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The Usual Suspects

Most Incumbents Are Sitting Predictably Pretty in Baltimore’s Legislative District Races

Photo: Frank Hamilton, License: N/A, Created: 2010:08:14 11:19:19

Frank Hamilton

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Experience counts in getting elected—especially a record of electoral success, which, through simple repetition, sows name recognition among voters. When the numbers of voters are small, as they are in Baltimore’s six legislative districts, name recognition and a tried-and-true mastery of the logistics of getting reliable district voters to the polls on Election Day give incumbents a sharp edge. People tend to go with the devil they know, especially if that devil gives them a lift to the polling station.

To see how small the numbers are in Baltimore’s district-level elections, take a look at the outcome of the 2006 Democratic primary. That’s when the victors, on average, walked away with votes from about 7 to 10 percent of each district’s population of roughly 108,000. For those experienced in massaging the process, securing a few thousand votes is a highly manageable feat.

An incumbent’s familiarity with his or her district’s electoral dynamics—along with a facile ability to raise campaign funds, thanks to established relationships with special interests and reliable rainmakers of Baltimore’s political class—can be intimidating to challengers. This is especially true in districts where an abysmal participation rate—it can get as low as less than a quarter of registered voters—means active voters may actually get birthday cards from their legislators.

In this year’s Democratic primary races for the Senate, the supreme form of incumbent potency prevails. Four of the city’s six senators—Catherine Pugh (D-40th District), Lisa Gladden (D-41st District), Verna Jones (D-44th District), and Nathaniel McFadden (D-45th District) —face no primary competition. They are virtually assured re-election since, in this overwhelmingly Big-D town, the Democratic primaries in September pick the winners in November’s general elections. Without challengers, they are free to spend their campaign cash (a combined quarter-million dollars as of January, when the latest available campaign-finance reports were due) on whomever they favor in other races. The remaining two—Joan Carter Conway (43rd District) and George Della (46th District)—each face a single, spirited opponent.

There is more competition in the House races—though not in Northwest Baltimore’s 41st District. That’s where no Democratic challengers filed, so the incumbent delegates get a pass—and may also spend their combined $156,000 on causes other than their own re-elections. The competition in the five remaining House races range from one challenger (Will Hanna in the 40th District) to five (in the 44th District). Two would-be challengers—Mary Washington in the 43rd District and Luke Clippinger in the 46th District—have become de facto incumbents by joining their districts’ re-election slates to replace a retiring delegate. In already-sparse fields, this substantially dulls the excitement.

Baltimore’s state legislators are a veteran bunch. Heading into this year’s races, the 22 incumbents seeking re-election—six senators and 16 delegates—have already won an average of four primary elections. The record is nine, won by 82-year-old Hattie Harrison (45th District), who has been serving in the House of Delegates since 1973. Only four have just one primary victory under their belts—the three 40th District delegates (Frank Conaway Jr., Barbara Robinson, and Shawn Tarrant) and Cheryl Glenn (45th District). Their seats normally would be considered most at risk, but how much so—as with the rest of the competitive races—won’t be known until the votes are counted.

So, Democrats, go ahead and vote. See if you can make this all-too-predictable game interesting. And remember: No matter what the outcome, you always get the government you deserve.

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