For the many of us who are anxious to move beyond the broken status quo in Baltimore, yesterday’s primary election was disappointing and frustrating.
Still, there’s a lot of valuable information to be gleaned that helps us build a better map of Baltimore’s electorate – from its many problems to its deep divisions.
- Turnout was pathetically low: 70,416 of 380,000 (18.5%). Some have said that “the issues didn’t resonate with voters,” and that could be true. However, a bigger trend to watch for is the decline of turnout generally. Many “seniors,” who made up the core of the voting population, are now dead or dying. How will we address this trend?
- Voters are either displeased with, or not sure about, Rawlings-Blake’s leadership. 48% of voters felt we are definitely on the wrong track with Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Many more aren’t sure, but wanted to give her a chance with a full term in office. And there are 310,000 other voters who must feel so disconnected that they declined to express any opinion at all. There is no mandate here.
- Otis Rolley swept the online progressive community. Any observer of the online world would have told you that Otis would have won in a landslide; his supporters kept a steady drumbeat on Twitter, Facebook, and on blogs throughout the campaign, and especially election day. But however strong he may have been in that community, he garnered just shy of 9,000 votes. No other candidate received any measurable online presence. This is further proof of Baltimore’s deep digital divide.
- Too many candidates spoil the race. This would have been a very different race if Rolley, Pugh, Landers and Conaway had teamed up to challenge the Mayor. Pugh had nothing to lose by running; she keeps her Senate seat. Landers could have assisted Rolley with his tax plan. Conaway had no business being in the race at all. A two-way race between a Pugh-endorsed Rolley and Rawlings-Blake would have had a very different donor make-up, would have told a different story in the press, and would have had a different outcome.
- Name recognition still carries weight. Dithering City Councilman Carl Stokes won again in the 12th district, despite a strong and credible challenge from the earnest and organized Odette Ramos. “Pistol Pete” Welch held his (inherited) seat, despite challenges from Abigail Breiseth and Christopher Taylor. These were both split-field races against “name brand” incumbents that also demonstrated the persistent racial divides in Baltimore.
- Foolishness and incompetence will eventually get you booted. In a bright spot, it was nothing short of refreshing to see that Belinda Conaway was ousted from her seat by newcomer Nick Mosby. Conaway, in suing blogger Adam Meister for $21M (for his factual articles about her place of residence), spurred Mosby to run, and he won – 2,747 to 2099. One bear down, two to go.
- City Council is broken. Baltimore’s system of government has a strong executive (Mayor) and a weak legislature (City Council). The City Council has been such a refuge of scoundrels that few want to be associated with it. Some suggested that Landers or Rolley should run for City Council president as a way to some day be mayor. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust a Mayoral candidate that was coming from City Council. There’s too much incompetence and corruption.
- Our elections are broken. It’s ridiculous that our choice of Mayor would be made in a September primary, but with no viable Republican or Independent candidates, it’s the way things are. We need to get open primaries, or hold a run-off in November. My understanding is that this can be changed via petition and referendum, which means it is doable outside of the current political structure. This needs to be pursued immediately. Too many voters were disenfranchised in this process, and it’s unreasonable to ask people to switch parties in order to vote.
- The Mayor spent (wasted?) roughly $2 Million on just 37,000 votes. In an election with just 71,000 votes cast, nearly $4 Million was spent. In a real way, the Mayor (and her tax-break seeking contributors) bought the election. The cost in the end to her was roughly $54 per vote. In a city with so much pain and brokenness, I find this morally repugnant. It’s worth nothing that Otis Rolley also spent roughly $50 per vote, so this metric is not a coincidence. It’s the “acquisition cost” of a vote in a top-tier modern Baltimore City election. We need to focus on lowering that cost.
- The incumbent Mayor always wins. This is because the incumbent Mayor influences city business, and city contractors and developers know Baltimore is a “pay to play” town. They pay, they get favors. This allows the incumbent to buy votes – for $54 each.
- Kiefaber was the favorite protest vote. Tom Kiefaber, the embattled former owner of the Senator Theater, who has been raising red flags about Baltimore Development Corporation (and interrupting City Council meetings) was the runner-up protest vote in the contest for City Council president with 5,390 votes. While Jack Young won in a landslide, the fact that a candidate like Kiefaber could get any traction at all shows just how deeply folks distrust – and ridicule – that body and its leadership.
- The Sun missed a chance to create a better horse race. Jody Landers was right to complain that only 2 of the 5 members of the Sun Editorial board live in the city; there is also only one African American. If the Sun is going to pretend to have opinions relevant to city residents, those ideas should come from people that will have to live with the consequences. The editorial bent of the Sun’s coverage did not develop any kind of horse race between candidates, and frankly seemed to be pushing for the incumbent all along. In my opinion this was not just bad for Baltimore, but bad for business for the Sun. How many more papers could they have sold by developing a more compelling narrative?
Those of you that know me know that my support for Otis Rolley was born out of a belief that Baltimore is worth fighting for, and that Baltimore deserves better. I share that belief with Otis, and with Tom Loveland, Aaron Meisner, Brian LeGette, Terry Meyerhoff Rubenstein, and so many others who supported his campaign. I supported Otis because of my beliefs; my beliefs are not shaped because of my support of Otis.
This is an important distinction. Too often when folks think “politics” they think it’s about pitting candidates against each other, and insider interests and gaining financial advantage. But in this case, that has nothing to do with it. I simply believe that we are on the wrong track and that we can do better. I have nothing to gain in my support of Otis – unless you count living in a city that might have a shot at being strong again, and one where its leaders listen to citizens.
But we also learned something else. It’s tempting to think that real change can occur through online organizing and Twitter and Facebook and the coming-alive of the “new” Baltimore or the youth vote, or via SMS messages or what have you. And sure, those things will play a part in any election going forward.
But the most important lesson is that Baltimore is a city of tribes: poor, rich, black, white, Hispanic, digital, homeless, addicted, corrupt, idealistic, and blue-collar – to name only a few. Few of us ever break out of our own tribe. We surround ourselves with our own points-of-view and hear what we want to hear.
For Baltimore to grow, we need to break free of our tribes. We need to be occasionally uncomfortable. We need to do real public service, and build up the kind of roots in our community that ultimately allow meaningful change to occur.
As Otis said last night, this is just the beginning of a campaign to take back our city and stand up for Baltimore’s future. But that won’t be easy. Done right, it will make us uncomfortable, as we reach out across tribes. It will take serious commitment, and much more than “Likes” on Facebook.
In the end, it will require our full and unconditional love – of our fellow citizens, and our city.