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Baltimore: A closed city of power, money, and influence

April 4, 2012

In 1998, Baltimore City Paper senior writer Van Smith penned an excellent polemic opining that voters were becoming increasingly irrelevant in Baltimore’s political process. Smith lamented then that the voting class was shrinking faster than the city’s population, with less than a fifth of voting-age residents casting votes in elections. He described Baltimore as a “closed society of power, money, and influence” controlled by organized minorities (power brokers, interests groups, the monied class, etc). His depiction is disappointing and depressing, yet still terrifyingly accurate. And not much has changed during the past fourteen years.

That Smith critiqued Baltimore’s traditionally low voter turnout nearly twenty years ago makes the city’s effort to boost turnout by aligning the election cycle with the presidential schedule even more amusing and curious, given that so many of our political officeholders owe their seats and incumbency to apathetic nonvoters and a disengaged citizenry which has—perhaps correctly—determined that voting is a fruitless endeavor. Any actual effort to increase voter turnout would throw a monkey wrench into a system that has greatly benefitted the city’s political class. Winning city elections has a rather simple formula—or as columnist and political commentator Brian Wendall Morton told Urbanite magazine during last year’s mayoral campaign: “In a city with as apathetic a voter base as Baltimore, usually cash plus name recognition is as good as it gets for a candidate.” There are genuine means of increasing voter turnout and improving the electoral process, such as moving toward nonpartisan elections, but that would fundamentally alter the winning formula for the entrenched political class.

Baltimore’s voter turnout has been spiraling downward for sometime now, punctuated by the 2011 mayoral primary. While turnout was historically low, the previous two elections didn’t fair much better: fewer than 75,000 registered Democrats bothered to vote in the 2011 primary election, compared to approximately 86,000 in 2007, and just over 89,000 in 2003. Altering the city’s election cycle won’t return voter turnout to 1995 or 1987 levels, when Kurt Schmoke held spirited campaigns against long-time City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (’95) and popular incumbent Clarence Du Burns (’87). Voter turnout for the Democratic primaries in both 1995 and 1987 approached 160,000, more than double the turnout of 2011.

Money, of course, has been crucial to winning elections—and traditionally that money has come from the same sources, most notably business interests, power elites, and companies vying to build development projects or do business with city government. This is best illustrated by a review of campaign finance reports: During the 2011 mayoral campaign, incumbent Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake received more than 40 percent of her campaign contributions from business entities, compared to former Planning Director Otis Rolley, considered a grass-roots candidate, who received less than 6 percent of his contributions from business interests.

Van Smith described the role money plays in elections last summer, noting that in 1999, Martin O’Malley won an open seat Democratic primary by spending a little more than $1 million, or about $16.60 per vote. O’Malley spent just under $1.8 million in his 2003 re-election campaign, or about $30 per vote. In 2007, Sheila Dixon, running as an appointed incumbent, spent nearly $2 million campaigning, or about $36.50 per vote. Smith logically concludes that “[2011’s] winner in the mayor’s race can expect to spend more than $2 million and close to $40 per vote.”

In fact, Rawlings-Blake won the 2011 Democratic primary by spending just under $2 million and $50 per vote. This is incredibly instructive for those who are anxious to move beyond the broken status quo in Baltimore, much more so than Gregg Bernstein’s 2010 victory over Patricia Jessamy. Bernstein was not particularly a grassroots candidate given his positive relationship with factions of the political elite. Bernstein, for example, raised nearly $400,000 during his 2010 campaign for city state’s attorney, and captured nearly as many votes as Rawlings-Blake was able to secure in the 2011 primary election.

The last truly grassroots political candidate to win office may have been Kweisi Mfume in the 1970s, as Van Smith suggested in his 1998 article. Mfume is now a member of the political elite, and even stated that Rawlings-Blake had a clear mandate to govern following her lackluster 2011 victory, in which she captured just 52 percent of votes in the Democratic primary; Dixon captured 63 percent of the vote in 2007 and O’Malley nearly 67 percent of the vote in 2003. You would have to go back to 1987 to find a winning candidate who captured a lower percentage of the votes, when Kurt Schmoke obtained just under 51 percent of votes in a hard-fought Democratic primary win against an incumbent, Clarence Du Burns, Baltimore’s first black mayor.

Baltimore, like Chicago, is a machine-town, but perhaps last fall’s election suggests Baltimore can be more than about powerful electoral machines, a la William Donald Schaefer in the 1970s and ‘80s, Schmoke in the ’90s, and O’Malley today, or at least that the city’s current machine is vulnerable. If so, what organized minorities are prepared to usurp political power? While the Creative Class that supported Rolley’s mayoral bid was unable to raise enough money or mobilize enough voters last year, I ruminated on this last week while attending a fundraiser at Harbor East’s Four Seasons Hotel. A former colleague and keen political observer marveled at the new energy and capital coming into the city by way of emerging technology entrepreneurs and the creative class, but questioned the group’s political savvy.

Perhaps it’s less about politically savvy and more about a don’t-need-the-government mentality. Last summer, Rolley’s campaign manager told the Baltimore Business Journal that their campaign “had some great support from the tech industry because those are people who don’t need government. What they care about is Baltimore.”

Of course, caring about Baltimore and moving past the city’s broken status quo might involve acknowledging the importance of government and organized politics.



  1. I would agree that the creative class is likely to just bypass the government. The best result I can see happening is that the creative class is successful in such a way that the government cannot ignore them and is basically forced to alter its approach. It just pains me when I hear about other cities that do this because I have so little hope of it happening here due to the entrenched interests in our government.

  2. There’s a couple issues with the creative class. The first, you aptly pointed out. They feel they don’t need government. I was surprised, for as on point as many folks in the local Twitter/Blog world were, how many of them didn’t know how to registar to vote in Baltimore, that they would need to registar as a Democrat to have a voice, and/or just decided not to. How are you going to win over the local electorate when you’re core online base isn’t even signing up to vote? I Thought that disconnect played out when Jill Carter came in a healthy second place in the last mayoral election, shocking some of the online folk.

    The other issue the creative class has, at least that find, is that they are a dictatorial bunch. They work in a competitive, streamlined world that doesn’t put up with inefficiency and ineffectiveness kindly. They showcase plenty of creative talent, but patience is not a driving virtue. If the creative class were to some how usurp power in one big play (say, I guess, pushing a candidate for mayor into office) maybe their style can start to be reflected in local government. But, it’s not going to work that way. To win over Baltimore is grind out slow victories and. Allah forgive me for bringing him up, but the way that Adam Meister help take out Belinda Conaway using a media/tech pulpit is current successful example of taking the local approach.

    The creative class’s dictatorial mentality also tends to willfully ignore the delicacy of Baltimore’s racial dynamics. Do tech-savvy white men know how to filter their blunt approach with the dynamic that is the city’s culturally rich African-American body politic? How many start-up workers were marching in the city’s Trayvon Martin rally, or listen to WOLB? Those are cultural divides that, say, Boston ignores, or, say in D.C., is being gentrified away.

    • Geoff, great points. The cultural divide between Baltimore’s “creative class” and the city’s African-American body politic is pretty significant. I think Catherine Pugh’s second place finish in the last mayoral election was mistakenly considered a result of the digital divide, but it was much more culturally based, and grounded in her appeal to the city’s African American body politic. Pugh appeals to traditional voters who have helped decide elections for quite sometime in Baltimore: churchgoing African American women. Several months before the campaign season started, when rumors came out that Otis Rolley was going to run for mayor, someone quipped to me: “Do you really see those old ladies in West Baltimore voting for Otis?” I think some are still stumped that Pugh had so much more success in her campaign than Rolley. This is a town in which Rolley was deemed the “white candidate” because of creative class support of his campaign. I think it was on Steiner where Otis had to “defend” himself against criticism that he was the “white candidate.” The politics in this town is heavily racialized. And Baltimore isn’t going the way of D.C. anytime soon in regards to gentrification.

      Michael Anft put it rather aptly when he wrote that African American women, along with a handful of predominately white male deep-pocketed campaign donors, spin Baltimore’s electoral world. I don’t think the creative class is any more dictatorial than say, Paterakis or Angelos and their ilk. The difference is, for as long as they’ve held influence in Baltimore politics, you don’t often hear from Paterakis or Angelos. Interestingly enough, this is partially how Rolley can be perceived as the “white candidate” despite Rawlings-Blake receiving thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and political support from deep-pocketed white males.

      Of course, did anyone foresee that a white male from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. would become the dominant figure in Baltimore City politics? But O’Malley built a political organization that acknowledges the racial and cultural dynamics at play in this town. He ran on a “tough-on-crime approach” (and I think we all know what that means) yet managed to win re-election with almost 67 percent of the vote. Organization is critical. It’s as you say: winning over Baltimore means grinding out slow victories.

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