Josh Kurtz: Jill Carter May Have a Path to Victory

The Billie Holiday statue in West Baltimore is where state Sen. Jill P. Carter (D) will declare her congressional bid on Tuesday. Photo by Eli Pousson/Baltimore Heritage

One of Billie Holiday’s greatest hits was the 1949 jazz standard, “Crazy He Calls Me.” It’s a happy song, one of the few in the Holiday canon, a tale about the sacrifices a woman is willing to make for her love.

“I say I’ll move the mountains/And I’ll move the mountains/If he wants them out of the way,” she sings. A verse later, she adds, “I say I’ll go through fire/And I’ll go through fire/As he wants it, so it will be.”

On Tuesday afternoon, just before the early sunset, state Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) will stand next to the statue of Billie Holiday on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore and announce that she’s joining the special election to replace the late U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D), who lived just a few blocks away.

For pure symbolism, Carter’s decision to associate with Billie Holiday, the Baltimore native who confronted societal and self-created misery for the entirety of her 44-year life, is pretty cool – and totally unconventional. Also, possibly, aspirational: Carter will need to move mountains and walk through fire if she is to have a prayer of prevailing in the Feb. 4 special Democratic primary.

And yet, with the filing deadline for the special election closing on Wednesday, in a primary that so far features Cummings’ widow, former Maryland Democratic chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings; former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume; and two well-respected members of the House of Delegates, Talmadge Branch and Terri L. Hill, it appears as if Carter has a narrow path to victory.

Let us stipulate that at this early stage of the primary, Rockeymoore Cummings and Mfume are the frontrunners. That’s the natural order of things.

They’ve got superior name recognition: Mfume is a national figure who has been prominent on the Baltimore political scene for more than four decades; Rockeymoore Cummings can plausibly claim to be carrying on her beloved husband’s legacy. Both are electrifying public speakers with policy chops and charisma to spare.

In some corners, Rockeymoore Cummings, in particular, is considered unstoppable. There’s a funny geography to this sentiment, though: The farther you get away from the city of Baltimore, the more inevitable she becomes. The inverse is also true.

What are they thinking in the city? Some people say they don’t know her very well. That she isn’t from Baltimore. That she’s a creature of Washington, D.C., where she worked on Capitol Hill and for the Congressional Black Caucus and then ran her own policy consulting shop.

These are solid credentials, to be sure. But they don’t guarantee victory. 

And when the campaign gets nastier? Some will say that Rockeymoore Cummings is trading on her late husband’s name. And if EMILY’s List endorses her, you can imagine political foes saying D.C. insiders and donors are trying to tell Baltimore voters who should represent them in Congress.

Rockeymoore Cummings might expect to do well in the Howard County part of the district — and probably will (about 20% of the electorate is in Howard, with half in the city). But with Hill, whose legislative district includes parts of Howard and Baltimore counties, in the race, almost every vote she gets will come from the Rockeymoore Cummings column.

Already the Rockeymoore Cummings and Mfume camps are feuding over who may have reached out to whom when — and how — in the immediate aftermath of Cummings’ death. Both Mfume and Rockeymoore Cummings gave stirring tributes to the late congressman at his funeral, but it was clear then that they were on a collision course, and that rivalry is only going to intensify in the weeks ahead.

Mfume’s upsides are every bit as apparent as Rockeymoore Cummings’.

He’s already served in Congress and he knows how the game is played. He’s got near 100% name recognition among prime Democratic voters in the 7th District. He’s a gifted politician.

But Mfume, though an energetic and youthful 71, carries a whiff of yesterday about him, almost two dozen years after he last served in elected office. And make no mistake, in a bare-knuckle campaign, in the #MeToo era, Mfume’s past personal peccadillos may be back in the news, fairly or not.

It’s easy to see Rockeymoore Cummings’ campaign becoming defined by consultants. Mfume’s, by his own admission, is trying to get the band back together again.

Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City)

Which brings us back to Jill Carter.

Hers will be a grass-roots campaign, full of committed supporters ready to move those mountains and walk through fire. She’ll run with a chip on her shoulder and an outsider’s edge — appealing characteristics for scrappy Baltimore.

Carter has policy chops of her own, and benefits from the civil rights work of her late father, Walter Carter. She’s been a giant-killer over the past year and a half, toppling the O’Malley machine in the June 2018 Democratic primary and helping to expose the self-dealing at the University of Maryland Medical System board. She fell short in her attempt to stop Johns Hopkins University from creating its own police force, but won admirers along the way.

The Democratic primary is set for Feb. 4, and as of now — though this could change — there is no early voting scheduled. The odds of crappy weather on Feb. 4 are pretty high. Who turns out under those circumstances? Maybe, the fired-up supporters of an underdog.

It’s hard not to say that Rockeymoore Cummings is the favorite in the special election, with Mfume just a hair behind. But keep your eye on Jill Carter and imagine, as Billie Holiday once sang, “what a little moonlight can do.”

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.