As Mr. Dooley first told us nearly 125 years ago, “Politics ain’t beanbag.”
So, any civic-minded soul who ventured out Sunday afternoon in the hopes of easing gently into a political season opener by weighing a polite exchange of ideas between candidates vying for the open 41st District Maryland Senate seat must have been sorely disappointed.
First off, one of the three candidates on the Democratic primary ballot was a no-show. That fellow, Nathaniel T. Oaks, would have been the incumbent, too, but he resigned a couple of weeks ago, just hours before pleading guilty to two felonies in a federal political corruption case.
And then there were two.
First, alphabetically, was Jill P. Carter, 53, a lawyer and former 14-year member of the House of Delegates who resigned her legislative seat early, in January 2017, to work for Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) as the $100,000-a-year director of the Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement. Now, after being away for just a year, she wants to return to Annapolis.
Candidates Jill P. Carter and J.D. Merrill greet each other at the beginning of their debate Sunday afternoon. The comity did not last. Photo by William F. Zorzi
The second candidate was J.D. Merrill, 27, a former Baltimore City College high school teacher, later an administrator for the Baltimore public schools, who is also – for better or worse — former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley’s son-in-law, though clearly his own man.
The forum was not exactly sponsored by a group of bare-knuckle brawlers. It was put on Baltimore Women United, a citywide coalition of women activists working for social justice and change, in the auditorium of the Baltimore City Public Safety Training Facility at 3500 W. Northern Parkway.
Hands were shaken, greetings exchanged. There were questions about schools, empowering women, mandatory minimum sentences, gun violence. The usual fare.
Carter, the daughter of civil rights leader Walter P. Carter who consistently won the highest number of votes in the 41st in each of four elections to the House, painted herself as the outsider, an independent voice in what sounded like, for her, was a hostile world in Annapolis.
Merrill said that while he was from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, he sought to be a consensus builder in the General Assembly, that he did not want a label to get in the way of his working with others to “get things done for the people of Baltimore city.”
About a half-hour in, Merrill lifted a foot-high stack of papers onto the table before him and Carter, on stage. No one thought anything of it, if they even noticed.
Then, in the middle of an answer, Merrill informed the small crowd that he was “concerned” about sending Carter back to the Maryland General Assembly.
“During her 14 years in elected office, she missed over 1,600 votes,” Merrill said. “And while it is true that women tend to introduce more legislation, they tend to pass more laws and they tend to bring home more bacon to their districts, as a delegate, Jill Carter didn’t do that.
“Seven of her 14 years in office she had the worst attendance record of any member of the Baltimore city delegation,” he said. “As a state senator, and as a former teacher, I understand the importance of showing up and working hard and delivering results.”
That would be a game changer.
“Thank you. Thank you for that pot-shot,” she said to Merrill. “You know, it’s interesting, one of the ways the General Assembly works, first of all, I’m running on my record, and on my track record of championing for the people, and not away from it. I know that I was there, fighting, working late nights on the House Judiciary Committee, hardly ever, if ever, missed any voting sessions in committee.
I do not believe that attendance, as it has been brought up, has been an impediment for me.”
She mentioned that in her final year in the House, some of her absences had been excused by the House speaker and Judiciary chairman, because her mother was dying.
“I was marginalized a great deal in the General Assembly, and the reason for this is important, because it speaks very much to the fact that we need strong-minded, independent women leaders there,” Carter said. “When I got there [in 2003], I was the only one.
“When I was in the General Assembly, I was the only one fighting against … oppressive laws. There was no coalition, there were no coalitions of new delegates or progressive Montgomery County delegates to help,” she said. “I was there, I was alone and I was fighting.”
But Merrill was not going to let the subject of absences go.
“I think this point about attendance matters. I want everyone in the audience to think about what would happen if they didn’t show up to work. … Would you be asking for a promotion? Would you get it?” he asked. “In 14 years, over 1,600 votes.”
He acknowledged her assertion that in her last year in the House of Delegates, “there were things going on in her personal life.” But, he noted, “That was only 400 of the 1,600 votes.”
“This matters. Attendance matters. As a teacher, I understand the importance of showing up and working hard every single day,” Merrill said. “Jill Carter did not show up for a vote on same-sex marriage, she did not show up for a vote on the death penalty, she did not show up on a vote on expanding early voting. Presence matters.”
His cool demeanor and delivery, coupled with his baby-face looks, belied the power of his swing.
But Carter was not done, either.
“You know, I don’t want to get into a tit-for-tat,” Carter said. “I know that I wasn’t really expecting it. Because I want to talk about positives and why I should be the senator. I want to talk about the record I have that is good. My record is really beyond reproach when it comes to the difficult issues I championed over the years.”
She then pointed out that there are thousands of bills introduced each year in the legislature.
“And so it’s possible that perhaps I didn’t sit there like Pavlov’s dog on the floor on Sine Die, just pushing button after button,” Carter said. “Maybe I was over in the Senate trying to pressure my senator to get the lead out of water. I don’t know exactly.
“But what I would stress is, it is absolutely untrue that I didn’t show up for the vote on same-sex marriage, and I think that anyone that goes back and looks at the record will find that that’s not true,” she said. “I was a champion for that issue before many of my colleagues that took it personally were.
“There is no way in the world that I have ever caused a bill to pass or fail because of my lack of attendance. Thank you,” she said.
Throughout the entire hour-long forum, the moderator, Sharicca Boldon, seemed unflappable in keeping the discussion on track.
Finally, answering the day’s concluding question – one from the audience — Merrill told how teachers, perhaps more than other any other group, see clearly the problems of the city that need to be addressed through the eyes of their students. And he finally revealed what the stack of papers before him were – legislative vote tallies for bills Carter allegedly had not voted on.
“As a teacher, I understand the importance of showing up and working hard every single day. My opponent in this race does not,” he said. “The documents in front of me represent the 1,600 votes that she did not cast during her 14 years in the legislature.”
Without blinking, Boldon moved on to the candidate’s final two-minute statements.
Merrill led off, reintroducing himself and his qualifications.
“People are looking for leaders who are going to step up, are going to show up and who are going to listen to our communities,” he said.
“People don’t feel they can trust their government right now,” Merrill said. “So, the fundamental question in this election is, who do you trust? Who do you trust to show up every day? Who do you trust to listen to you? Who do you trust to work hard on behalf of you and your family?”
Carter closed the day saying she, too, believed voters needed leaders and elected officials “that we trust,” and then returned to her theme of being an outsider.
“I’ve always prided myself as being a voice for the people and not a political player,” Carter said. “And so, when it comes to political integrity, when it comes to someone you can trust, that is never going to put politics or the politics of Annapolis or wanting to be elevated in some way or wanting to be rewarded or given accolades — that’s definitely me.
“I took hard issues, I fought hard fights, I allowed marginalization, and I withstood it all because I knew that if I left, there would be no one to fill that space, to champion for the people,” Carter said to scattered applause from a couple of supporters. “And so, I sucked it up, and I had a hard way, many years in the House of Delegates, but I knew that I had to stay because God put me there to do something that wasn’t being done otherwise.”
Carter and Merrill are scheduled to face each other again in two more candidate forums on Tuesday and Thursday this week.