase civilian oversight of police, expunge arrest records and increase school funding for Baltimore. She says she could have more impact as a senator. She says Merrill lacks legislative experience.
“He talks about things that I have already done,” Carter said.
Carter recently took a leave of absence from her director’s job at City Hall after city lawyers determined she could not hold a Senate seat and direct a city office at the same time. Carter said she hopes to return as a deputy if she wins.
Her platform includes legislation to address equal pay for men and women and criminal justice reform. She says she will work to ensure school funding formulas address the “historic inequities suffered by the children of Baltimore City.”
Dayvon Love, policy director for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said he supports Carter because she is present in the community. During the protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, Carter, a lawyer, went to Baltimore’s Central Booking and Intake Facility to support activists who had been arrested, Love said.
“Lots of people remember her walking into Central Booking and assuring them they’d be OK,” Love said. “I don’t know if there is another elected official who is that present in the community.”
University of Maryland law professor Douglas Colbert, who lives in the district, said he’s supporting Carter because he says she’s been a relentless advocate in Annapolis for the marginalized in society.
“She speaks for the people who need a voice,” Colbert says. “Jill identifies with the ordinary person, with the underdog, with the people who are getting the short end of the stick.”
Carter recently picked up the endorsement of City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who is offering to match donations to her. He said Merrill only recently moved into the 41st.
“Jill Carter has the most credible record fighting against racial injustice of anybody in the whole state legislature,” Dorsey said. “J.D. Merrill has run a blatantly racist, negative campaign because he can’t measure up to her record. He’s feeding into the racist portrayal of the lazy black woman. It’s the exact opposite of what any progressive white man should do."
Merrill says his criticism of Carter’s voting record has nothign to do with race.
“Bringing up factual, job related performance as an issue in a political campaign is fair game,” he says.
Merrill is a graduate of Baltimore City College and returned to the school as a teacher. He was later promoted to lead special projects for Baltimore City Public Schools. He stepped down from the position to campaign.
He said the city would benefit from an educator’s perspective in Annapolis. He said he will work to bring back more money for the city’s public schools if elected.
Merrill is married to Grace O’Malley, the daughter of O’Malley, whose political career had a similar start. The former governor married into the Curran family, which had dominated Northeast Baltimore politics for decades, and made his first foray into politics by challenging — and losing to — a well known state senator.
Merrill says he is his own man. Before marrying Grace, Merrill worked on Scott’s successful council campaign, and he and Mckesson met while working on Ferguson’s successful senate run.
“As much as my opponent wishes she were running against my father-in-law, Martin O'Malley, she is not,” Merrill said.
Merrill has published a lengthy policy platform called the “Roadmap to Upward Mobility” on his website. It includes an heavy emphasis on improving public schools through increased funding, better training of teachers and expanding the variety of curriculum accessible to students.
“Education is supposed to be the great equalizer,” he wrote. “But in Baltimore, it either provides a great advantage or consigns a child to poverty for his or her entire life.”
Dorothy Cunningham, president of the Irvington Community Association, said she met Merrill while he was knocking on doors, and he quickly won her support.
“We had a major flood on Frederick Avenue that displaced a lot of folks.” Cunningham said. “J.D. reached out to me to see what he could do to assist. He came out with a crew of people to help. That was the type of thing I like to see from our elected officials.”
Warren Smith, president of the West Hills Community Association, says he finds Merrill’s research into Carter’s voting record persuasive.
“If she failed the district on 1,600 votes, why do we want her back in there?” he asked. “Mr. Merrill is thinking outside the box. He’s out here talking with the residents every day.”
Dixon won the district during her unsuccessful mayoral run against Pugh in 2016, and Merrill is planning to use her recent endorsement in advertising.
Dixon said she supports Merrill’s emphasis on education. But she also said Carter ran against her for mayor in 2007 and did not support her after Dixon won.
“When the mayor needed the delegates to show up on important issues [in Annapolis], she didn’t show up,” Dixon said. “There has been no real leadership in that district to really talk about. It’s really dysfunctional.”
Carter disputes Dixon’s recollection but says: “It’s true that we did not work together much. I was usually opposing her misguided legislation.”
As both camps dig in, Hartley warns that too much negativity could backfire on either campaign.
“Really, really nasty races turn off voters,” he said.