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