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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen and Mark Reutter12:38 pmSep 14, 20110

Seven lessons learned from yesterday’s primary

The real winner in this record-low-turnout election? A fellow named Stat S. Quo.

Above: Jubilant after a decisive primary victory, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake celebrated with political mentor, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings.

1. Too many challengers means the incumbents, even lame ones, have an edge.

Exhibit A: the 12th District. It was lousy with good candidates who worked the streets hard (especially Odette Ramos), but they split up the vote, leaving Carl Stokes to win by a comfortable margin. Likewise, the crowded field of challengers in the 9th District (including John Bullock, Abigail Breiseth, Michael Johnson and Chris Taylor) collectively earned more than 3,000 votes. That allowed incumbent William “Pete” Welch (widely-derided son of the previous incumbent) to hold his council seat by winning just 1,655 votes, or 35% of the total.

Same way in the mayor’s race. Otis Rolley III likes to tell how he ignored the people who advised him to “wait his turn,” but perhaps, ahem, they were right? Would “City Council President Rolley” have been in a better position to take on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake next time around? And would Jody Landers, working for Rolley as his deputy responsible for the all-important Board of Estimates agenda, have had a chance to implement his innovative tax strategies?

2. City voters need some kind of inducement to come to the polls.

Please withhold your gift card jokes. If we can’t hand out iPads, key lime pies or lottery tickets after voters press the button, let’s at least schedule the city races during a statewide or national election. These off-year elections are straight out of the Voter Suppression Handbook, but they come in handy for politicians from the D.C. suburbs, such as Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of Prince George’s County, who have historically opposed letting pesky Baltimore voters get involved in statewide races. City pols also like off-year-elections since they mean no statewide candidates competing with them as they solicit campaign contributions.

3. Politicians will drive truckloads of cash right through the state’s campaign finance loopholes.

The Brew found tens of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions flowing to incumbents from developers, lawyers and others who do business with the city, all skirting the rule limiting donations to $4,000. Maryland’s campaign finance website is a thicket of entries showing checks that candidates have accepted from “ABC LLC” whose address is “PO Box 123,” with no name given. There are states – like New Jersey, scarcely the poster child for good government – that require more disclosure.

Ashley Mathes and Sierra Adams handed out fliers for Pete Welch, even thouhght hey don't live in his district. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Ashley Mathes and Sierra Adams handed out fliers for Councilman Pete Welch yesterday, even though they said they don't live in his district. (Photo by Fern Shen)

4. Sorry, you cool Canton kids: politics in Baltimore is still pretty “old school.”

Rolley may have dominated the Twitterverse, but Rawlings-Blake (and the incumbency-fueled Democratic political machine) rule the cosmos that still matters here: fundraising and vote-getting. Rolley’s tech community backers perhaps made too much of the role of that social media, data-mining, etc., played in last year’s upset of State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy. The successful challenger, Gregg Bernstein, had something more primitive going for him – support from a popular police chief and an electorate seething with anger over the Stephen Pitcairn murder.

5. Provincialism is a plus around here.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake read it right when she emphasized her local roots. She ran a radio ad tagging her opponents – Sen. Catherine Pugh’s from Philadelphia and Rolley’s from Jersey – as, gasp, “out-of-town.” Even the star power of entertainer Bill Cosby, who stumped for Rolley, was unable to break through this B-more bias. Cosby doesn’t have a ring from City or Poly either!

6. For an incumbent, getting booted out is tricky, but not impossible.

Living outside your district, like Rochelle “Rikki” Spector, isn’t enough to prompt voters to show you the door. (Spector lives with her boyfriend at Harbor East in the 1st District, while representing the 5th District in far northwest Baltimore.) Sitting on your hands while your district withers away (the aforementioned Pete Welch) may cause constituent grumbles, but doesn’t get you bumped off the public payroll.

The one exception: incumbent Belinda K. Conaway, who lost her 7th District seat yesterday to Nick Mosby, and who apparently took one homestead tax credit too many. (Note to others on the council with similar skeletons in their closets: if blogger Adam Meister calls you on it, do not file a $21 million defamation suit against him that you’re going to have to drop.)


The "SRB-mobile" parked outside her victory party at Baltimore Soundstage last night. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

7. The record low turnout means the real winner was a fellow named Stat S. Quo.

Even the winners should pause amid their champagne toasts for a bit of introspection, as they contemplate how little they excited the electorate. It now looks like about 20% of registered Democratic voters voted in the primary, compared to 28% in 2007 and 34% in 2003. That skimpy turnout means Rawlings-Blake’s “mandate” is really very small. Work out the math: She won 52% of one-fifth of the electorate. That’s a whopping 10.4% of the registered voters’ vote!

Also well-advised to take a hard look in the mirror: City Council members like Warren Branch (13th), who woke up safe this morning based on a tiny total (1,713 votes) and teeny-weeny victory margin (he had just 15 more votes than political newcomer Shannon Sneed). So, too, Council Vice-President Edward Reisinger, in whose 10th District about 85% of those eligible to vote stayed home. (The district’s total vote count was a breathtakingly low 2,461.)

Of course, if all they care about is keeping their jobs, then the electorate’s torpor serves the status quo fine.

Postscript: What About These “Indifferent” Voters?

There will be – and should be – finger-pointing at voters as well, for failing to show up and losing their prerogative to gripe.

People once died to bring the right to vote to all citizens. Yesterday you couldn’t give that right away. Still, it’s not hard to see why people are disillusioned with a political system that does little to include them. Even more disturbing is the gulf between the world that Baltimore’s political leaders and their financial backers inhabit and the one where regular people live.

The latter are not living in an artist’s rendering of a mixed-use development along the waterfront. More often than not, they’re living amid blocks of boarded-up houses facing endemic crime and crushing joblessness (as the mayoral candidates who parachuted into Lexington Market were reminded Monday).

Government leaders will say they’re trying to bridge that gap, and most will mean it when they say it. But until they do a better job of matching deeds with words, only a small minority of Baltimoreans will find the voting process worth their time.

 Notices and a mural at a polling place in Baltimore's Reservoir Hill. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Notices and a mural at a polling place in Baltimore's Reservoir Hill. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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