Presidential elections are civic rituals worthy of the exhortation Bob Schieffer, the moderator of the final debate between Barack Obama (D) and Mitt Romney (R), says his mom used to make: "Go vote. It makes you feel big and strong." But who should be at the helm of the giant ship of the U.S. government is but the first of many sets of choices Baltimore City voters will face on Election Day. Their heft and strength will also be felt in deciding who will be their U.S. Senator, their members of the U.S. House of Representatives in three districts, and their state judges at three levels. Plus, perhaps most daunting, they are being asked whether to back or oppose seven state-wide ballot issues and 13 questions put forth by City Hall, eight of which seek to borrow a total of $100 million for critical-sounding issues and popular institutions.
The sample ballots voters should have already received from their mail carriers lay out precisely what will beam up from the computer screens at ballot boxes on Election Day. A bit more substance, though, can serve as a helpful guide. So here goes: City Paper's cheat sheet on what Baltimore City voters will face at their polling places on Nov. 6-or earlier, for those heading out to the city's five early-voting sites between Oct. 27 and Nov. 1.
President/Vice President The probability that Maryland will go for Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, stands at 100 percent, according to Nate Silver's wonky, poll-aggregating FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times, so Romney and vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan aren't looking to Free State Republicans to get them anywhere. For those so inclined, then, the luxury of wasting votes on the quixotic tickets put up by the Libertarians and Greens is available, free of consequence. The former consists of Gary Johnson and James Gray, and the latter of Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala. Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico, is anti-war, anti-taxes, pro-civil liberties, and seriously concerned about an imbalance of power in the hands of the White House. Stein, a Harvard-educated physician and environmental-health advocate from Massachusetts, espouses a panoply of progressive positions that lefties may find lacking in Obama. Protest voters can rest easy that neither is a wacko slouch.
U.S. Senator Incumbent Sen. Ben Cardin (D) is facing his first re-election, seeking to continue a storied political career that includes lengthy stints in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Maryland House of Delegates. His major-party challenger is Daniel John Bongino (R), a staunchly anti-government former U.S. Secret Service agent who is endorsed by Sarah Palin and has pledged to oppose any tax increases. The Libertarians have Harvard-educated astronomer/astrophysicist and Islam expert Dean Ahmad, whose history with Maryland's Libertarian Party goes back as far as Cardin has been in elected office. Unaffiliated candidate S. Rob Sobhani is an international businessman whose five-point platform prescribes measurable, monetary investments in Maryland's future, and, if elected, he promises not to run again if they aren't met. A Washington Post poll conducted in mid-October has Cardin with 53 percent, to Bongino's 22 percent, Sobhani's 14 percent, and Ahmad's two percent.
C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D) is seeking his fifth re-election to the House since first winning in 2002, after having served two terms as Baltimore County Executive. His Republican opponent, state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, currently represents a district spanning Harford and Cecil counties, and has been in the General Assembly since 1994. The Libertarian, Leo Wayne Dymoski, is a Dundalk native who serves as a Maryland Parole Commission hearing officer, but the Army veteran with a master's degree in urban planning also had lengthy stints as a trial attorney and with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.
John Sarbanes (D), first elected to Congress in 2006, is a son of late U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who held the seat back in the early 1970s. With his Princeton/Harvard Law education and a few terms under his belt, he'd be hard to beat. Trying to do so is Eric Delano Knowles (R), a Tea Party devotee who ran for Maryland Governor as the Constitution Party candidate in 2010, and Libertarian Paul W. Drgos Jr., a computer programmer from Pasadena who used to be a Republican.
Elijah Cummings (D) has had plenty of time to become a local institution since first winning this seat in 1996, in a special election to fill a seat left vacant when Kweisi Mfume became president of the NAACP. That's not stopping Republican Frank C. Mirabile and Libertarian Ronald M. Owens-Bey from trying to beat him, though. Mirabile, a landscape architect from Catonsville, tried before in 2010, and he's running again on an anti-tax, pro-life, get-government-off-our-backs platform. Owens-Bey, a social worker, files for office pretty much every election-including against Cummings two years ago. Though he's run under the Democrat, Republican, and Populist banners in the past, Owens-Bey's been a steady Libertarian now for several election cycles.
Baltimore City Circuit Court
This year's six sitting judges campaign together, and, as usual, no one's opposing them. They have to run in the next election after their appointments or after serving 16 years on the bench. Electing judges is controversial, since it means they have to raise campaign funds-almost exclusively from lawyers who may appear before them, creating something uncomfortably close to an appearance of a conflict of interest-but the Sitting Judges Committee is ostensibly fashioned to buffer the robe-wearing jurists from the dust and dirt of actual electoral politics. Of this year's crew, five-Kendra Y. Ausby, Jeannie J. Hong, Charles J. Peters, Michael W. Reed, and Yolanda A. Tanner-were appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley since 2010, while David W. Young was appointed in 1996 by then-Gov. Parris Glendening.
Maryland Court of Special Appeals
Stuart R. Berger and Shirley M. Watts are also both running unopposed. Both served as Baltimore City Circuit Court judges prior their appointments to the intermediary appellate court since 2011. Berger had been in private practice before his 1998 Circuit Court appointment, working for some of the Baltimore area's blue-chip firms. Watts' Circuit Court appointment came in 2002 and before that she had been a federal administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration, a federal public defender, and a Baltimore City prosecutor.
Maryland Court of Appeals
Chief judge Robert M. Bell first got the title in 1996, by Glendening's appointment, after having served five years on the state's highest court. Before that, he'd been on the Court of Special Appeals since 1984. There's more before that-Baltimore City Circuit and District courts-but does it really matter? Bottom line, he's been a judge in Maryland of one sort or another for nearly two generations. That he graces the ballot, unopposed, serves mainly as a reminder that he's still the top dog of the state's judiciary.
State Ballot Questions
Questions 1 and 2: Orphan's Court judges qualifications
Question 1 requires that judges of the Prince George's County Orphan's Court-which handles probate and guardianship matters-be attorneys and members of the Maryland bar in good standing. Question 2 requires the same of judges of the Baltimore County Orphan's Court. Two years ago, Maryland voters approved this same ballot question for Baltimore City. On the same day, Baltimore City voters elected a non-lawyer, Laudette Ramona Moore Baker, to the three-judge bench of the city's Orphan's Court. To settle the contradictory outcomes at the polls, O'Malley didn't seat Baker and instead appointed a lawyer, Michele Loewenthal. Now Prince George's and Baltimore counties seek to join Baltimore City in adding the qualification. At the very least, requiring that jurists handling rather arcane matters of law be lawyers can do no harm-other than to the likes of Baker, who ended up not getting the taxpayer-funded job she wanted.
BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" the amendment if you want it these judges to be lawyers or vote "Against" it if you think the proposed qualification is unnecessary.
Question 3: Removing elected officials for criminal convictions
Today, under the Maryland Constitution, when a sitting Maryland politician accused of a crime is found guilty or pleads guilty or no contest, he or she remains in office until sentencing, which may not take place until months later. Qualifying crimes include felonies and misdemeanors related to the official's public duties or moral turpitude that carry possible prison terms. This situation played out twice recently-in the cases of Baltimore City Mayor Sheila Dixon (D), who pleaded guilty to state theft and perjury in 2010, and Prince George's County Councilwoman Leslie Johnson (D), who pleaded guilty to federal obstruction-of-justice charges in 2011, in connection with a probe that resulted in her husband, county executive Jack Johnson, pleading guilty-after his term in office expired-to an extortion conspiracy related to his official duties. Dixon and Leslie Johnson both stayed in office until they were sentenced, rather than when they entered their pleas. Under the proposed amendment, both would have had to leave when they entered their guilty pleas. The idea here is, if they're guilty, the sooner they go, the better.
BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" the amendment if you believe convicted politicians should leave office immediately or vote "Against" it if you think they should be able to stay in office until they are sentenced.
Question 4: DREAM Act
The proposal that some undocumented immigrants may be granted in-state tuition at Maryland colleges and universities-the DREAM Act, which stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors-has sparked outrage among opponents who believe that it would attract a flood of illegal immigrants to Maryland, resulting in mounting costs, and that it extends a break to those who are in this country illegally. The qualifying requirements that would need to be met are highly restrictive, however, and if it passes, the foregone tuition revenues are estimated at about $3.5 million annually by 2016-a relatively small amount, given the likely outcome of more tax-paying Marylanders with higher educations, higher incomes, and lower likelihoods of committing crimes that would result in prison. Along the way, as the students gather diplomas, they may find available ways to straighten out their immigration status.
As it stands, undocumented immigrants who are Maryland residents do not qualify for in-state tuition, no matter how long they've resided in the Free State. To remove this barrier, the act would establish restrictive requirements, so that only children with Maryland high school diplomas, who come from families that have long-running, tax-paying terms of residence in Maryland would qualify. The checklist for qualifying is long and detailed, assuring that, should the act attract new families of undocumented immigrants to Maryland, they'd only receive this benefit after having been here-working and paying taxes while their kids successfully complete at least three years of in-state high school-for a good while. The potential per-family financial impact is large; at University of Maryland, for instance, out-of-state students currently pay about $27,000, while in-state students pay about $8,900.
Supporters of the DREAM Act in Maryland-and there are many, according to a mid-October Washington Post poll that found 59 percent in favor to 35 percent opposed-extol its potential economic benefits and its fundamental appeal to fairness in society. If it passes, Maryland would be the first state to approve such a ballot measure, though 13 others have passed similar legislation. For years, Congress has been sitting on a proposed federal DREAM Act, which was first introduced in 2001.
BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" the law if you want in-state tuition to be available for qualified undocumented immigrants or vote "Against" it if you don't.
Question 5: Maryland's new Congressional district map
The new Congressional district boundaries drawn by O'Malley and passed by the General Assembly, as required after every U.S. Census count, give Democrats an upper hand in the traditionally Republican 6th District. The new districts were challenged and upheld in Maryland federal court, whose decision was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, but have the distinction of being among the least geographically compact in the nation, according to a recent study by Azavea, a geospatial-analysis firm. The analysis found that four of Maryland's eight districts were among the nation's 25 most spread-out districts; aside from Maryland, only Texas and North Carolina had as many districts in the list. Thus, opponents of the new map have plenty of justification for leveling "gerrymandering" charges-a 200-year-old word first used to describe a district redrawn for political advantage in such a way that it resembled a salamander.
Redistricting is a partisan process, led generally by the party in charge in each state, and distaste for the outcome sometimes results in new maps, as happened in Maryland after the 2000 Census-though that conflict was resolved in the courts, not by a ballot question before voters. This time, Maryland Republicans are generally crying foul over the new maps, and they are not alone. Some Democratic leaders-Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot and longtime U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer among them-are also urging voters to toss out O'Malley's maps and start the map-drawing process over again. If that happens, the winners of Maryland's Nov. 6 Congressional races will serve the existing districts until after the 2014 elections, which will determine who represents constituents in newly redrawn districts.
BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" the law if you want the maps to stay as they are or vote "Against" it if you want new district boundaries to be drawn.
Question 6: Marriage equality
The Maryland General Assembly, which made history in 1973 by passing the nation's first state law defining marriage as between one man and one woman, reversed itself this year after O'Malley and legislative leaders mustered the necessary votes to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. Opponents reacted by organizing an enormously successful petition drive. So, for the new law to take effect in January 2013, this ballot question must pass-and if it does, Maryland may make history again, by becoming the first state to support such a measure at the ballots. Religious and cultural traditionalists may find this an affront to their values, but polls show most Marylanders agree with the proposition that two people in love should be able to tie the knot, regardless of gender. A mid-October Washington Post poll found 52 percent of likely voters supporting the measure, while 43 percent oppose it. In other states' prior experience, though, pre-election polling support hasn't materialized at the same level on Election Day.
BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" the law if you want same-sex couples to be able to marry; vote "Against" it if you don't.
Question 7: Expanded gambling
In 2008, Maryland voters settled the question of whether or not to expand state-sanctioned gambling beyond the Maryland Lottery-with a resounding 59-to-41 vote to put 15,000 slot machines at five casinos around the state. Now, four years later, Maryland's fledgling casino industry is in the midst of expensive infighting-gambling companies so far have spent $65 million on the ballot battle-over whether to allow a sixth casino in Prince George's County, add table games like blackjack and roulette to the mix, and install another 1,500 slot machines. The General Assembly passed the measure in a special session earlier this year and voters now get to take a whack at the proposal, for or against.
Proponents point to tens of millions of dollars of additional state revenues that are predicted to result, to the need to blunt neighboring states' competitive advantages on table games, and to the likelihood of the creation of several thousand new jobs. Among the opponents are those who already hold casino licenses in Maryland, who understandably don't want to split up the pie. Others point out that gambling amounts to a regressive tax that mostly impacts those who can least afford it and that it gives rise to social problems stemming from problem gambling. Additional revenues are earmarked for education, but lawmakers can always come back and rejigger the allocation as they see fit.
The state is proposing a way to raise more revenue and create new jobs and, in so doing, they're giving voters another chance to revisit their thoughts on the matter from four years ago. Polls show a mixed bag of results, suggesting a close outcome. A late-September Baltimore Sun poll of registered voters found 53 percent opposed and 38 percent in favor, while a mid-October Washington Post poll of likely voters showed a statistical deadlock, with 48 percent against and 46 percent supporting.
BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" the law if you want Maryland to have more gambling or vote "Against" if you don't.
Baltimore City Ballot Issues
Questions A through I
Every two years, the city's leaders urge voters to approve a package of general-obligation bonds that can be leveraged for other forms of financial support to underwrite capital improvements around the city-and they are invariably approved. But that doesn't mean individual voters don't have a choice in the matter. Those who oppose, on principal, anything that adds to the city's indebtedness may choose to vote against all of them; others can approach the questions in an a la carte fashion, supporting investments in favorite cultural institutions, for instance, but opposing vaguely explained big-ticket items, such as the $24 million for "community development" and $15.8 million for "economic development" that are in this year's package. The total this year-$100 million-is the same as what was passed in 2010 and $25 million more than in 2008.
In an effort to show that the money gets put to good, specific use, this year the Baltimore City Planning Department put out a document explaining how about $25 million in past bonds were used to build an addition for a public school, renovate a library branch and a park, demolish an eyesore of an apartment building, and help restore a theater. The lack of explanation regarding how hundreds of millions of dollars in other bond issues has been spent in recent years does not inspire confidence. But these ballot questions have always asked for a heavy measure of faith that the city's leaders will not act irresponsibly with taxpayer-incurred debt. Once again, voters can decide whether or not to invest their faith in a new round of promised improvements.
BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" items that you think the city should invest in or "Against" any items that you think it should not invest in.
Question J: Creating a stormwater utility
When it rains or when snow melts, Baltimore's stormwater system of pipes and channels essentially flushes the crap and filth from city's streets and parking lots into streams and the harbor, fouling them up and, ultimately, harming the already-ailing Chesapeake Bay. This year, the Maryland General Assembly passed requirements to improve matters, and this question, if passed, will create a Baltimore City Stormwater Utility to fund the proposed solution: a whole suite of needed-and now legally required-upgrades, to include restoring watersheds and streams, sweeping streets and otherwise keeping trash from clogging up the works, fixing the extensive drainage system (which is largely unseen because so much of it is underground), and educating folks about how they can contribute to the effort to reduce our collective tendency to spoil the water. The question does not include a description of how the stormwater utility will be funded-that mechanism will be determined by subsequent Baltimore City Council action, assuming voters approve of creating the utility.
BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" the amendment if you approve of creating the state-mandated utility, or "Against" it if you don't.
Question K: Aligning city elections with the presidential cycle
Low turnout for Baltimore City elections is an ongoing issue but was perceived as chronic last fall, when participation was particularly low in the Democratic primary that, in essence, determines the city's elected leadership. The proposed solution is to hold the city's elections at the same time as presidential elections, when more people traditionally are following electoral politics and are more prone to head to the polls. Thus, if this passes, the next city elections will be in 2016, and every fours after that, and current city officeholders will get an extra year tacked on to their four-year terms.
BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" the amendment if you want the city's elections to be held at the same time as presidential elections or "Against" if you want to continue the existing election calendar.
Question L: Allowing non-major-party voters to serve on city boards and commissions
About 45,000 Baltimore City voters are registered as something other than Democrats or Republicans, and none of them are currently eligible to serve on city boards and commissions such as the Commission on Aging and Retirement, the Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission, the Youth Commission, and the like. The city charter calls for "minority party" representation on these bodies, but the proposed amendment would expand the definition to include not just Republicans in this overwhelming majority-Democrat city, but any registered voter who isn't a Democrat-and there are a lot of them, especially voters who decline to affiliate with any political party, of which there are about 40,000. In essence, this amendment vastly expands the talent pool available to fill seats on the city's boards and commissions.
BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" the amendment if you want the city's boards and commissions to potentially include voters who aren't registered as Democrats or Republicans or "Against" it if you don't.
Question M: Requiring quadrennial audits of city agencies
It may come as a surprise to many that the city's regime for auditing its major agencies is a rather ad hoc and loosely structured arrangement, but it shouldn't-the issue has been covered widely in the media, including by City Paper. The upshot is that in August, after much wrangling and many weakening amendments, the City Council, instead of passing the intended reform - a strong, time-specific audit system overseen by an independent committee implementing an annual audit plan - approved a water-down version that is now before voters. Nonetheless, the resulting proposal does require that audits of some form or another be conducted of every major agency within each four-year term of the mayor and City Council, and perhaps that's better than the existing lackluster system, which has meant some agencies haven't had their books looked at in decades.
BOTTOM LINE: Vote "For" the amendment if you want major city agencies to be audited at least once during each four-year term of the city's elected officials or "Against" if you don't.