Frank DeFilippo: The Few, the Proud, the Baltimore Voters

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young (D) at a Maryland Association of Counties event in Ocean City this summer. Photo by Josh Kurtz

The three building blocks of every successful political campaign are: money, media and organization. A combination of any two works as long as one of them is money.

The rules of politics are the rules of the marketplace. Smart politicians understand the differences between primary and general elections. They apportion their resources and design their campaigns to fit the occasion.

This is especially significant for the coming primaries for mayor of Baltimore and for the empty Seventh District congressional seat bequeathed by the late Elijah Cummings. The crowded ballots and Baltimore’s notoriously low primary election turnouts provide the perfect storm for the chosen few with high name recognition and experienced organizational skills.

For the candidates in both primaries who have the wit and the wherewithal, the law of diminishing (election) returns will prevail. The question looming over the elections is not how many votes will win but how few.

Overall voter turnout in Baltimore primary elections has been as low as 19 percent.

Voting involves triage, or sorting out voters. Smart candidates know which votes they have, which votes they don’t have and which votes can be persuaded. It’s that last cluster that candidates work to convince.

Primary elections are about organization – identifying the vote, organizing it and getting those voters to the polls on election day. As a general rule, primaries are won on the ground. General elections are more about personalities and issues.

Primary elections are family affairs wherein disputes and intraparty squabbles are settled at the ballot box and then the party hopes to carry the winner to victory in the general election.

That said, the savvy candidate(s) will apply money and organization skills for the primary, and come the general election shift their money to the media to deliver a well-crafted and polished message to rally the voters, not to suggest that either is ignored in the primaries. There’s free media and paid media, but the most effective is that which is produced and paid for by the campaign. Primary election returns are a down payment on the general election.

Frank
Frank A. DeFilippo

For the Feb. 4 special election to succeed Cummings, there are 32 candidates – 24 Democrats and eight Republicans – who crossed the threshold by the filing deadline. Fewer than a handful are considered top-tier. And each of those has either name recognition, organization, or both. And remember, a candidate for Congress does not have to live in a district to represent it.

Similarly, at least a dozen candidates – including several headliners with established political bases – have either filed for mayor or expressed their intentions to become active candidates.

Given the spread of candidates, known and unknown, each with an extended family of relatives, friends, neighbors, associates and, in some cases, paid volunteers, it doesn’t take an algorithm or a slide rule to figure that the seat can be won with a minimum of votes.

In 2018, for example, in a district approaching a population of nearly 750,000 people, Cummings won the five-way primary with 77,110 votes out of a total of 84,288 Democratic votes cast. In the general election, there were a total of 264,710 votes cast, of which Cummings pulled 202,345.

The difference between the total votes cast between the primary and general elections was a staggering 180,422 – an object lesson on how to organize and win a low-turnout primary election.

In 2016, a high-turnout presidential and mayor election year, Cummings won the Seventh District primary with 130,555 votes, and in 2014 with 144,639 votes.

In the same 2016 election cycle, the contest for mayor of Baltimore featured high drama and low turnout, perhaps a reel of coming attractions for next year’s race. The numbers, again, are ominous, a forecast, perhaps, of disinterest but a ready prescription for organization.

In the 2016 primary election, when Hillary Clinton romped in Maryland by 26 points, there were 13 candidates for mayor, among them two fierce political rivals, Catherine Pugh and Sheila Dixon. Pugh pulled 48,709 votes to Dixon’s 46,301. That was the bulk of the vote, around 100,000 among 13 candidates in a city with about 360,000 registered Democrats.

(Footnote: Bernard “Jack” Young, the current mayor, won the City Council presidency that year against a little-known opponent with 83,372 votes, roughly the total of the two major candidates for mayor combined.)

It’s both enlightening and frightening to discern how simple it is for a major candidate to dedicate a lane to victory in a low voter turnout city, though there’s no predicting what the turnout will be, but the weather around Feb. 4 is not an encouraging meteorological indicator. Bad weather favors the candidate with the best get-out-the-vote operation – organization weather, as the muldoons used to say.

Among the popular names and faces of those running for the vacant Seventh District seat who have the political prowess and the vote-pulling power to present a serious challenge:

Kweisi Mfume is the well-known and widely-recognized former member of Congress who resigned after a decade to take over and rescue the financially beleaguered NAACP. Mfume was succeeded in Congress by Cummings, and Mfume was among the eulogists at Cummings’ funeral. Mfume is currently chairman of the board of Morgan State University. Mfume is running to regain his old seat in a district where he is well known and should have residual vote-pulling strength. He owned the district and the test is whether his ownership still stands.

Maya Rockeymore Cummings brings a familiar name only, though more recently a face, to Seventh District politics even though she was briefly chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, where her freewheeling spending habits are now being questioned, as reported. Her campaign propers are, she claims, that her late husband, Elijah, wanted her to succeed him. (We’ve heard this one before, about the late Del. Howard “Pete” Rawlings’ son). The dynamic to watch here is that black women dominate the vote in Baltimore and could be organized into a workforce for Cummings on election day. Then again, Cummings’s secret weapon might be that voters who don’t look closely might see only the last name.

There’s another irony here, too, in that Elijah Cummings’ two daughters, Jennifer and Adia, have endorsed Harry Spikes over their stepmother. Spikes was one of Elijah Cummings’ top aides for 15 years and also was among the speakers at his mentor’s funeral, in the heady company of former presidents and high elected officials. It’s possible,  though, that Spikes is better known on Capitol Hill than in the district.

State Sen. Jill Carter represents the 41st Legislative District, within the Seventh Congressional District, which gives her a built-in advantage of having a ready constituency available to mobilize on election day. And in a low turn-out election, that’s definitely a head start and likely Carter’s Secret Santa. Carter’s home base in the 41st is an ebony and ivory mix of blacks, Orthodox Jews and fading WASP-y at the margin. Carter’s calling card is her father’s name, civil rights warrior Walter Carter. She is considered unpredictable and an outlier at work in Annapolis.

Del. Terri L. Hill, a plastic surgeon from Columbia, who sports the chevrons of Harvard and Columbia Universities, is the odd-person-out in the contest to succeed Cummings. In the General Assembly she represents a district that combines areas of Baltimore and Howard Counties where voter turnouts might be higher but the areas do not include the territorial claim on the Seventh Congressional District as does the heavily black Baltimore City geography. That could be both an advantage and a disadvantage.

Del. Talmadge Branch represents District 45 in the General Assembly, a district within the Seventh and a piecemeal but ready-made constituency. Branch is the House majority whip and former chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. The 45th is on the East Side of Baltimore which, for organization purposes, lays on the outer margin of the district which extends into Baltimore County to the north and into Howard County to the west. The downside for Branch is that he ran third among the three winners in the last election. But, then, this is a different election.

In the race for mayor:

Being there is incumbent Young’s electoral strength as well as his weakness. On the muscular side, Young has run citywide twice for City Council president and beginning in 1996 in his own eastside district for a Council seat. Before that, he worked as a Council staff aide. The city knows Young, and he knows the city. Young has a wide swath of a base on which to build. On the ugly side, Young has inherited the mayor’s office along with a municipal rap sheet that would make Chicago or Detroit envious. As the sitting mayor, Young can get all the media attention he wants. But it’s important to remember that underexposure is often preferable to overexposure, especially in troubled times when the person and the problems are mutually identified.

Brandon Scott is a wunderkind, of sorts, who isn’t afraid to administer a stiletto in the back when it will advance his career. And wherever two or more people gather and a television camera is present, you can count on Scott being there, too. Scott began his climb through the city’s bureaucracy and was elected to the City Council in 2011 at age 27. He became its president as the chairs were shuffled at City Hall when Catherine Pugh resigned as mayor in May. He hails from the Frankford area of Northeast Baltimore. His narrow district base has expanded along with his hunger for advancement as he challenges his predecessor for the city’s top job.

Thiru Vignarajah is the brains of the bunch. He’s a Yale graduate, with a master’s degree from King’s College of London and a law degree from Harvard where he was also president of the Harvard Law Review. Vignarajah was also a research assistant to the former president of Harvard and a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Vignarajah has been a federal prosecutor, deputy attorney general and deputy state’s attorney. Welcome, immigrants, this one’s parents from Sri Lanka. So why would a guy with that many brain cells want to be mayor of Baltimore? Well, for one thing, he has put forth, no doubt, the most comprehensive crime-fighting plan of anyone, including the police department and the Justice Department. Vignarajah ran for state’s attorney and lost to Marylin Mosby with 23 percent of the vote in a three-way race, which gives him broad exposure but not a solid base. He can probably count on the emphatic support of the legal community, though.

Sen. Mary Washington is another high achiever, with a PhD in sociology and a couple of college professorships as well as a tour at the Baltimore Housing Authority in her portfolio before settling into the sausage-making world of Annapolis. Washington was elected to the House of Delegates from the 43d District in 2010 and to the Senate in 2018. She made history, of sorts, by becoming the first elected black LGBT official in Maryland. The 43d District encapsulates much of the center city, including the Johns Hopkins University, where she earned her doctorate. The district alone might not be much of a base to underpin a mayoral campaign, but superimpose onto it the city’s thriving LGBT community and the combination attracts serious consideration.

As for the rest of the bunch in both races: You cast your bread upon the waters, and in return you get – Christmas cookies.