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District Line

As Baltimore's power in Annapolis wanes, choosing legislators grows more critical

Van Smith

2:59 PM EDT, June 17, 2014

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In politics, population is power: The more people a place has, the more legislators it gets. Successive U.S. Census counts since the 1970s have halved Baltimore City's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly, diminishing its voice in Annapolis from a commanding bark to a demanding whimper. Absent a surge in city dwellers in the decades to come, Baltimore is not destined to regain its prior stardom as the tenor of the statehouse opera.

But by making smart leadership choices, Baltimore's voters can make the most of the city's remaining clout. Nearly all of the city's voters are Democrats, making that party's primary election the process that selects who serves, barring a surprise upset in the general election. On June 24, Democrats choose again—and the more who participate, the more robust the selection process is, boosting the chance of better leadership.

The numbers paint a stark picture of Baltimore's political power drain. In the 1970s, its 11 senators and 33 delegates—nearly a quarter of the legislature—formed a potent voting bloc that, when working in concert, could make or break bills and budgets. Today, after this year's upcoming elections, Baltimore's six senators and 16 delegates—just over a tenth of the body—might make their statewide colleagues notice that Baltimore wants something, but that's a far cry from actually getting it.

The change has real repercussions for the state's largest city, its economic and cultural capital. In the jurisdictional game of tug of war that is Maryland politics, Baltimore's weakened pull puts it at a growing disadvantage in annual budget battles and the important policy questions of the day.

Making up for what this math has wrought is a matter of leadership. Quality, in theory, may partly make up for the loss in quantity. Having strong, respected leaders in the city's six districts could increase the odds that Baltimore gets the respect it needs to succeed.

Two factors determine the quality of elected leadership: the attributes of the filed candidates and the voters' engagement in the election process. While voters can't control who files, they decide who wins, and selecting high-quality leaders requires an electorate that works to discern the relative merits of the available candidates while also turning out in numbers that make those candidates work hard for their victories.

In the last three state elections, voter participation in Baltimore City has taken a nosedive, a situation that has favored incumbents. The participation rate in the 2002 gubernatorial was a respectable 38 percent, but in 2006, it fell to 33 percent—and then to 22 percent in 2010. While the number of registered Democrats rose over the last three elections, the number voting fell from nearly 90,000 in 2002 to just 64,000 in 2010. Only three incumbents have lost in the last 12 years: 46th District state Sen. George Della in 2010 and 44th District state Dels. Jeffrey Paige and Ruth Kirk in 2006 and 2010, respectively. All other roster changes were due to death, retirement, or running for another office.

This year, four of the city's six sitting senators are facing challenges by one candidate each, increasing the chance of an upset since the anti-incumbent vote won't be split by multiple challengers. In the House, two seats in the 44th District were lost to redistricting, leaving 16 seats to fill across the city. Two retiring delegates are leaving open seats—Brian McHale (46th District) and Nina Harper (45th District)—guaranteeing two fresh faces from Baltimore in Annapolis next session. No challengers filed in the 44th, leaving the three incumbents—Keith E. Haynes, Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., and Melvin Stukes, all veteran legislators—to battle it out over the one seat remaining. In the other five districts, 19 challengers have filed, including seven in the 40th District and six in the 45th District.

The city's Democrats in each district will need to determine whether the existing leaders are worth retaining, or whether any of the challengers are worthy of replacing them. Whether the outcome bolsters Baltimore's ability to maintain, or even sharpen, its blunted edge in Annapolis depends, first and foremost, on large numbers of voters making informed decisions at the polls. What follows is an attempt to help make that happen.

* "Not Available" means either that a campaign's cash on hand was below the reporting threshold or that, at press time, the campaign had not yet filed its figures for the June 13 report.

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