The first competitive race for Baltimore comptroller in two decades could be decided by a razor-thin margin.
The contest to be the city’s fiscal watchdog typically isn’t one to watch on Election Night. Longtime incumbent Joan Pratt, first elected in 1995, usually sails through to another term without a challenge. But City Councilman Bill Henry put up a tough fight this campaign, as he urged voters to cast their ballots in favor of change — along with greater transparency and accountability.
Returns based on roughly 70,000 mailed ballots counted before primary day showed Henry with about a 2,500-vote lead. On Tuesday thousands of additional people voted in-person, mailed in their ballots or dropped them off at polling sites.
There are an unknown number of outstanding ballots to be counted, meaning results are far from clear. About 133,000 people voted in the 2016 Democratic primary.
Roughly 6,200 people voted in person in Baltimore on Tuesday. Those returns were expected to come Wednesday morning.
Elections officials will continue to count ballots this week that arrived recently in the mail or ballot drop boxes. Results are scheduled to be certified by June 12.
Henry said late Tuesday night that he was hopeful, acknowledging the results are preliminary. “I am really happy our campaign has seen what seems to be some good validation," he said. "People want a watchdog and I hope we are going to give them one.”
A normally below-the-radar race, the contest was shepherded into the spotlight by a serious challenger. There was also additional scrutiny this year of Pratt, who had to repeatedly defend her business ties to former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who resigned from office before pleading guilty to federal conspiracy and tax evasion charges.
It was expected to be close. A May poll found Pratt favored by 41% of the likely Democratic primary voters, while Henry had the support of 34% of respondents. There is no Republican candidate running.
The comptroller’s office is charged with conducting audits, managing city real estate, and operating the municipal telephone and mail delivery systems. The job also comes with a seat on the five-member Board of Estimates, which oversees all city spending above $25,000.
Henry, who has represented North Baltimore on the City Council since 2007, campaigned on a promise to bring greater transparency and accountability to the role. Pratt, meanwhile, touted her record in office and said she’s saved the city tens of millions of dollars during her tenure.
She’s been a fixture of Democratic politics for decades. Pratt, 68, is a trustee at Bethel A.M.E Church and has served on various community boards. She is also an accountant and continues to run her own firm.
Joseph Taylor, 35, stood in line to cast his ballot at Mount Pleasant Church and Ministries, even as a brief spurt of rain poured down on voters. He said Pratt hadn’t given him a reason not to vote for her.
“She’s reachable, she’s relatable,” he said. “She’s a part of the community and, to me, she’s been favorable to Baltimore for so many years."
Court documents revealed this year that Pugh used a clothing shop she co-owned with Pratt to hide illegal contributions to her mayoral campaign. The business partners filed a false tax return for 2016 that made no mention of receiving those funds.
Pratt, who filed the returns, has repeatedly said she was duped by the former mayor and had no idea of any impropriety. She has not been charged with a crime.
She has been the subject of stinging inspector general reports in recent months, including one that laid out how Pratt voted 30 times in three years to approve millions of dollars worth of city spending on organizations with which she appeared to have a connection. That came after an initial investigation found Pratt voted in 2017 to sell city property to her church.
Eddie Scott, 28, said he’s voting for a change in leadership across the offices of City Hall. He said he’s troubled by Pratt’s connection with Pugh, and especially that the problems were related to finances.
The Northeast Baltimore resident cast his ballot for Henry. “I’ve known him a long time and I think he’s going to bring change to that office,” he said.
Henry, 51, is chair of the council’s Equity and Structure Committee, and sits on the budget committee. He has introduced several charter amendments intended to restructure the balance of power in City Hall, including one that would give subpoena power to the city auditor.
The councilman had the vocal support of several of the elected officials he serves with, who say he would bring needed change to the comptroller’s office.
Henry says he wants to oversee modernization of the office, as well as better and more frequent audits of city agencies.
Pratt, meanwhile, said she would harness her experience to help the city out of the economic turmoil touched off by the coronavirus pandemic.
Henry raised more money during this campaign, but Pratt benefited from a large campaign bank account accumulated over her years in office.
The job comes with a salary of about $125,000.
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.