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Can powerful state Sen. Joan Carter Conway be defeated? Del. Mary Washington thinks so

For years, capable opponents have tried to unseat North Baltimore's powerful state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who has held office for more than two decades.

None — including City Councilman Bill Henry — has come close.

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But Del. Mary Washington thinks this year will be different. As Washington seeks a promotion to the 43rd District's state Senate seat, Washington looks at Conway's victories in past elections and sees a vulnerability. Even though Conway won overwhelmingly in 2014 and 2010, about one-third of the district voted for someone else, Washington points out. The district includes Charles Village, Waverly, Northwood, Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello, and Pen Lucy.

"It's time for a change," says Washington, 55. "I work hard. I look at the numbers. At least 30 to 35 percent of people have chosen someone else. I'm going to win on the doors, talking to people one on one. Our district deserves better."

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Washington, an Ednor Gardens resident and former Baltimore Housing CitiStat director, says voters are tired of backroom deals in Annapolis to water down or kill good legislation.

Just this year, two of Washington's high-profile bills were killed. One would have prevented the city from seizing properties over unpaid water bills; the other would have required that hundreds of millions of dollars in casino revenue be added to existing funding for public schools. In their place, Washington argues, weaker versions were passed under different sponsors' names, including the casino legislation under Conway's.

"There's no accountability in a backroom deal. Everything I do is transparent," Washington says. "Putting pieces of legislation in a drawer? As Democrats, we can do better than that."

Conway, 67, a member of the Assembly since 1997, says she had nothing to do with Washington's bills dying in Annapolis this year.

Del. Mary Washington will challenge Joan Carter Conway for 43rd District Senate seat

"Why would I block her bills? I could care less about her bills," says Conway, who is chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. "There are no backrooms in Annapolis. If there are, I've never been in them."

Conway argues her track record of bringing education money to Baltimore is second to none, and the city would lose influence if she were to be defeated. Already, Conway warns, the city is likely to lose a Senate seat in the next redistricting as Baltimore's population declines.

Conway was influential in gaining $1.1 billion in funding for school construction in Baltimore several years ago. This year, she won passage of two significant bills for education — one putting a charter amendment on the November ballot that would ensure casino money bolsters education budgets and another committing $30 million more for heating and air conditioning work in schools after a winter that saw cold children shivering in classrooms.

After years of service, Conway says she would like to retire, but doesn't want the city to lose out. "I have been dubbed 'The Voice of Baltimore,' " Conway says.

Despite Conway's work, Washington says one needs only to look at conditions in classrooms to see not enough money has come back to Baltimore schools.

"For me it's not the seat or the chair you sit in, it's where you stand," Washington says of Conway's leadership position in the Senate. "What good is a chair if it's not being used to help the people of the district?"

Washington says she's most proud of work she's done to secure legislation cracking down on social media harassment, preventing youth homelessness, and protecting renters from abuse, among -other issues.

"I'm proud of the water legislation, even though they took my name off it," she said.

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The nine Democrats in Maryland's 10-member delegation released a letter Monday asking Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to set aside $353,185 in state money so Maryland can get a $7 million federal grant to boost boost cyber security in the state's election system.

Conway has raised more money in campaign donations — but Washington isn't lacking for funds. Conway has $195,000 on hand, according to the latest campaign filings, while Washington has $94,000.

Kristi Hazard, a Washington supporter who volunteers for the York Road Partnership, said she began backing Washington when she heard Conway was planning to retire. When it became clear Conway would seek re-election, Hazard decided to stay with Washington. '

"She's full of energy. She has a lot of great ideas," Hazard said. "Senator Conway has been in place for a long time. I just think Mary would do a great job... It feels like she is more in touch with what the average constituent's concerns are."

But Paula Purviance, president of the Hillen Road Improvement Association, said Conway has been instrumental in addressing issues important to the community, including the redevelopment of the Northwood Plaza. She said she's happy with the representation she's received from both Conway in the Senate and Washington in the House of Delegates.

"The senator has been very helpful in us getting toward a better solution for that," Purviance said of the shopping center.

Washington's run for the seat means at least one non-incumbent will be elected to District 43's three House of Delegates seats.

Incumbents in the race are state Dels. Maggie McIntosh, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and Curt Anderson, a lawyer. Others running in the Democratic primary are Regina Boyce, a community leader; Urcille Goddard, an educator; Kelly Fox, a pastor; Nilesh Kalyanaraman, a doctor; Destinee Parker, a business owner; and Dong Shen, a doctor. In November, the top three and Green Party candidate Bonnie Lane, an activist, will compete for the district's three House seats.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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