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Open Seats

Lack of Strong Incumbents Energizes 40th District Races

Tom Chalkley

By Van Smith | Posted 8/16/2006

In 2002, 40th District voters returned the same Democrats to Annapolis who had been representing them for years: state Sen. Ralph Hughes and delegates Howard Rawlings, Tony Fulton, and Salima Siler Marriott. Since then, Rawlings and Fulton have passed away, and Hughes announced his retirement this spring, leaving Marriott as the only elected incumbent in this year's battle. Marriott and Catherine Pugh--who was appointed to replace Fulton--are running for Hughes' empty Senate seat, facing four other Democrats. The winner of Sept. 12's primary Senate race will compete with Republican Stephen George in the Nov. 7 general election. The other appointed delegate--Marshall Toby Goodwin, who is serving out Rawlings' term--is facing eight other candidates in the Democratic primary. The three top vote-getters in that race will go on to contend with the Green Party's Jan Danforth in the general election.

The crowded competition is a far cry from the yawner of 2002, when only Democrats entered the races, which featured light primary competition. In this year's Senate race, four of the six Democrats have won elections in the past, and the other two have lost previous bids, while the Republican is a first-time candidate. The House of Delegates contest is packed with newcomers--none has won an election to public office before, though five of them are seasoned by previous electoral outings.

The 40th District is a mix of money and poverty, big institutions and small neighborhood businesses, with some stretches that display the full panoply of urban ills. Centered on Druid Hill Park, the district's southern end is in Rosemont, and it extends north to Pimlico, then takes in Penn North and Reservoir Hill as it reaches east to include Hampden-Woodberry, a piece of Roland Park, and parts of Charles Village and Mount Vernon. Its population in the 2000 U.S. Census was counted as 111,000, 27 percent of whom were living below the poverty line. A third of people over 25 years old had not graduated from high school, while another third attended or graduated from college or grad school. Of the voting-age population of about 87,000, less than 15 percent voted in the 2002 elections.

The key question among those competing for a winning share of this small universe of voters is whether familiar political names will carry the day. Some of the experienced politicians acknowledge that their veteran status may be a mixed blessing, while neophyte candidates note that voters are telling them it is time for a new team.

Senate candidate Del. Marriott is on the top of the Team 40 ticket, a slate that also includes two House candidates--Antonio Hayes, City Council President Sheila Dixon's legislative director, and Ashburton Area Association President Shawn Tarrant--and four contenders for the district's Democratic State Central Committee. Marriott has lined up important union and church endorsements and readily dons the mantle of incumbency.

"I am the only person running who has been elected to the General Assembly," she declares. "Sixteen years I've been there. Don't forget it." In the same breath, she adds that she's "not taking it for granted" that her résumé will usher her into a Senate seat.

Pugh was elected in 1999 to represent West Baltimore's 4th District on the City Council, and lost a 2003 primary bid for City Council president to Dixon. She won some 40th District precincts in that race but has yet to prove herself as a candidate for the General Assembly, where she's been for a year as an appointee. Her short stint in Annapolis, Pugh says, has afforded her experience as a consensus-builder with lawmakers from other parts of the state.

A west-side political family also has a name on the 40th District Senate ballot: 7th District City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, who took office in 2004. Her last name has long graced political signs and bumper stickers in Baltimore. Frank M. Conaway, her father, was a state delegate in the late 1970s and is currently is up for re-election as the city's clerk of the Circuit Court, an office he's held since 1998. (He also mounted an independent bid for mayor in 2004.) Her stepmother is Mary Conaway, the city's elected register of wills since 1982 (also up for re-election) and a Democratic mayoral candidate in 1999. Belinda Conaway's brother Frank M. Conaway Jr. is a City Hall mail clerk who is currently running for a 40th District House seat on the Three Bears Slate with his parents.

When asked about her accomplishments as a city legislator, Belinda Conaway lists resolutions she ushered through the council, measures encouraging the state, for instance, to improve sex-offender tracking, employers to ask their workers to mark Rosa Parks Day, and the city to better its rat-control measures. As a senator, she says she would work to bring money back to her district but admits she has no policy ideas. "Not at this point," she remarks, before declaring that "sex offenders will be a big focus. We may need to look at castration for repeat offenders."

Senate candidate Tara Andrews, a lawyer who advocates for the rights of prison inmates, tied for eighth place in the 41st District Democratic primary for state delegate in 2002, out of a field of 12 candidates. She has since moved into the 40th, so her name is untested on the district's ballots. Andrews wants to give voters the "opportunity to start over," she says. "The current leadership hasn't been effective, given how long they've been in office."

Park Heights resident Timothy Mercer has gotten only a handful of votes in his previous two electoral outings--in 1994, when he lost the 40th District Democratic primary for delegate, and in 2003, when took a stab at the 7th District City Council seat. He could not be reached for comment.

Former City Council president Lawrence Bell III, who left office in 1999 after an embarrassing defeat in that year's mayoral race, also couldn't be reached for comment. Bell made a splash in early July by entering the 40th District Senate race on filing deadline. He had virtually disappeared from the Baltimore scene after his 1999 defeat, and has since racked up a mounting personal-debt problem ("Bell Tightening," Campaign Beat, Aug. 2). But Bell's campaign consultant, Arthur Murphy, says he is confident that the proven vote-getting power of his client's name will overcome the inherent electoral problems presented by a discredited, long-absent, and creditor-hounded candidate.

Whoever wins the Senate race, Stephen George wants to debate them. The Bolton Hill Republican does litigation support in Washington and is a lifelong Republican who believes Baltimore suffers from the lack a "a full, robust, two-party discussion of the issues." The South Carolina native, who moved to Baltimore in 1997, emphasizes that the local GOP is free to chart its own path. "George Bush doesn't have to tell you how to run," he says.

Neither does a 40th District Senate candidate, if the House race is any indication. Team 40's two House candidates--Hayes and Tarrant--and Frank Conaway Jr. are the only ones in the nine-person race who are running on a ticket with a Senate contender. Marshall Toby Goodwin, despite being a three-year appointed incumbent who might well have joined a ticket with Marriott or Pugh (currently his colleagues in the House), is "strictly neutral in the Senate race," he states. The assistant public-safety director at Baltimore City Community College says he feels confident running alone, resting on his "reputation as responsive and accessible" and his long roots in the 40th's schools and communities.

Incumbency's laurels are nothing to rest on, though, says candidate Kinji Pierre Scott. He has fresh eyes on the city, having moved to Baltimore only two years ago. But Scott says he has had a crash course in local politics as a result of his experience this year seeking accountability for the slaying of a young resident of a group home where he worked ("The Least of These," April 26).
The Mount Vernon resident has concluded that the city's longstanding political leaders are seen by many voters as "nothing but gatekeepers."

"All of these folks are talking about all they've done--they ain't done shit," Scott says. "And people don't even want to
vote for the same old crap, year after
year, anymore."

Aspiring delegate Nolan Rollins, a vice president at the Greater Baltimore Urban League, is more polite in echoing Scott's thoughts about the political establishment. "I've been meeting with voters in their homes," Rollins says. "And what they're saying is, `We're looking for somebody to represent us, because we haven't gotten that response from those people we've been sending over and over.' They think of politics as a dirty word and look at you like, `There's nothing you can say to me that hasn't been said before.' So, as a newcomer, I have to overcome that before I can even get them to hear to my message."

Barbara Robinson, too, faces the hurdles of being a new face in 40th District politics. She recently moved to the city--so recently, in fact, that land records for her Baltimore County home still list it as her principal residence. But her heart and history are in the 40th, she insists. Robinson is a successful entrepreneur in job training and the care of the disabled, work that has earned her recognition in welfare-reform circles--and a recent court judgment against her and Self Pride Inc., a nonprofit she runs that operates assisted-living facilities. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that Robinson and Self Pride were ordered to pay nearly $530,000 in back wages to almost 400 current and former employees. Robinson has appealed the decision.

Sarah Louise Matthews ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 1999. The Baltimore City Department of Social Services case manager and legislative assistant for 44th District Del. Jeffrey Paige recently moved from Bolton Hill to Roland Park. She has long been active in volunteerism and neighborhood politics. Matthews and Scott have been toying with joining forces, since they say they share policy ideas and a sense of deep disappointment with the quality of existing leadership. But as of press time, both indicate that they'll be running separately.

Four years ago, Mark Hughes ran for 41st District delegate as a member of a powerful, though unsuccessful, slate headed by then-state Sen. Barbara Hoffman. Hughes, the Park Heights coordinator for the Community Law Center, could not be reached for comment by press time.

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