A synagogue auditorium, where the temperature was alternately too hot or too cold, hardly seemed like the place to gauge whether a mini-revolution is about to strike at the Maryland Democratic establishment.
Neither was the sight of four white guys in suits – two of them highly tanned from door-knocking all summer.
But the synagogue, in Annapolis, was host Tuesday night to a forum for the four candidates for mayor in advance of the city’s primary next Tuesday. And while the rhetoric was far more temperate than the room itself, it belied the fact that the Annapolis mayoral election may be the most important in Maryland this year, ahead of the big 2018 campaigns.
The topics the candidates discussed were fairly prosaic for a municipal election – planning and zoning, coastal flooding, police-community relations, and more. And it sometimes took some work to hear dramatic differences among the contenders.
But when Republican Michael Pantelides ousted then-Mayor Josh Cohen (D) in 2013 by just 59 votes, it served as a harbinger for Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) upset victory – and other Republican gains – a year later.
This year’s Annapolis election has an array of storylines and potential consequences.
Although all four candidates shared the stage at Congregation Kneseth Israel Tuesday night, there is actually a Republican primary next week – Pantelides vs. attorney Nevin Young – and a Democratic contest, between state Sen. John Astle and restaurateur Gavin Buckley, both of whom are very tan.
Astle, 74, is the nominal favorite in his primary, and has most of the Democratic establishment behind him. His bid for the mayoralty is something of a political capstone, after serving in the General Assembly for 35 years. He ran for mayor in 1981 and lost, and is now touting his experience, his relationships and his ability to listen and translate voters’ priorities into action.
“I’ve done so many things [for the city] I can’t even remember all of them,” he said during Tuesday’s forum.
But Buckley appears to be running a Bernie Sanders-style campaign against Astle, railing, in a measured Australian accent, about career politicians, forgotten neighborhoods and a downtown that appeals to tourists rather than city residents.
“I’m not a politician,” he said. “I’m not doing this because I need a job. I’m doing this because I want to make a difference.”
Buckley also has an appealing life story and success as a local businessman to tout. He landed in Annapolis on a round-the-world sailing trip a quarter century ago and stayed, working as a bartender at Middleton’s Tavern before starting his own businesses. He now owns Tsunami, Lemongrass, Metropolitan, and Sailor Oyster Bar – establishments that anchor and have helped transform the once dilapidated West Street, near downtown.
“This town is not inclusive and it needs to be better,” Buckley said. “Some people don’t feel comfortable downtown.”
Buckley said Annapolis should aspire to be more like Austin, Texas, Boulder, Colo., Charleston, S.C., Burlington, Vt., and Asheville, N.C.
“You should be the No. 1 economic development officer for your town when you’re in charge.”
Buckley appears to be winning the sign wars around the city – but that hardly indicates anything. Astle has decades of public service under his belt, and is a well-known, easily-recognizable figure downtown, where he lives and works (in the State House) and frequents local restaurants and watering holes.
If Buckley pulls an upset, though, that could be significant. The state’s powerful Democratic leaders are used to getting their way – and an Astle loss could send signals to establishment Democrats running for governor and other offices that the 2018 election cycle may be more challenging than they imagined, given the energy of party progressives and dissidents.
Astle’s fate will also directly impact the 2018 elections.
If he is elected mayor in November, he’ll resign his Senate seat. If that happens, Anne Arundel Democratic leaders will almost certainly appoint civic activist and former lobbyist Sarah Elfreth, who is running hard for Astle’s seat, to fill the vacancy, giving her a year of incumbency for what will undoubtedly be a tough race next year.
Republicans have put Astle’s Senate district on the list of five seats they’re targeting around the state in 2018. Former Del. Ron George (R), who owns a Main Street jewelry business, is the current favorite for the GOP nomination, though Del. Herb McMillan (R) could still run. He’s scheduled to announce his political plans on Nov. 9, two days after this year’s general election.
If Astle loses – in the primary or the general election – it’s assumed that he will not seek another term in the Senate in 2018. But nothing is for certain.
Regardless of who they nominate next week, Democrats would dearly love to oust Pantelides, who just turned 34 last week and carries the swagger of a political up-and-comer.
But doing so may be tricky: Pantelides is highlighting his fiscal stewardship and strong environmental record – he was endorsed earlier this year by the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, to the consternation of some Democrats – and is featuring the popular Hogan prominently in his literature.
At the debate Tuesday night, Pantelides signaled that he is looking past his primary contest with Young – a likeable, unassuming man who one Annapolis Democratic stalwart characterized as “a mensch” – and is already anticipating a fall showdown with Astle. He repeatedly questioned Astle’s effectiveness, and argued that some of the community’s problems should have been taken care of already considering how long the senator has been in office.
Pantelides also sought to dispel the notion that he has grander political ambitions.
“I love this job,” he said. “It’s a dream come true.”