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In upset, Baltimore Councilman Bill Henry defeats City Comptroller Joan Pratt

Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry declared victory over incumbent Joan Pratt in the Democratic primary for comptroller, an upset that means someone new will serve as the city’s fiscal watchdog for the first time in 25 years.
Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry declared victory over incumbent Joan Pratt in the Democratic primary for comptroller, an upset that means someone new will serve as the city’s fiscal watchdog for the first time in 25 years. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry declared victory over incumbent Joan Pratt in the Democratic primary for comptroller, an upset that means someone new will serve as the city’s fiscal watchdog for the first time in 25 years.

With roughly 130,000 ballots counted, Henry captured 54% of the vote.

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Henry declared victory Monday night, shortly after updated returns were posted online.

He said in an interview that he feels “incredibly honored and proud” to have received this level of support. He campaigned on a promise to bring more accountability and transparency into the comptroller’s office, hammering home his central message: If more people knew how the city was spending its money, officials would spend it better.

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Pratt, seeking her seventh term, said Monday that she would comment when all ballots were counted.

A few thousand more ballots from Maryland’s first attempt at a mostly mail-in statewide election remain to be tallied in Baltimore this week, and results are expected to be certified Friday.

The majority of city residents feel Baltimore is heading in the wrong direction, a recent poll found, and Henry positioned himself an agent of change.

“People are not satisfied with how this city works and they want it to be better, and they want people in charge who can make it better," Henry said. "If you’ve been in a position to effect change and haven’t done so, people are going to take you out and put in someone else.”

Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, said Henry reaped more of a benefit from the “change” vote than candidates in the fractured Democratic mayoral primary. In a head-to-head comptroller contest, Hartley said, “people wanting change didn’t have the vote split. [Henry is] getting all of that energy.”

Baltimore City Comptroller - Dem

Results of Baltimore City comptroller primary
Baltimore City Comptroller Democratic
Candidate
votes
Bill Henry (Democratic)
74,135
54.7%
Joan M. Pratt (Democratic)
Incumbent
61,388
45.3%
3 of 4 precincts reporting

Henry, 51, has represented North Baltimore since 2007. He chairs the council’s Equity and Structure Committee, and has spearheaded several charter amendments intended to restructure the balance of power in City Hall. One would give subpoena power to the city auditor, an office he would oversee as comptroller. He plans to push for more audits of city agencies.

He also sits on the council’s budget committee.

Pratt, 68, was first elected comptroller in 1995 and has rarely faced an opponent for re-election. When challenged in the 2016 primary, she commanded 80% of the vote.

She campaigned this year on what she says is a record of saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars during her tenure. Pratt said Baltimore needs an experienced financial leader as it grapples with the economic uncertainty triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

But she had to contend with her connection to former Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh, who resigned last year amid a corruption scandal.

Pugh used a clothing shop co-owned with Pratt as conduit for illegal contributions to her mayoral campaign. The consignment shop’s partners filed a false tax return for 2016 that made no mention of receiving the funds. Pratt, who filed the returns, repeatedly said she had no idea of any impropriety and was duped along with the rest of the city. She has not been charged with a crime.

Pratt has also been the subject of stinging reports from the city inspector general’s office in recent months, including probes into potential conflicts of interest. As one of five members of the Board of Estimates, the city’s spending panel, she cast a vote to sell city lots to the church where she worships, and to approve spending on other groups that she listed on her “abstentions list” of votes she should refrain from because of her connection to the organizations.

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The comptroller’s office is charged with conducting audits, managing city real estate, and operating the municipal telephone and mail delivery systems. The annual salary is about $125,000.

There were no Republican candidates for the office.

Henry sent a message Monday night to supporters.

“What we’ve heard all along is that the people of Baltimore City want a city comptroller who serves as a proactive financial watchdog and fights for transparency and accountability," he said. "They want a comptroller who will keep an eye on the mayor and city agencies. They want a comptroller who’s focused on pulling back the curtain, and letting all of us see how city government is really running and how our money is being spent.”

“Starting in December of this year, that’s what the people of Baltimore are going to have.”

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