Illustration by Tom Chalkley
Republicans, Libertarians, and Greens aim to make Baltimore’s general election matter
Only Democrats have served as mayor since 1967, and only Democrats have sat on City Council for nearly 70 years.
Published: October 26, 2011
Next year will mark the centennial of primary elections in Maryland, and the longstanding arrangement has been a boon for Baltimore City’s Democrats. Their voter-registration dominance means the Democrats’ primaries have for generations effectively decided the city’s leadership, relegating general elections to sparsely polled processes to ratify the primary victors. Only Democrats have served as mayor since 1967, and only Democrats have sat on City Council for nearly 70 years.
In effect, much of Baltimore City’s electorate has become disenfranchised by closed Democratic primaries, in which only Democrats can vote. The phenomenon primarily is due to self-disenfranchisement: Democrats who don’t vote in their primary. This is often chalked up to apathy, but, whatever the cause, it happens in great numbers. In September’s primary election, for example, three times as many registered Democrats didn’t vote as did. The city’s 77,643 registered non-Democrats, though, simply can’t participate; they’ve presumably considered their options—either become Democrats, regardless of their beliefs, or be irrelevant as city voters—and decided to stick with their principles.
In all, 295,260 registered city voters, nearly 80 percent of the electorate, did not or could not participate in September’s Democratic primary. If that’s a meaningful way to measure the pulse of the city’s democracy today, then its heart is barely pumping.
The numbers from September are bleak. The victor in the mayor’s race, appointed incumbent Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, got 38,829 votes, about 8 percent of the city’s voting-age public and about 6 percent of its 620,961 residents. Combined Democratic participation barely broke 18 percent in three adjacent City Council districts—the 1st, 10th, and 11th—that include the city’s prosperous waterfront communities. Votes from a 10th of the registered Democrats in the 10th District were sufficient to hand victory to longtime incumbent Edward Reisinger in a three-way race. In the west side’s 9th District, appointed incumbent William “Pete” Welch won with 1,721 votes, 7.5 percent of the district’s Democratic electorate.
For voters offended by this picture, the Nov. 8 general election is their opportunity to change it. All 371,421 registered city voters can now go to the polls and exercise their right to vote. History shows that the general election likely won’t come anywhere near living up to its potential—in the 2007 city elections, for example, less than half as many people voted in the general as did in the primary—but there’s always hope.
The Democrats who won in the primary will be on the ballot, but so will 10 Republicans, four Libertarians, and two Green Party candidates. (The names of eight write-in candidates—two Republicans for mayor, a Democrat for City Council president, and four Democrats and an independent running to be City Councilmembers. as of press time—won’t be on the ballot, but if voters type the candidates’ names into the voting machine, the votes will be counted in their favor [“The Write-In Stuff,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 12]). Their parties have voter-registration numbers that pale by orders of magnitude next to the Democrats; the city is home to 32,302 Republican, 743 Libertarian, and 1,393 Green Party registered voters. But 41,750 voters aren’t affiliated with any party, and another 1,455 are registered as members of other parties—and surely some of the 293,778 registered Democrats don’t like what they see and might break ranks.
So what do these 16 non-Democrats on the ballot have to offer? First and foremost, they say, independence from what they call this town’s “Democratic machine.” With rare exceptions, they argue, Democrats toe lines drawn by their higher-ups and don’t rock the boat, opting to go along to get along so as to enhance their political fortunes. By voting in someone who hasn’t come up under the Democrats’ farm-league system, they say, the city can gain leadership that will be free to speak truth to power. For voters of all stripes who are sick and tired of the same old same old, these candidates say it’s time for a change—and that, more than anything else, is what they claim to offer.
Here are six ideas for City Hall: a clean and transparent government, lower property taxes, an emphasis on community-based policing, expanded drug treatment for addicts, greater investment in infrastructure outside the Inner Harbor, and giving pay bonuses to teachers based on merit. They come from the Baltimore City Republican Party’s “What We Believe” statement on its web site (baltimorecitygop.org). It’s a tightly focused package that’s far removed from the national GOP’s sweeping priorities and proclamations. At the top of the list is a seventh: building a two-party system in Baltimore. The only way for that to happen, the Republicans say, is for one of their candidates to win someday.
When asked which City Council districts are most open to a Republican victory, Duane Shelton won’t answer. The soft-spoken financial analyst for Johns Hopkins Hospital chairs the city’s GOP, and says it would be bad form to rank his candidates’ chances publicly. But the numbers suggest the district Shelton is running in—the 11th, represented by incumbent William Cole (D)—is the GOP’s most winnable.
The 11th has 4,357 registered Republican voters, second behind the 4,923 in the 1st District (where the GOP did not mount a candidate). Republican former governor Robert Ehrlich got 2,807 votes out of the 11th’s precincts in last year’s gubernatorial runoff election. By comparison, in the last city general election in 2007, Cole got 2,592 votes, albeit in an 11th District whose boundaries since were shifted for this year’s elections.
Thus, with a little money and a lot of work—and by building on his prior 10th District outing in 2007, when he got close to a quarter of the vote—Shelton conceivably could prevail. A wrinkle in this scenario, however, is Libertarian Doug McNeil’s presence on the ballot, which could drain some votes from Shelton. With about $2,000 in campaign funds to spend as the election approaches, Shelton says he’s “nonstop working, knocking on doors, handing out fliers, meeting with people,” including “a surprising number of gay Republicans,” with whom he says his efforts are “going well.”
So what does Shelton stand for? All of the “What We Believe” ideas, plus, according to his web site (duaneshelton.com), smaller class sizes, adequate facilities, and vouchers in public schools; affordable housing; incentives for new homeowners in the city; and “sensible economic development.” In an e-mail, he blasts the proposal for a new $100 million juvenile detention facility, saying the money would be better spent “on education and intervention for at-risk youths.”
Shelton says the city GOP is “concerned about clean-government, good-government types of issues,” and notes the “nearly nonstop list of scandals” in a city government that “doesn’t seem to have any accountability. It’s business as usual, as it has been for longer than I can remember.” He thinks many voters are Democrats simply because “it’s easy” and “they want to vote in the primary,” so “our big challenge is just to get those people to come and vote in the general. I think it’s important that people have choices. Competition is good.”
The GOP’s mayoral candidate, Alfred V. Griffin III, is trying to make his race competitive, but with less than $1,000 in fundraising and a long history of low vote counts for his party’s mayoral candidates, he says “it’s tough being a Republican in Baltimore City.” In the last three city elections, the GOP’s top-of-the-ticket candidates have struggled to hit double digits, percentage-wise.
Still, Griffin shares his core three-pronged message with all who will listen: create jobs by investing in infrastructure, in particular a “multiline subway system”; “create a world-class education for our children,” in part by implementing “a voluntary charter-school initiative” for schools that are slated for closure; and pursue measures aimed at “strengthening communities.” A graduate of Baltimore City public schools, Griffin says he’s been a Republican since he first registered to vote when he turned 18, and he likes the GOP’s emphasis on “individual rights, lower taxes, and less government.” His background is in finance and accounting, and he’s worked in Maryland government as well as for Planned Parenthood; he’s now the executive director of Baltimore Film Festival International.
In the City Council president’s race, Republican David Anthony Wiggins is on the ballot with Democrat Bernard C. “Jack” Young, the appointed incumbent, and Libertarian Lorenzo Gaztañaga. Wiggins’ web site (davidanthonywiggins.com) provides no information on his positions or beliefs, but in an interview he said he’s running “to highlight the lack of elected-official accountability and the level of corruption and conflict of interest” in Baltimore, and to promote “the peoples’ right to private prosecution by appearing before and approaching the grand jury.”
Wiggins serves as president of the Baltimore Black Think Tank, which, according to its web site (baltimoreblackthinktank.org), supports “independent Afro-descendant communities at home and abroad” and seeks “viable economic, political, and social grassroots solutions to the pressing policy issues that are forced on our People by outside forces.” Wiggins acknowledges his chances of victory are slim: “I don’t believe, as a Republican, that I’m going to win,” he says, “but I will bring out the issues that no one wants to address.”
In the race to fill the 2nd District City Council seat left vacant by the retiring Nicholas D’Adamo, Republican Shereese Maynard-Tucker is facing the Democrat primary winner, Brandon Scott, a political newcomer. City Paper was unable to catch up with Maynard-Tucker by press time, but on various web sites, she describes herself as a writer who runs her own health care company, MayHAC Corporation; a “moderate” Republican; and a strong supporter of public employees. In her response to the League of Women Voters questionnaire, she wrote that the city should “immediately end all tax subsidies and tax breaks to large corporations” and “grant small businesses those same subsidies for use in hiring and expanding” city businesses.
The 3rd District’s Republican candidate is Gary M. Collins, who, along with the Green Party’s Bill Barry, is taking on longtime incumbent Robert Curran. In 2007, Curran told City Paper he’d no longer seek re-election, yet he’s running again. Collins, a customer-service manager for an apparel manufacturer who moved to Baltimore from Anne Arundel County in 2007, acknowledges that he has his work cut out for him. “Part of the challenge,” he says, “is there is a segment of the population that loves the status quo. But change is needed. There needs to be new blood, because there is a lot of complacency. It is time to really think of an alternative.”
Collins says his viewpoints, which he details on his web site (garymcollins.com), are “radically different from the establishment,” involving a focus on government’s core “responsibilities to protect its citizens, put out fires, collect the garbage.” But “at the end of the day,” Collins says, “it doesn’t matter that I have an ‘R’ behind my name. I’m in this for the public-service element of it, for bettering the condition of life in the city. And I’m not looking at party boundaries. I’m targeting everybody, and my message has really resonated with all kinds of voters.”
The 4th District’s Republican candidate for City Council is Ebony R. Edwards, executive director of the nonprofit community organization Waverly Main Streets. She is facing Bill Henry, the incumbent who won September’s two-way primary with almost 60 percent of the vote. A Baltimore native, Edwards is highly educated, with bachelor’s, master’s, and law degrees, and she envisions Baltimore becoming a more successful city via smart, savvy management of its many problems.
Edwards says the city needs “a change in overall leadership to take us away from this blighted place we’ve become,” and the city’s Republicans—whom she says stand for “local change, bipartisanship, fiscal responsibility, and government accountability”—are poised to help provide it if they can “re-educate people about what the Republican Party really stands for in Baltimore City.” She says she expects to have $4,000 to $5,000 to get her message out as Election Day approaches.
In Northwest Baltimore’s 5th District, Republican Ari Winokur is challenging Rochelle “Rikki” Spector, the longest-serving member of the City Council. The information-technology systems engineer, according to his web site (win4baltimore.com), supports charter schools and making schools “one of the top priorities for spending in this city,” a “severe reduction in property tax,” using incentives to encourage businesses to hire local residents, and promoting more community involvement in fighting crime.
West Baltimore’s 7th District hosted an upset in September’s Democratic primary, when incumbent Belinda Conaway was knocked off by challenger Nick Mosby. The GOP’s Michael John Bradley—who in 2007 ran in the 9th District and got 253 votes—has a tough row to hoe in a district that has only about 1,500 registered Republicans. City Paper was unable to contact him by press time, but the Sears salesman’s answers to the League of Women Voters questionnaire reveal that he supports “zero tolerance” policing, increasing taxes, issuing bonds to finance school-building improvements, and either auctioning off or tearing down abandoned houses.
The 8th District City Council seat long held by west-side Democrat Helen Holton is being targeted by the GOP’s Dennis Betzel. With the lowest Republican voter-registration numbers of all the City Council districts where the party has mounted candidates, the 8th is not fertile ground for Betzel, who works as a health care information-technology manager. But that hasn’t stopped him from coming up with ideas to improve Baltimore.
According to his web site (dennisbetzel.com), Betzel wants clear, project-based planning when tackling city problems. Vacant houses, he suggests, could be tackled partly by converting stretches of blighted homes along major thoroughfares to commercial redevelopment and partly with housing lotteries that put homes in the hands of responsible owners. In combating crime, he suggests fewer, more highly paid officers in a city that’s sensibly solving problems that foster crime. He would improve schools with creative financing to boost funding and by inventing new mechanisms for greater parental involvement. He would look to create jobs with zoning, regulations, and taxes that are friendly to local businesses that hire locally. And he would dramatically lower property taxes in order to attract and keep residents.
In the 12th District, Republican Kent Boles is looking to unseat veteran city politician Carl Stokes, the appointed incumbent Democrat. Also on the ballot is Libertarian Scott James Spencer. Boles’ web site (bolesforbaltimore.com) boasts a slick 30-second video, highlighting what he believes has been the cost of one-party rule’s “failed policies”—high unemployment, high taxes, high crime, and failing schools—and urging voters to “try another way.”
A criminal-defense and personal-injury lawyer, Boles says that Baltimore Republicans’ “philosophical differences” with other parties’ candidates don’t necessarily “come into play as much as the hard work and follow-through” that district-level offices require. The problem with the Democrats ruling Baltimore, he says, is the ill effects of long-term, one-party hegemony. “If it were 40 years of Republican rule instead, it wouldn’t be good either,” he says. “You need a different view in the room to balance things out. I’m a fiscal conservative who believes there’s a role for government, but it’s bloated and involved in things that perhaps it should not be,” he explains, adding that “I’m not sure, after 40 years of one-party rule, that there is any fiscal oversight at all.”
From Boles’ perspective, the city is reaching a crisis point in terms of governance. “The path we’ve taken for many, many years is unsustainable,” he says, and he senses “the displeasure of even the Democrats with some of the things going on in the city. If people are interested in taking a different road this election cycle, there is a real opportunity to do so.”
The crux of the Libertarian Party’s philosophy is in the name: liberty. As the Maryland party’s web site explains: “Libertarians believe that both individual liberty and personal responsibility are required in a civil society, and that government welfare of all types (social, individual, corporate, and political) rewards irresponsibility.” The national party’s platform adds that “we defend each person’s right to engage in any activity that is peaceful and honest, and welcome the diversity that freedom brings. The world we seek to build is one where individuals are free to follow their own dreams in their own ways, without interference from government or any authoritarian power.”
The Maryland party’s spokesperson is LLorenzo Gaztañaga, a security guard who is running for City Council president against the appointed incumbent Democrat, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, and Republican David Anthony Wiggins. Gaztañaga has boiled down his message to four basic appeals: Should he win, he’d set aside a portion of his salary and benefits to help pay down the city’s debt; he’d seek to lower and reapportion property taxes, so that only land, not improvements, are assessed and taxed; he’d work to roll back licensing and regulations that hinder Baltimoreans’ “entrepreneurial spirit”; and rather than hiring more police, he’d instead “encourage and empower Baltimoreans to care for their own safety and security as a community.”
Each time Gaztañaga runs for office—prior to this year’s outing, he has run for City Council, U.S. Congress, and Maryland lieutenant governor—he tailors his Libertarian message to the office he’s seeking. In 2008, for example, Gaztañaga ran for the U.S. House of Representative in Maryland’s 2nd District, and focused on three issues—opposing the Iraq War, the drug war, and the USA PATRIOT Act. He’s now urging a self-sufficient city government that is, as he writes in an e-mail, “disconnected from the suckling of the state and federal government.” Voters, he argues, should turn their backs on “the Democratic dinosaurs that have run this city into the ground for more than 40 years.”
In the 11th District, the Libertarian candidate is computer engineer Doug McNeil, who is facing incumbent Democrat William Cole and Republican Duane Shelton. McNeil bemoans the “corruption of corporate welfare in the city,” as reflected in budgets that cut funding for “police, schools, firefighting, and recreation centers because they give all that money away to the rich corporations, especially developers who donate to politicians’ campaigns.” Noting that the 11th is “one of the more Republican districts in Baltimore,” he says “they may want to vote for a Libertarian. Republicans, independents, and disaffected Democrats may be fed up enough to turn out.”
In the 12th District, Libertarian Scott James Spencer is on the ballot, alongside Democrat Carl Stokes and Republican Kent Boles. Spencer, a Johns Hopkins University computer programmer, could not be reached by press time. When he ran for Congress last year, he espoused small-government ideals, repealing the USA PATRIOT Act, and putting an end to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in the military.
Libertarian Ronald M. Owens-Bey says a “large part of my motivation” to run in the 13th District against incumbent Democrat Warren Branch has been the city’s failure to process Owens-Bey’s application to have “the original Dunbar High School placed on the local historic landmark list.” Since his efforts so far have been fruitless, he says he decided he needs “a broader platform to advance the agenda of our community.”
A social worker, Owens-Bey helped organize the successful 2002 referendum that reorganized the City Council into 14 single-member districts. In past runs for office, he’s been a Democrat, a Republican, and a Populist, but for the last three election cycles, he says, he’s been a dedicated Libertarian. “I like the Libertarian Party because they are anti-war and they don’t discriminate against gays and lesbians—I am a tolerant human being,” he explains. He’s optimistic about his chances at the polls: “You quite possibly may be speaking to the winner of next month’s general election,” he says, “and first and foremost, I would be independent of the influence of the Democratic machine.”
Baltimore City’s Green Party, which, like the national Green Party, stresses environmental ethics, social justice, peace, and nonviolence, burst onto the city’s electoral scene in 2004, when its candidates collectively tallied 41,211 votes for City Council president and seven City Council races. Its performance in the 2007 city elections was also impressive, with its City Council president candidate, Maria Allwine, getting 17 percent of the citywide vote and its 3rd District candidate, Bill Barry, polling at nearly 27 percent against incumbent Republican Robert Curran. Barry is again taking on Curran this year, along with Libertarian Gary Collins. The other Green on the ballot, Douglas Armstrong, is challenging 14th District Democrat Mary Pat Clarke, who’s been a part of the city’s political landscape since the 1970s and ran unopposed in the recent Democratic primary.
Barry’s been a Green since before his first City Council stab in 2004, having fled the Democratic Party when “I realized that, at various levels, it was not helpful—especially in Baltimore City. I don’t believe in a one-party system. As it stands, anything the mayor wants, well OK, she gets it. One councilperson can do a lot. You can reshape priorities. Just look at the tea party in Congress. There aren’t many of them, but they are an opposition party, and they’ve been able to do a lot. And we desperately need an opposition party here. In talking to voters, I’m channeling Ronald Reagan, asking, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ And people are not.”
Barry, director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County, is a proponent of green jobs—“green technology is the future,” he says—and establishing a $12-per-hour minimum wage for any city business with more than 20 workers. He’s concerned that the city’s Democratic leaders keep talking about new ways to raise taxes, since state and federal dollars supporting the city budget are shrinking, yet “they will not talk about TIFs and PILOTs—all these tax breaks that went to developers, huge amounts of money. The city has to be very assertive and aggressive in going after it, or it’s just never going to come back.”
Barry’s web site (citizensforbillbarry.org) features a prominent banner recalling Howard Beale in the movie Network: “I’m Still Mad As Hell!” One of Barry’s campaign slogans, “Go Green—Recycle the City Council,” suggests what would help cool his temper.
The Greens’ 14th District Candidate, Armstrong (douglasarmstrong2011.com), sounds mad as well. He says the district’s current representative, Clarke, “makes a lot of effort to look like she’s doing things, but she consistently drops the ball. A lot of people feel like they’re just being ignored.” He’s particularly angry about the city’s handling of the proposed 25th Street Station development, which is slated to be home to a new Walmart. “People are saying we have problems with this project, but it seems to be going forward without any tangible negotiations to look out for the community’s concerns,” Armstrong says. “No one has stood up for the constituents, and the administration and the developer get all the time they need. They all just seem to be concerned about how to get the rubber stamp on the right spot on the page.”
Armstrong, who works in the film business as a location scout and manager, first assistant director, and producer*, says he won’t run as a Democrat because he wants “to be able to run in the general election—to make it an actual race. [Candidates who are] Democrats have to wait their turn while incumbents head back to office who should have retired long ago, and nothing is improving.” He likes the Greens, he says, because “it is the party of nonviolence, inclusion, and grassroots democracy.”
Armstrong is very much of the anybody-but-the-Democrats mind-set coming into the general election. “Look at the Libertarians, look at the Republicans, look at the Greens,” he says, “and see what they have to offer. Because what we’re getting is not much. With the Democrats, the lobbyists and developers and special interests all have unfettered access, but the individual citizen is a tree in the woods by itself. But if one independent voice can get elected, it can put people on the spot in City Hall, because, right now, no one downtown is willing to put people on the spot in the one-party town.”
* Correction: Douglas Armstrong's work in the film industry was incorrectly summarized in the initial version of this article as "location scout and second producer." City Paper regrets the error.
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