Seventh in a series of articles on candidates for the 7th Congressional District.
The volunteers, about two dozen of them, were jammed into a small Hampden office that’s the headquarters of the Jill Carter for Congress campaign. They were tired and hungry after a long day of door-knocking. In walked Carter, considered the most liberal Democrat in a crowded field to succeed the late Elijah Cummings, and their vigor returned.
“Jill on the Hill!" the volunteers clapped and chanted. “Jill on the Hill! Jill on the Hill!”
Progressive groups in Maryland are rallying around Jill P. Carter, 55, a 2016 Bernie Sanders delegate who shares their vision of sweeping change: a “Green New Deal” to fight climate change, “Medicare for All” to help the uninsured, and ending foreign wars. She’s picked up the endorsements of notable progressives, such as 2018 gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous.
When the members of the Sanders-affiliated Our Revolution Maryland picked which of the 32 candidates in the field to back, the vote was about 88% for Carter.
“She’s clearly the most progressive candidate in the race,” said Sheila Ruth, the co-chairwoman of Our Revolution Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
Beyond her vision, there’s more to Carter’s pitch. There’s her tale of an underdog.
In the crowded campaign office, Carter told the story of her rise from a state delegate, often at odds with leadership in Annapolis and at City Hall, to an influential state senator who won widespread praise last legislative session.
“I spent many years in the House of Delegates, very difficult and painful years,” Carter says. “I was very much isolated and marginalized. ... Now, it looks like things are on the upswing. Too bad I’m going to miss it, because I’m going to be in the Congress!”
Carter is one of 24 Democrats and eight Republicans running in Tuesday’s special primary in the 7th Congressional District, which includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.
She was 7 years old when her father, civil rights leader Walter P. Carter, died of a heart attack in 1971. She’s tried to carry on his tradition of fighting for racial equity “militantly, forcefully and unrelentingly.”
After years of seeing certain bills important to her die in the state House, Carter had a fresh start in 2019 after winning election to the Senate. Carter’s bill calling for an end to contracts between the University of Maryland Medical System and its board members helped expose a scandal and became one of the session’s highest-profile pieces of legislation.
Carter’s concerns about the medical system helped prompt a Baltimore Sun investigation into self-dealing by UMMS, including its $500,000 in payments to Catherine Pugh, who resigned as a board member in March and as mayor in May.
Carter also successfully sponsored bills banning employers from inquiring about an ex-offender’s criminal record before a job interview ― called “Ban the Box” legislation ― and changing state law to make it easier for people convicted of minor crimes to serve on juries. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the “Ban the Box” legislation, but the General Assembly is expected to override the veto. She is the lead sponsor of more than 50 bills that have become law.
Carter has a record of taking positions outside Democratic orthodoxy, sometimes angering powerful figures.
Carter vocally opposed widespread arrests in Baltimore under the administration of Democratic Mayor Martin O’Malley; police arrested more than 110,000 people in 2003 alone. She upset advocates of same-sex marriage when she sought to tie passage of the legalization effort to gaining more state money for Baltimore schools.
Last session, she voted against a bill that would have eliminated a statute of limitations for civil claims related to child sexual abuse. Carter argued the law must protect the rights of the accused in civil cases, where there is a lower standard of evidence than for criminal charges.
In 2016, after Pugh won election, she appointed Carter director of the Office of Civil Rights, which Carter saw as a dream job.
But Carter found herself in conflict with City Solicitor Andre Davis, who Carter believed sought too much power over a police Civilian Review Board that Carter wanted to use to hold officers accountable. At one point, Carter forwarded Davis’ emails to Pugh, saying they showed “how extremely pompous, disrespectful, unprofessional, and inappropriate Andre Davis was comfortable being in his interactions with me.”
Recently, Davis took to Facebook to criticize Carter, calling her leadership “deeply flawed” and accusing her of “making a lot of political noise" by trying to empower the board beyond its legal reach. He declined to comment for this article.
Where Davis saw a penchant for conflict, Carter’s supporters see independence and a willingness to take on the political establishment. “She’s shown she’s not afraid to take on the tough issues,” said the Rev. Heber Brown, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore. “The way she stood up against illegal arrests under Martin O’Malley. No one in the Democratic Party was trying to touch that issue like Jill Carter was."
Carter has for years has been a top vote-getter in Northwest Baltimore, and has the endorsements of every delegate from the area, including centrist Democrats. Now, she believes she has a good chance to beat former national NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and former Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who political analysts see as strong contenders.
Nina Kasniunas, an assistant political science professor at Goucher College, said Carter needs to make inroads in Baltimore County and Howard County to be successful.
“I’m not so sure how much she stands out outside of Baltimore,” Kasniunas said.
To that end, Carter and her team of volunteers have been out in force knocking on doors. On a recent Saturday, Carter visited two new Baltimore schools and a forum at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, located in Windsor Mill in Baltimore County.
At the forum, Carter wore a hijab as she spoke to a constituency that several candidates are courting. “As-salaam alaikum,” Carter said in greeting, before pledging to stand for peace in the Middle East. “We will divert the overstuffed military budget to bring those resources home where they’re needed.”
She has sought to contrast herself with the records of Mfume and Rockeymoore Cummings. At a recent debate in West Baltimore, Carter criticized Mfume for supporting a 1994 crime bill signed by then-President Bill Clinton, also a Democrat. Carter called him a “champion” of fueling “mass incarceration."
She argues Rockeymoore Cummings hasn’t done enough for Baltimore residents to deserve the seat.
“If you went to the average voter in Baltimore City and said the name ‘Maya Cummings,’ nobody would know who that was,” Carter said.
Carter said she would push to create a national gun registry, end the Trump administration’s “cruel and inhumane” policies against immigrants at the southern U.S. border and support Elijah Cummings’ bill to provide $100 billion over 10 years to fight the opioid epidemic. Meanwhile, she plans to introduce state-level “Medicare for All” legislation.
At her campaign office, staffer Richard DeShay Elliott described how she would win the race by bringing in progressive voters on top of her base of longtime supporters. He predicted both groups would be energized on her behalf.
Carter told her volunteers she would be a “pit bull” for the issues they care about.
“Once I get ahold of an issue, I’m not letting it go until we get it done," she said.
Coming later this week: F. Michael Higginbotham.
Jill P. Carter
Home: Hunting Ridge, Baltimore City
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Loyola College; law degree, University of Baltimore; graduated from Baltimore’s Western High School
Experience: Maryland state senator; state delegate, 2003-2016; former director Baltimore Office of Civil Rights & Wage Enforcement; former assistant public defender; lawyer in private practice