The Baltimore City Council will look vastly different after the June 2 primary, as five incumbents retire or run for a different office and challengers threaten to unseat other members in competitive races.
The coronavirus pandemic thwarted candidates’ plans to introduce themselves to voters through the usual community forums and knocking on doors. Political observers say it could be tough for people to know exactly who to select as they examine their ballots.
More than 60 Democrats and about a dozen Republicans are running for one of 14 seats. Starting work this winter, the winners will have to collaborate with the mayor to help the city recover from the outbreak’s impact on businesses, families and its budget. A city council member is paid about $73,000 a year for four years.
In a historic change, voting will be largely by mail, with just six in-person polling places in the city. The switch is part of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s directive to help contain the spread of COVID-19.
Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, said a remote election and a distracted electorate could lead to an alarmingly low rate of voting.
“It is good news for incumbents,” Hartley said. “Incumbents always have an advantage with name recognition and fundraising, but now it is harder for a challenger to get their name out and campaign. And there are a lot of the people on the ballot. Voters are unlikely to know who they are.”
In place of traditional campaigning, candidates have turned to virtual meetups, phone calls and texts, and are leaning on campaign literature, endorsements and social media. Some like Rod Hudson, a Democrat in the 7th District, are getting creative: a pickup drove through the West Baltimore district on a recent evening, plastered with signs and broadcasting Hudson’s name and platform.
Compared to campaigns for mayor, or even City Council president, the district contests draw less money and less visibility, even in a normal year. Mayoral contenders with enough cash are buying television ads, for instance, to get in front of voters at home, but that’s out of reach for most council candidates.
Democratic Councilman Robert Stokes Sr. in East Baltimore’s 12th District said before the pandemic, he knocked on doors and met voters at community meetings. He’s shifted to working “seven days a week from home.”
A longtime legislative and campaign aide, the first-term councilman is emphasizing his service to constituents. He said he has arranged for seniors to have meals delivered to their homes, got a traffic signal installed at an accident-prone intersection in Old Goucher and helped create an apprenticeship program for city students.
“People in the community know my record," said Stokes, 62, who lives in Oliver. "I have always delivered.”
Still, Stokes faces one of the toughest challenges in the election.
Phillip Westry, a 35-year-old public interest attorney, started campaigning a year ago and believes the work he put in before the pandemic struck gives him an advantage over Stokes. Together with volunteers and campaign staff, Westry said he canvassed the district four times, knocking on more than 30,000 doors before the state starting shutting down in mid-March.
Westry said that outreach allowed him to outpace the councilman in fundraising, as reported in financial disclosures filed in January and April. But going into the final weeks of the race, Stokes had more money on hand: about $46,000 to the challenger’s $32,000.
Westry said he drew nearly 400 individual donors, many of whom wrote checks for $5, $25 and $50. He has also collected some high-dollar donations, including $4,000 from the Service Employees International Union. It does not represent municipal employees, but has thousands of members living in the city.
Stokes took in a mix of donations, from $25 to the maximum $6,000, which he received from Carter Paving and Excavating, listed in city records as a certified vendor and minority contractor.
Besides Stokes and Westry, four other Democrats are running for the nomination for the seat, including Dave Heilker, a progressive Democrat with a background in communications and marketing. Heilker had a cash balance of $10,000 in April.
One Republican has filed for the seat, and so will face the Democratic nominee in November’s general election. In heavily Democratic Baltimore, the primary generally selects the eventual municipal officeholders, although independent candidates have sometimes made strong showings in fall races.
Westry has a background in housing law, tenant rights and helping people expunge their criminal records. He said he was motivated to run to seek housing and economic justice for people, in part by creating more affordable housing and increasing opportunities for African American families to build wealth.
Westry and Stokes are members of opposing alliances in city politics. They’re listed among the slates of two of the top mayoral candidates, panels that are largely split along age and tenure in office.
Stokes is part of a “2020 vision” slate headed by Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. A longtime City Council president, Young is running to win his own four-year term as mayor. He was elevated to the position last year when Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned.
Also on that slate are other Democratic incumbents: Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton of Northwest Baltimore’s 6th District and Councilman Eric Costello of the 11th District in downtown and South Baltimore.
Middleton, who has served on the council since 2007, is poised to win another term. She has two Democratic challengers, but they have raised little to no money, while Middleton had a balance of $56,000 in April. A Republican has filed to seek the seat.
Costello faces no primary opposition.
Meanwhile, City Council President Brandon Scott, one of Young’s challengers for mayor, is allied with Westry, naming him to his “Forward” slate.
Scott’s slate would extend a swing that started with the 2016 election toward younger and more progressive council members. The election four years ago ushered in eight new representatives.
The “Forward” slate includes one-term incumbents Ryan Dorsey of District 3 in the Northeast, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer of District 5 in the Northwest and Kristerfer Burnett of District 8 in West Baltimore. Each faces Democratic primary challengers. But the incumbents have raised significantly more money. Republicans have filed in the 3rd and 5th district races, but have neither raised nor spent money.
Scott also backs Councilwoman Danielle McCray, who replaced him a year ago in Northeast Baltimore’s 2nd District when Scott became council president as Young was elevated to mayor. McCray faces one competitive challenger, Democrat Tamira Dunn.
Besides Westry, Scott’s slate includes several other newcomers looking to win open seats.
James Torrence wants to take over the District 7 seat Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III is vacating to run for council president. Competing for the West Baltimore district besides Torrence and Hudson are Democrats Tori Rose and Brian Sims, who collectively make it a contest to watch.
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Jackie Addison is one of seven Democrats running in East Baltimore’s District 13 to replace Councilwoman Shannon Sneed, who also is running to become council president. Other competitive challengers in that race are Democrats Antonio “Tony” Glover and Akil Patterson.
Phylicia Porter has a large fundraising advantage over the other eight Democrats and two Republicans running to replace retiring Democratic Councilman Edward Reisinger in South Baltimore’s 10th District. Democrat Natasha Guynes is a formidable opponent in that contest. The 10th District is the only competitive GOP primary in the city.
The Young and Scott alliances add some juice to the district campaigns, particularly given the difficulty challengers will have breaking through. Mileah Kromer, director of Goucher College’s Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center, said another advantage is the network of volunteers and supporters that newcomers can tap into.
“Endorsements are great, but it is the full force of the outreach behind them that really matters,” Kromer said.
Hartley, the University of Baltimore political expert, said it’s clear the election will result in “a very different council.”
Even if all the incumbents on the ballot win, a third of the council will turn over with the retirement of Reisinger and Democratic Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, longtime representative of North Baltimore’s District 14. Like Pinkett and Sneed, Councilman Bill Henry of District 4 in North Baltimore has also decided not to seek reelection in favor of challenging City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt.
“It is quite a changing of the guard with fresh, young and new energy,” Hartley said. “The impact of this is big.”