The national wave of women running for public office following President Donald Trump’s election has hit Baltimore with almost 20 women running for City Council in the city’s Democratic primary, waging campaigns in a majority of districts.
Now, people are watching to see if the momentum that helped flip control of the U.S. House of Representatives to Democrats in 2018 reaches into Baltimore’s April 28 election.
“This coming up election, locally and nationally, is one of the most important in our lifetime, if not the most important in our lifetime,” said District 14 candidate Odette Ramos."We have someone in the White House who doesn’t care about women at all.
“Locally, we’ve just had so many challenges. More women are saying, ‘Wait a second, this is important, we really need to step up and be part of what the city can do.’”
There are 18 women running for seats in nine of the city’s districts — or 30% of the Democratic candidates. In 2016, 14 women ran for council — 18% percent of the Democratic candidates.
The increase in female candidates could help shrink the gender gap on the current council, where only four members representing the city’s 14 districts are women.
This uptick in candidates comes as one of Baltimore’s staunchest advocates for pulling women into city politics is set to retire. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a Democrat representing District 14, was the city’s first female council president.
“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Clarke said. “I think it’s going to correct itself somehow.”
There has been a surge in women holding public office across the region over the past two years. The seven-member Anne Arundel County Council flipped in 2018 from all-male to majority female, and women now outnumber men in Howard County, too. Prince George’s County elected its first female executive and Carroll County choose a woman to sit on its Circuit Court bench for the first time.
But at the highest levels, Maryland’s political representation remains overwhelmingly male. When former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume won the Democratic primary in the race for the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings’ seat, it made it more likely men would continue to hold all 10 spots in the state’s Congressional delegation.
The women running in Baltimore say they still struggle to get the same respect as the men they’re up against, sometimes fielding snide comments about their looks or getting confused for a campaign volunteer rather than the candidate. Some will get asked who is taking care of their kids are when they’re out door-knocking.
There are five open seats on the Baltimore council: Clarke and District 10 Councilman Ed Reisinger are retiring, District 4 Councilman Bill Henry is seeking the comptroller seat, and District 7 Councilman Leon Pinkett and District 13 Councilwoman Shannon Sneed are both running for council president, a citywide office.
At least one woman is running in each open race, and Clarke and Reisinger have each endorsed a woman to succeed them: Ramos and Phylicia Porter.
When women are elected, candidates say, it ensures a broader array of perspectives and illuminates legislative needs that men might overlook.
All three members of the City Council’s transportation committee are men, which Paris Bienert, who is running in District 1, said she finds troubling. If elected, she wants to establish a temporary task force dedicated to the issues faced by women as they use buses and trains to get around the city.
“I’ve talked to a lot of women who experience safety issues when it comes to taking the bus and feel that part of the conversation isn’t considered,” Bienert said. “We talk a lot about wanting transportation to be affordable and clean and on time. All those things are certainly true. At the end of the day, if I don’t feel safe getting on the bus, I’m not going to take the bus, even if it’s clean and on time and affordable.”
Bienert also said the first bill she wants to introduce would be to ban inquiries about a person’s salary history during job interviews. “The practice of basing salary offers on candidates’ pay history perpetuates racial and gender wage gaps,” she said.
Sneed was caring for a newborn during her first year in City Hall. The high cost of childcare in the city led her to bring baby Rae along to public hearings and work sessions so often that other council members joked that she was the unofficial 16th member.
She later introduced legislation aiming to ease new mothers’ transitions back into the workplace. The bill set higher standards for lactation spaces, requiring that they include a place to sit, an electrical outlet and a refrigerator to store breast milk.
While the Trump effect has inspired women across the country, Baltimore candidates also pointed to the tragedies their families have faced as their impetus to run. Several are mothers who say they’re seeking a council seat because they see it as the way to make the city a better place for their children.
“I know if we don’t do something, my son won’t understand the richness and beauty of West Baltimore,” said District 7 candidate Tori Rose.
For Tamira Dunn, a single mother running in District 2, the city’s high infant mortality rate demands more attention. She is part of the health department’s Fetal Infant Mortality Review Board, spending hours interviewing women about their tragedies and trying to glean what can be done to prevent more.
“We tend not to talk about it because it’s so painful,” Dunn said. “I have experience with pregnancy loss and know about the gap in services.”
Nicole Harris-Crest is running for the 4th District seat that her father, Kenneth Harris, occupied until shortly before he was fatally shot in 2008 during a robbery outside a jazz club.
The compounded grief of losing eight loved ones to homicide motivated Rose. After her cousin was killed two years ago, she said her elected officials were unresponsive when her family demanded answers and accountability.
“As a woman, you’re not going to ignore me," she said. “We have been so ignored for so long. You’re going to hear me.”
A teacher who formerly worked as a human resource specialist in the Social Security administration, Rose said she started researching Maryland women in politics whom she admired. She quickly noticed that all had gone through Emerge Maryland, the local branch of the national organization that trains Democratic women to run for office.
She signed up and was chosen for the Class of 2019.
There are eight Emerge graduates running for Baltimore seats this election, including three in District 10 alone. They say the program gave them renewed confidence and a sisterhood to turn to if they need help.
It also provided an expanded fundraising network that the women can tap into to overcome financial hurdles that female candidates often face. Several female candidates’ campaign finance reports reveal a crisscross of donations between them: Bienert, for example, got several small donations from Porter, who in turn made contributions to her campaign.
“It’s hard for women to raise money and it’s hard for black women to raise money,” Sneed said. “Just having a network of women who will support you, who will knock on doors for you, who will introduce you to other people — it’s incredible.”
Emerge chair Martha McKenna said she’s confident that the 2020 election will push the Baltimore City Council toward more equal representation.
“If we’re only at 28%,” she said, “we sure can’t go backward.”