High Stakes, Mixed Expectations

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Flag of Baltimore City (©iStockphoto.com/Bosphorus)
Flag of Baltimore City (©iStockphoto.com/Bosphorus)

In Baltimore, as in the rest of the state, candidates and residents alike are underscoring the importance of this election.

In Baltimore, as in the rest of the state, candidates and residents alike are underscoring the importance of this election. While the presidential election looms overhead, Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s seat — which she has filled for almost 30 years — is up for grabs. Baltimore City, still reeling from last April’s unrest after the police custody death of Freddie Gray and the barrage of negative attention it attracted, will elect a new mayor in a race with a wide candidate pool full of insiders, outsiders and in-betweens.


And at the even more local level, a number of Baltimore City Council seats are up for grabs as candidates step down or run for other offices. The Jewish community that resides in upper Park Heights straddling the city-county line will vote for longtime District 5 Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector’s replacement. Spector, known as the “dean of the Council,” is stepping down after nearly 40 years in office.

There are 28 mayoral candidates (as of press time), 12 of whom are running in the Democratic primary. According to polling by The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore, State Sen. Catherine Pugh is on top with 31 percent of likely Democratic voters favoring her, followed by former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who has 25 percent. The poll put lawyer Elizabeth Embry in third with 9 percent, businessman David Warnock in fourth with 7 percent and Councilmen Carl Stokes and Nick Mosby tied in fifth with 5 percent. Mosby has since dropped out of the race and put his support behind Pugh.

“It looks like the Sheila Dixon base of support has been steady, and I think what you’re seeing with Catherine Pugh’s surge is a coalescing around her,” said Nina Therese Kasniunas, an associate professor of political science and international relations at Goucher College.

In the District 5 race, seven Democrats are running to replace Spector, two of whom are members of the Jewish community. The candidates include Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, a small business owner and vice president of the Cheswolde Neighborhood Association; Betsy Gardner, 5th and 6th district neighborhood liaison and citywide Jewish community liaison for the City Council president’s office; Derrick Lennon, a transportation coordinator and former president of the Glen Improvement Association; Christopher Ervin, a criminal justice reform advocate; Sharif Small, a small business owner; Elizabeth Ryan Martinez, an attorney; and Kinji Scott, a community organizer. There are no Republican candidates.

For Avrahom Sauer, president of the Cross Country Improvement Association, the community is choosing between Gardner, who has been a community liaison for the past 14 years and under the three most recent mayoral administrations, and Schleifer, 27, who is involved in a variety of community and Jewish organizations.

“We have two very viable candidates,” Sauer said. “Of those two, each one has special qualifications, and people need to understand what they are and make their decisions accordingly.”

In the Senate race, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-District 4) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-District 8) are in close competition.

For many in the Jewish community, policy on Israel is at the forefront of this race. Mikulski is widely considered a friend to and advocate for Israel and the Jewish community, and voters are looking for someone to continue that legacy.

“There are two pro-Israel candidates with decidedly different perspectives on how to go about the peace process,” said Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

Don Norris, director of the school of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that while the Senate race is up in the air, he thinks Van Hollen is going to win it.

“I think at the end of the day Van Hollen will pull it out by one or two points,” he said. “He’s not going to win big, but I think he’s going to be the beneficiary of the negative advertising Edwards is engaging in. I think it’s going to backfire on her.”

Nathan Willner, president of the Cheswolde Neighborhood Association, said people see a stark contrast between Edwards and Van Hollen on Middle East policy.

“Most people feel Van Hollen will be stronger on continuing the Israel-U.S. relationship,” he said.

Abramson described it as Edwards being more philosophically aligned with J Street and Van Hollen more aligned with AIPAC.

State Sen. Catherine Pugh (File photo)
State Sen. Catherine Pugh (File photo)

The Mayoral Election

Although the city election coincides with the presidential election, Norris still expects low turnout.

“Turnout in the Baltimore City primary election is always low,” he said, “so the expectation is it should be low.”

He said there hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to the city by the presidential race and doesn’t believe the senate race is engaging the electorate in the city either, and voter numbers tend to drop off in the races further down on the ballot.

Kasniunas, however, suspects that turnout could be higher for a number of reasons. Nominations in both the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries are being contested, voters can register the same day during early voting, and legislation that took effect in March allows 40,000 ex-offenders to vote in this election cycle, 20,000 of which will be eligible to vote in city elections.

She also noted that Hillary Clinton recently campaigned in Baltimore City and John Kasich visited Howard County. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump visited Maryland earlier this week, Ted Cruz campaigned in Towson and Kasich in Annapolis. Bernie Sanders visited Baltimore in December.

The choice really is not competence but the choice is that people have seen Sheila Dixon as mayor and to the extent that they’re looking for something new, it would be Catherine Pugh. Either way, the Jewish community is going to be extremely, I think, safe and is going to be very comfortable.
— Art Abramson, executive director, Baltimore Jewish Council

“I would think anything above 20 percent would be a better-than-
expected turnout for this primary, particularly because in the past, mayoral elections have not coincided with presidential elections,” Kasniunas said.

Pointing to recent polling, experts predict Baltimore’s next mayor will be Sen. Catherine Pugh, who is the state senate majority leader, or Sheila Dixon, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s predecessor who resigned in 2010 after being convicted of a misdemeanor charge of stealing gift cards that were intended for needy city residents.

“[Pugh] is doing a clever job of not dissing Dixon but dissing her by saying ‘move the city forward, not back.’ Everybody understands what that means,” Norris said. “A lot of voters look at Dixon and say ‘no, I can’t do that.’”

Kasniunas added that voters have literally seen Pugh in action during the recent legislative session, which has given her a bit of an edge.

“She has at her fingertips access to a lot of information and data that she quickly turns around when she talks to people,” she said. “That gives people confidence.”

Abramson said he’s known both Pugh and Dixon for more than 25 years. The Jewish community has had a “superb” relationship with both of them, and Abramson has traveled to Israel with both Pugh and Dixon in different capacities.

“The Jewish community looks at one thing: effectiveness. Both of them in their different roles have been very effective,” he said. “The choice really is not competence but the choice is [that] people have seen Sheila Dixon as mayor and to the extent that they’re looking for something new, it would be Catherine. Either way, the Jewish community is going to be extremely, I think, safe and is going to be very comfortable with who the voters choose in the end.”

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon (File photo)
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon (File photo)

Willner said he’s seen some support for Embry and Warnock, and has seen Pugh put some resources into courting his community.

“Overall, I’m beginning to see a real groundswell for Catherine Pugh,” he said. “I’m seeing the community as a whole slowly solidify their support behind her.”

At a recent televised debate, candidates spoke about their plans to bolster city schools, improve police-community relations, drive down crime and bring more jobs and job training to the city.

Dixon has campaigned on the work she did as mayor and the fact that she would not have a learning curve going into office. She has pointed to work she did in health initiatives, minority business programs, engaging neighborhoods and crime, pointing to the gun registry she created. On the police department, she wants to increase foot patrols and update technology.

Pugh has touted her work as a state senator, state delegate, city councilwoman, small business owner and banker. Like Dixon, she would like to undergo a marketing campaign for Baltimore and added that she would like to provide incentives for police officers to move to the city.

Abramson said a major factor on voters’ minds is trying to avoid a situation like last year’s unrest, which depends on having and strong and effective police department working in conjunction with the mayor.

“The second factor is to try to resolve many of the roots of that tragic event, and the Jewish community, certainly the Baltimore Jewish community, has strongly supported the initiatives that have come out of the governor’s offices as well as the legislature.”

But Molly Amster, Baltimore dir-ector for Jews United for Justice, said that little has changed in a year. The CVS in the Penn-North neighborhood that was burned down during the unrest has been rebuilt, but the neighborhood is the same, she said. Other issues are weighing on her mind as well.

“The mayor, in an unbelievable move, has cut after school programming for kids and is entertaining the Port Covington TIF [tax increment financing], which is an unbelievable corporate giveaway at the direct expense of the city,” she said, referring to the possible $535 million in public financing for Under Armour’s mixed-use real estate project in South Baltimore. “So in particular, I will be looking to elect someone who is not going to allow TIFs like the Port Covington deal to go through, will invest in neighborhoods — the ones where we really need to incentivize development — and will include citizens of those neighborhoods in the process.”

From left: Baltimore City Council District 5 candidates Christopher Ervin, Betsy Gardner, Derrick Lennon, Elizabeth Ryan Martinez, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Sharif Small. Not pictured: Kinji Scott. (Marc Shapiro)
From left: Baltimore City Council District 5 candidates Christopher Ervin, Betsy Gardner, Derrick Lennon, Elizabeth Ryan Martinez, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Sharif Small. Not pictured: Kinji Scott. (Marc Shapiro)

The Council Race

In the District 5 council race, property tax rates, city services and public safety have been front and center in the discussion.

Schleifer has campaigned on transparency and increasing communication between residents and city hall. In addition to prioritizing public safety, he wants to bring the city up-to-date technologically and thinks property tax rates should be lower. He also wants to make sure each neighborhood gets its share of city services.

“I believe we can do better,” he told a crowd of about 100 at a recent debate.

Gardner, who has been endorsed by Spector, is running on her experience and has highlighted her knowledge of and connections to the inner-workings of the city.

“I know how to get things done. I know who to call,” she said at the same debate.

Schleifer brought the city’s free summer lunch program to the Jewish community for kosher and observant kids for the first time last summer and is involved in organizing his neighborhood’s National Night Out event. He pleaded with Mayor Rawlings-Blake to add more resources to the city’s crime lab, and soon after that conversation, she created 10 new positions there. He was appointed Northwest Liaison under Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and is a member of the Democratic State Central Committee.

In her time at the City Council president’s office, Gardner has worked on Homeland Security grants for synagogues, worked in conjunction with the Baltimore Jewish Council to get security cameras installed on Park Heights Avenue and worked with police districts across the city to ensure synagogues have proper coverage for the High Holidays. She helped Hatzalah of Baltimore get linked into the city’s fire and 911 system, she helped Chabad with its menorah car parade and lighting in the Inner Harbor and helped move the city’s chametz burning to its current location after it outgrew its previous location.

Willner, who sits on the Cheswolde board with Schleifer, said he’s seeing a lot of enthusiasm in the community for the primary election, and sees a lot of support in the community for Schleifer. Local rabbis have information on their websites urging people to vote as a moral obligation, he said.

“I’ve not seen that kind of push in previous elections in the community,” Willner said. He’s even noticed a number of people changing their party affiliations from Republican to Democrat to vote in various primary races, notably the council and senate races.

Sauer said he’s seeing less engagement and more apathy in the Cross Country Neighborhood. He attributes this to a number of factors: the lack of favorable presidential candidates, the primary election being on Passover when a lot of people will be out of town and the fact that Maryland’s primary is late in the season and the state doesn’t have a large number of delegates.

“[People] don’t realize what’s at stake with the local election. They don’t understand the value or the necessity or the urgency to go and vote,” he said, adding that he feels the council race is of utmost importance.

He said among those who are engaged in the council race, he thinks people will have a tough choice between Gardner and Schleifer.

“I do see very strong support for both. Betsy has done an enormous amount in our neighborhood, that which [people] know and that which they don’t know,” he said. “Yitzy has done a great job but has very little experience working with people in the political system. He’s a novice, he’s young, he’s brash but that may help allow him to usher in his agenda. … He has a lot of friends in the area.”

As Willner sees it, a lot of these races boil down to a single issue.

“I think the number one issue in the Jewish community is safety and security and that is something that is of critical importance in the mayor’s race and in the city council race,” he said.

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