Longtime Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt is holding a small lead over City Councilman Bill Henry in a competitive race to serve as the city’s fiscal watchdog, according to a new poll for The Baltimore Sun, the University of Baltimore and WYPR-FM.
The Democratic primary contest for city comptroller has rarely attracted attention from voters, much less serious challengers. That changed when Henry launched a bid based on a promise to bring greater transparency and accountability to the role.
His message could resonate after a year in which Pratt was the subject of stinging inspector general reports and had to defend business ties to now-disgraced former Mayor Catherine Pugh.
Pratt was favored by 41% of the likely Democratic primary voters polled, while Henry had the support of 34% of respondents.
The poll of 400 likely voters, released Thursday, was conducted May 11-18. It has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.
“This race shows some real fault lines in the city,” said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll.
Pratt was favored by voters who also supported either former Mayor Sheila Dixon or current Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young in the poll, a group that includes older black voters. Henry, meanwhile, captured a majority of those who supported one of the other leading candidates in the crowded race for mayor.
Pratt "is clearly getting what I might call an ‘old guard’ vote,” Raabe said.
About one in five voters remains undecided, the poll shows, with less than two weeks to go until June 2, the date by which voters must mail in completed ballots or go to one of the city’s in-person polling places.
“This is one of those races that people don’t really pay attention to. It’s this sort of behind-the-scenes, money management, wonky position,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.
“Certainly because of [Pratt’s] connection with Catherine Pugh, it’s brought this race into the forefront — plus there’s a serious challenger.”
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 those funds.
Pratt, who filed the returns, has repeatedly said she had no idea of any impropriety. She has not been charged with a crime.
“We were all duped,” she said. “I was in business with someone who, unbeknownst to me, was dishonest.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic turned this election season on its head, Henry and his volunteers crisscrossed the city to drum up support outside of the North Baltimore district he’s represented since 2007. The team joked about making T-shirts saying, “Who is the comptroller?” because they said they were confronting an electorate with little awareness of the city’s third-highest position.
“If more people knew how the city was spending its money, we’d spend it better,” Henry, 51, said.
Pratt, 68, still holds the benefit of incumbency. She’s a trustee at Bethel A.M.E Church and has served on various community boards during her career both as comptroller and as an accountant with her own firm, which she still operates.
As comptroller, Pratt is paid about $125,000.
“She’s been citywide for 25 years now,” said former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a WBAL-AM talk show host. “Joan has been a consistent.”
Pratt was first elected comptroller in 1995 and has rarely faced an opponent. When Mike King, an operations manager for a financial services firm, challenged her in the 2016 primary, she trounced him with nearly 80% of the vote.
She’s campaigning on what she says is a record of saving taxpayers money. Pratt says that with Baltimore facing economic uncertainty in the wake of the pandemic, it needs an experienced financial leader.
“It’s familiarity with Joan Pratt,” said Dave Christian, 47, who told pollsters he supports the incumbent. “She’s been around awhile and I feel she knows what she’s doing."
Pratt calculated that her office’s work — through cost-saving measures stemming from the audit department and revenue generated from things like property sales — resulted in $31.5 million more for the city during her time in office.
“I only wanted to state what someone may ask me to prove,” she said of the figure. “But it’s probably double that.”
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 spending above $25,000.
It’s Pratt’s membership on the board that has triggered increased scrutiny in recent months.
The comptroller 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, according to a review by the city’s inspector general. Pratt has said, without providing details, that the report contains “numerous misleading and false conclusions" and she denies there were conflicts of interest.
The report came on the heels of another investigation by Inspector General Isabel Cumming’s office, which found Pratt voted in 2017 to sell city property to Bethel A.M.E. The report labeled it a conflict of interest.
Just last week, the inspector general released a report stating that the city wasted more than $100,000 over three years for phone lines that weren’t being used.
These investigations and the former business connection to Pugh could hurt Pratt, analysts say, if Henry hits on them hard and makes a pitch for change — though that’s tougher to do without in-person debates or forums.
The poll showed roughly two-thirds of voters believe Baltimore is heading in the wrong direction, which could throw a harsh light onto the races with incumbent officeholders.
“Joan Pratt just needs to go,” Mount Vernon resident Jonathan Schettino, 38, said. “She’s been sitting in that chair awhile and in some ways is connected with Pugh. We need a shift."
Pratt, meanwhile, has gone negative on her opponent.
Her campaign sent out fliers and a robocall that zeroed in on a 2010 incident in which Henry reimbursed the city $6,500 after paying for meals he had with constituents using a discretionary account afforded to him as a councilman. He had done so without explaining who he was meeting with and why, as required.
“He wants to be financial watchdog and he can’t keep receipts?” Pratt said.
Henry has said the city’s request for receipts came years after those meals took place. He said he learned a valuable lesson and has been clear about his expenses in the decade since.
Henry’s campaign could be bolstered by the support of several of his fellow council members. He’s also been endorsed by several progressive organizations in the city and state.
“He’s a solid guy who really has his arms around city issues,” said Harold Riedl, 73, who lives in his Henry’s council district. “He always been very responsive to constituent needs and impressed me with his command of financial issues.”
Henry 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.
Henry is paid about $73,000 as a councilman.
Also a member of the council budget committee, Henry says he has the experience and the drive needed to modernize the comptroller’s office. He plans to push for more, and better, audits of city agencies.
“People will ask me, ‘Well, the comptroller is a CPA. Are you a CPA?'” Henry said. “I’ll say, ‘I’m not a CPA, but I’m an MBA. I understand the big picture and can follow the numbers.’”
Pratt argues she’s been an independent check on the mayor’s office and doesn’t hesitate to vote against contracts favored by the mayor. She recently voted “no” on a controversial aerial surveillance program and has repeatedly voted against water rate increases.
According to the latest financial disclosure forms, Henry has raised more money during this campaign, but Pratt benefits from a large campaign bank account accumulated over the years.