On an overcast October morning on East Bank Street in Southeast Baltimore, Zeke Cohen and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, clad in suits, were preparing to canvas as Election Day draws closer.
Cohen, 31, a Canton resident, has enlisted the muscle of prominent Democratic politicians with strong Baltimore ties such as Cardin in his pursuit to fill departing 1st District Councilman James Kraft’s highly contested seat.
“I truly believe in Zeke and his vision for Baltimore City,” Cardin said. “He has a real concern for the issues going on in the [1st District] neighborhoods, and I am really confident Zeke can deal with these issues and work with the appropriate channels to get whatever he needs done.”
Since defeating five Democrats in a hard-fought primary last April, Cohen has been pounding the pavement and knocking on doors to drum up excitement about his campaign and get supporters to the polls on Nov. 8.
“We’re operating as if we’re 10 points behind,” Cohen said, “because I think our citizens want a City Council person who is going to work hard for them every single day. I think having a competitive race is good for democracy, and I think it gives some contrast and makes it exciting to be in a district where there is some ideological diversity.”
The Baltimore City Council has remained Democratic for as long as many can remember, but for the first time in years, the party’s hold on city government is not a lock.
In the race to replace retiring Councilman Kraft, who held the 1st District seat for 12 years, Republican Matthew McDaniel presents a viable challenge.
McDaniel, a 28-year-old lawyer and Canton resident, is running a forceful campaign in hopes of becoming the first Republican to serve on the City Council since Daniel Ellison, a Jew of Russian descent, was elected to the 4th District seat in 1939.
“Talking to people in the area, especially older folks, they always say: ‘Every four years, it could be a different face, but every year four years, somebody gets in front of us and says it will be different, and then four years later, they’re saying the same thing.’” McDaniel said. “That message, I think it has really disillusioned a lot of people with local politics. Not to sound negative or anything, but it’s very easy to play the blame game instead of giving people solutions to look forward to.”
The 1st District, which stretches from Harbor East to the city-county line in Dundalk and includes Southeast Baltimore, has shown a willingness to vote conservative in recent years. Just two years ago, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan carried that district against favored Democrat Anthony Brown, 53 percent to 47 percent, despite garnering only 22 percent of the vote citywide.
In a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 10-to-1, the primary usually determines who sits on the council. But that trend is being put to the test with McDaniel, who has gained strong support from Hogan.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said Cohen should not be taking anything for granted but added the “fundamentals” (campaign contributions and party affiliation) remain heavily on his side.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports filed on Aug. 30 through the Maryland State Board of Elections, Cohen has more robust funding.
Cohen has spent more than $122,000 during the last two years and has more than $77,000 in campaign contributions at his disposal. McDaniel, on the other hand, has just $12,000-plus in funds, per his most recent filing on Sept. 11, and used just over $1,000 to capture victory in the primaries.
“I don’t know if McDaniel can generate the same type of buzz Hogan did when he was running for governor,” Kromer said. “[Hogan] ran a very expensive campaign and dumped a lot of money into that part of the city, and I just don’t know if McDaniel has stood out in the same way in that respect.”
For his part, Cohen has become a popular figure in his own party’s circle, drawing the support of 2nd District City Councilman Brandon Scott and state Del. Antonio Hayes (D) in addition to Cardin.
I think having a competitive race is good for democracy, and I think it gives some contrast and makes it exciting to be in a district where there is some ideological diversity. — Zeke Cohen
Chuck Conner, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said Cohen has also taken the time to get to know voters and their concerns, making him the ideal choice to succeed Kraft.
“When you look at Zeke and his background, what he is committed to and what his vision for the future is and compare that to his Republican challenger [McDaniel], I don’t think there is a comparison,” Conner said. “I’ve seen a lot of people who are receptive to Zeke and a lot of people who are supporting his campaign and have been supporting him for a long time.”
A Northampton, Mass., native, Cohen studied political science at Goucher College, received a master’s degree in public policy from Johns Hopkins University and taught middle school social studies through Teach For America. Cohen currently is executive director of The Intersection, a nonprofit he founded as a graduate student five years ago that has helped more than 30 high school students earn college scholarships. He also sits on the Baltimore Advisory Council for Jews United for Justice.
His Republican challenger, McDaniel, comes from a background practicing both public and private law.
A Frederick County native, McDaniel graduated from Catsonville High School and earned his undergraduate degree in history and political science from Loyola University Maryland and his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Baltimore School of Law.
He is an associate at the Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew law firm, where he specializes in helping small businesses get off the ground. Prior to joining the Baltimore-based firm in 2014, McDaniel worked for the special victims unit of the state’s attorney’s office and as a judicial law clerk for the Maryland Judiciary.
Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said if “the citizens of Baltimore are ever going to end the monopoly government” in the city, McDaniel gives them the best chance to do just that given his qualifications.
“Matt understands that if this becomes a race between Democrats and Republicans, he loses,” Cluster said. “So we’re not going to put our face out there for him publicly as much we’ve done for other candidates, but we’ve been very supportive of him. Matt is his own individual candidate, and people will judge him on his views, his beliefs and decide whether they want him or Cohen to represent them in District 1.”
McDaniel, whom Gov. Hogan endorsed in September, believes that having a Republican on the council would be instrumental to the city to generate support from state lawmakers in Annapolis.
“I think the people in Baltimore City, especially in District 1, respect the governor,” McDaniel said. “I also think people have seen that [Hogan] is willing to work across party lines to get things done and to bring the changes people have been asking to see for a while.”
As for the issues, both Cohen and McDaniel agree that reforming the police, fixing the education system, holding city agencies accountable and tax reform are among the most important topics facing residents. The way the two men plot to go about bringing those changes, however, differ in a variety of ways.
If elected, Cohen says he plans to put his educational experience to good use by pressing the city to make universal pre-kindergarten one of its top priorities. Because space in pre-kindergarten is limited in Baltimore City Public Schools, a priority system consisting of economic and social factors is used to enroll children in two different groups.
Cohen understands the importance of early school success for children and how that can lay the foundation to ensure a rich academic future.
“Having been an educator, one of the big things for me is to make sure our schools are great, which starts early,” Cohen said. “Ages zero to 5 are critical years for children, and I want them to have a safe, high-quality educational space to be in.”
City Council president Bernard “Jack” Young, who has pledged more than $3,000 to Cohen’s campaign, has worked tirelessly with the Democratic nominee to set aside funding for many youth issues, which will appear on the ballot for voters.
It’s very easy to play the blame game instead of giving people solutions to look forward to. — Matthew McDaniel
Young’s spokesman, Lester Davis, said the City Council president is fully behind Cohen and expects to work with him on carrying out that idea, if passed, when the new Council takes office in December.
“I think Zeke sees children as the key to growing and making Baltimore City thrive,” Davis said. “That has been the bedrock of the City Council president’s tenure since he has been on the council, so I think [Young] and Cohen have a lot in common.”
McDaniel also is a strong proponent of investing in the city’s youth. He is a firm believer that students graduating from city high schools should either be prepared to pursue a post-secondary degree or gain the skills needed to hold down a job in an ever-growing competitive marketplace.
To accomplish this, he feels the city — which, according to the Census Bureau Report, spends the third-highest per pupil in the country’s 100 largest school districts at approximately $15,000 per year — needs to spend more efficiently. McDaniel wants to see some funds put into public-private partnerships with nonprofits that supplement learning in and outside the classroom to better prepare students for the challenges of transitioning to adulthood.
“I think we really have to get our house in order,” McDaniel said. “I’ve said this to a few people before: It’s no one person’s or party’s fault, but it just so happens that in Baltimore, it’s been one party.”
In recent years, City Council members have sought to get the city’s charter amended to force audits of municipal departments every two years. City Councilman Eric Costello, who represents the 11th District, sponsored a bill in June that would require more frequent audits, which received support from eight of the current 15 Council members and was backed by City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt.
Cohen said he would work to carry out this piece of legislation and use his skills running his own nonprofit to assist in making that transition smooth.
“The challenge has been the political will to actually enforce them,” Cohen said of the audits. “I’ve run a nonprofit [The Intersection] for a number of years, and every year, I was audited. If I misspent a single dollar, my organization would lose its license. Yet, we’re in the enormous city budget, and we can’t seem to get the audits done, which is unacceptable.”
With the city trying to navigate a $60 million deficit, McDaniel said one of the big reasons he decided to run in the first place was to help Baltimore balance its budget. He believes bringing a more conservative economic mindsight to the table can accomplish that.
McDaniel is pushing to incrementally lower property and personal taxes with the idea of spawning economic growth.
“I have yet to hear a Democrat say, ‘Oh no, I’m against all those things,’” McDaniel said. “I say that as a bit of joke, but it really is true. When you’re looking 10, 15, 20 years down the line, the city is going to be running into some significant financial problems to grow the population and bring people and businesses back in.”
Finding new and innovative ways to reduce crime and working in conjunction with the Baltimore Police Department is something that both candidates would like to bring to the forefront. From Oct. 1 through Oct. 8, there were a reported 121 robberies, larcenies and assaults in Southeast Baltimore alone, according to figures from the Baltimore City Government data website.
McDaniel feels the city needs more police officers, increased community walks with officers to build a sense of community and more citywide surveillance cameras. Cohen stressed that rebuilding trust between the police and those they serve is pivotal, and he would like to offer regular public meetings.
Dr. Remington Nevin, a 42-year-old post-doctoral fellow in the Johns Hopkins University Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, has donated several hundred dollars to McDaniel’s campaign and said he likes that McDaniel would bring a different perspective to the fold.
“I feel [McDaniel] has much better ideas for the city than [Cohen] does,” Nevin said. “He’s a Republican, but I think he approaches a lot of Baltimore’s issues as an independent.”
Louis Monk, a 45-year-old Patterson Park resident who owns Patterson Park Laundry and Dry Cleaners, said he appreciates Cohen’s willingness to work with people from all walks of life.
“Zeke is always out and about listening to what everyone has to say, and he is someone who takes a genuine interest in what we have to say,” Monk said. “He has been a very personable person, and that really does go a long way with a lot of people.”