Challengers to Baltimore's incumbent state senators are promising to bring change and new energy to the city's representation in Annapolis. But Democratic leaders warn that such an outcome could further diminish the city's political clout in a General Assembly where power has been shifting for decades to other parts of Maryland.
The five city senators facing serious challenges in the June 26 Democratic primary together have a combined 96 years of legislative experience in Annapolis. Their challengers, including three members of the House of Delegates, cumulatively have 16.
The incumbents include Baltimore's only chairman of a standing Senate policy-making committee and its senior member on the crucial Budget & Taxation Committee. Some city leaders worry that if the incumbents lose in the primary, the city's already shrinking power in the legislature could further erode.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has endorsed four of the city's five incumbents facing primary challengers. When he came to Annapolis back in the 1970s, Baltimore had more than a dozen Senate districts but is now down to five plus part of another because of population loss.
"Baltimore city continues to be very challenged in terms of its economic needs. It needs strong advocates in Annapolis," Miller said. "It would be very hard for new people to step up."
Others see a geriatric city Senate delegation long overdue for an infusion of youthful vigor. Until the resignation of criminally convicted former Sen. Nathaniel Oaks in April, four of the delegation's six members were over 70 and a fifth was 67.
The challengers range in age from 35 to 55, raising the possibility of a generational shift in Senate representation coming on the heels of similar youth movements in the City Council in 2016 and House of Delegates in 2014.
"We need a generation of new leaders with revitalized ideas to take the city forward," said Larry Stafford, executive director of Progressive Maryland.
Stafford's group is one of a cluster of left-leaning groups that have made the ouster of four city senators a top priority this year. They include the Service Employees International Union and other groups that have been unhappy with the Senate Democratic leadership under Miller, a centrist Democrat from Calvert County.
The most powerful city senators facing a significant challenge are Joan Carter Conway in Northeast Baltimore's 43rd District and Nathaniel J. McFadden in West Baltimore's 45th District.
Both are targets of progressive groups.
Conway, 67, heads the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, one of the Senate's four standing panels. McFadden, 71, is Senate president pro tem in addition to his senior perch on the budget committee. In that role McFadden is a member of Miller's leadership team and stands in for the president when he leaves the Senate chamber's podium.
Conway and McFadden are being challenged by sitting delegates in the Democratic primary, which in Baltimore is tantamount to the final election.
Both of the senior senators are receiving strong support from the state's Democratic establishment.
One prominent Democrat who is backing Conway is Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, who served for many years as her seatmate in the Senate. He said a defeat of Conway — whom he calls "an outstanding legislator and a close friend" — would be a loss for Baltimore.
"She's a real force — not just on things that come through her committee," Frosh said. "She has a seat at the table for a lot of the big decisions."
Miller said Conway and McFadden have been outspoken advocates for the city.
"It would take three to four election cycles for anyone else to have that type of influence," he said.
But Stafford dismisses the importance of Conway and McFadden.
"Baltimore is still a city with a lot of need — even with their titles in Annapolis," he said. "A title is one thing, but leadership is another."
In the other three contested races, none of the incumbents holds a leadership position. One of them — Jill Carter — took the oath of office just this month as an appointed replacement for Oaks, who resigned last month on the day he pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.
Sen. Bill Ferguson, 35, whose 46th District spans South and Southeast Baltimore, does not face a primary challenge in his bid for a third term. Ferguson, who was elected at 27, also sits on the Budget & Taxation Committee.
The five contested races are:
40th District: Sen. Barbara Robinson, 79, was appointed to the central Baltimore seat previously held by Catherine E. Pugh before she was elected mayor. Robinson had previously served 10 years in the House of Delegates. She is being challenged by Del. Antonio Hayes, 41, who was elected to the House in 2014. Robinson has only two years' Senate seniority, so the loss to the city in power if she is defeated would be limited. Progressive groups are lining up behind Hayes. Miller backs Robinson.
41st District: Carter, 53, gets to serve out the remaining seven months of Oaks' term. That could give the former delegate, who served for 14 years and has been endorsed by Progressive Maryland, an edge in the Northwest Baltimore district. She faces newcomer J. D. Merrill, a teacher who is former Gov. Martin O'Malley's son-in-law. Miller is taking no position in the contest.
43rd District: Conway is being challenged by two-term Del. Mary Washington, a 55-year-old delegate who decided against waiting for Conway to retire. Conway is a force in getting legislation passed, but Washington has had success in the House. Progressive groups are split on this race.
44th District: This previously all-city district lies one-third in West Baltimore and two-thirds in Baltimore County. It is represented by the county's Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, who served 20 years in the House before gaining the Senate seat in 2014. Nathan-Pulliam, 78, is being challenged by SEIU activist and progressive favorite Aletheia McCaskill, 46. Nathan-Pulliam has Miller's support.
45th District: McFadden, a senator since 1995, first held office in 1982, when he was elected to the City Council. That's the same year his primary opponent, freshman Del. Cory McCray, was born. McCray has questioned whether McFadden is as effective as he should be given his seniority.
MIller is expected to work to help Conway and McFadden win re-election. But the Senate president is a pragmatist. Baltimore is part of the governing coalition that has kept Miller in power for more than three decades. It is unlikely he would leave the city to languish even if its voters reject the candidates he's supporting.
Whatever happens in the Senate, Baltimore has strong advocates in the House Democratic leadership. House Speaker Michael E. Busch has made helping Baltimore a priority. Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh — a strong Conway supporter — holds the critical post of Appropriations Committee chair.
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, said a purge of Senate incumbents could bring a "fair trade" between experience and fresh thinking.
"Yes, you're losing something, but you're also gaining something important," Eberly said. "The argument that Baltimore city would be in the wilderness is more of a scare tactic to convince people not to vote for change."
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