Journalists Jayne Miller, Luke Broadwater and Taya Graham debate whether there’s anything of substance thus far emerging from the low-key campaign for Baltimore’s top job
STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: Hello. My name is Stephen Janis. I’m a reporter for the Real News Network in Baltimore. It may seem hard to believe, but in roughly 90 days Baltimore will elect a new mayor; the most important decision confronting a city where the top executive has nearly unlimited power to define the future. But thus far, it seems to be a campaign that has failed to take shape. With more than a dozen candidates and a looming presidential race, there seems to be little time or urgency to digest policy positions or platforms. This lack of substance is troubling for a city that has to make tough choices. With record high crime, taxes, and turmoil, certainly the future mayor deserves real scrutiny. But will it happen? And if not, why? To help me sort it out are three of the most respected journalists in the city. Jayne Miller is a veritable institution for her award-winning work as an investigative journalist at WBALTV. Likewise, Luke Broadwater has continued his singular work for the Baltimore Sun while covering the city, and also notching too many awards to count. And Taya Graham is a correspondent of the Real News Network, and part of the First Edition Mod Squad on WEAA, Morgan State Radio. Thank you all for joining us. So I guess what I wanted to start, talk about, was just–it seems to me that we’re only 90 days out from this election. But it hasn’t shaped–the race hasn’t taken shape at this point, to me, Jayne. And you’ve covered a lot of different races. You know, you can think back to Keiffer Mitchell and Sheila Dixon, when it was like, crime and competency. But I haven’t seen any emerging themes from this campaign. Is that because of the presidential–is it because the city’s just not paying attention? Or am I missing something? JAYNE MILLER: Well, we don’t, we don’t have any TV advertising, save for one candidate, which is David Warnock, who’s kind of self-funding his campaign. The–what we, what shapes this mayor’s race at this point is that there are a lot of people in it. And that could also be part of the challenge of trying to get the electorate interested. I mean, certainly the past year has shown and exposed the challenges for the city of Baltimore. I honestly think this is the most important election for City Hall in generations, because it’s a question of whether the city is going to go forward, is it going to sit where it is, or is it going to slip back. And I, I–we were just having this conversation this morning, when we were at City Hall. I think that the city is in need of a very unusual candidate that has to be two people. It’s a hybrid candidate. On the one hand, the city needs someone who can attract investment. Economic investment. And the second half of what this person should be is someone who can garner the confidence of communities that have been so challenged, disconnected, abandoned, for so long. And that’s a difficult character, and I’m not sure who that is in the field that we have. But in my–as I look at this race, that’s exactly what needs to happen. Because those communities that I talk about that are so challenged, and we’re talking about the Penn North community that came to the fore in such a dramatic fashion after the death of Freddie Gray. They can’t move forward without investment. In many ways, that kind of investment in, investment in employment and opportunity, and education, and you know, getting rid of the blighted housing, et cetera et cetera. You can’t do that without outside investment. So who is that person that is going to stand up on the steps of City Hall and say, hey, we’re worth investing in? JANIS: Well, let me–Luke, you have literally almost interviewed every person who has been in the race. And you’ve been covering City Hall. Is there any candidate that emerges from the people that you’ve talked to as someone who would be contrary to, like–I mean, we look at Sheila Dixon, we kind of know what she’s going to do, and Catherine Pugh. But any of the candidates you’ve spoken to who could emerge in this race as someone who would be different than, or someone that would align with what Jayne was talking about? LUKE BROADWATER: Well, I think every candidate is trying to cast themselves as a change candidate. Even Dixon, who held the job of mayor before, is pitching herself as a change. I do think she’s going to have trouble raising money from the big developers and also perhaps establishing connections in sort of the white-collar world. JANIS: Are they afraid she’s going to spend it? BROADWATER: After her criminal conviction, obviously. You know, in terms of–who are outsiders in the race? David Warnock, the businessman, is he an outsider? He’s self-funding his campaign. Nick Mosby, it’s his first term on the council. Perhaps he’s a little bit of a non-establishment person, even though he’s on the inside as an incumbent. And then you have Elizabeth Embry, who obviously is not in government now, but holds lots of connections with her, you know, through her family ties, with her father being a long-term–. JANIS: And, I mean, Catherine Pugh is a pretty consummate insider, as much as a political insider as you can [have], right. BROADWATER: Very much so. But, but never been in charge before, never been an executive, never had that chance or that opportunity. And perhaps is the biggest threat to Sheila Dixon in this race. JANIS: She has the most money at this point, correct? MILLER: Well, and Catherine has the ability to raise money, because Catherine’s in an ideal situation. She can run for this job in 2016 without having to give up her current job in the state Senate, because that election cycle’s on the next cycle, which is in 2018. JANIS: Which is what happened last time she ran. MILLER: That’s right. So she’s, she’s raising–she raised a lot of money so far. And one of the reasons she can raise so much money is because she got–she has a pretty powerful position in the state legislature. So even though she’s running for mayor, she has the ability to raise money because of her already established political connection and record. So she’s really in an ideal situation in terms of being able to raise money for this mayoral primary. JANIS: Taya, Jayne and Luke are talking about change. We’ve interviewed every candidate and asked them a specific question about the balance between spending on policing and spending on education. Because obviously there is, we have discussed and we’ll discuss more, how policing hasn’t really fixed some of the intrinsic problems when we talk about it. What, is there any candidate among the ones we’ve asked that has said, at least been able to weigh in on the controversy, and touch the third rail of Baltimore politics, which is policing? TAYA GRAHAM: Well, there’s several candidates that have mentioned policing, but no one’s actually sent–. JANIS: Well, in terms of the budget balance. GRAHAM: But in terms of budget balance, no one has actually committed to any specific action. No one has presented a policy. No one’s presented a timeline in which they would reduce the policing budget. The only person was Councilman Carl Stokes, who’s running for mayor, and he said that he would actually be willing to take money from policing and direct it into education. But he’s the only person that went on record and actually said he would redirect funds. JANIS: Well, so Jayne–. MILLER: Good luck with that, too. Because that, you’re right about the third rail. JANIS: Right. Well, that’s what I was going to say. Well, so let me ask you, Luke, is policing a third rail, like, sort of like Social Security? Because policing is–. MILLER: I have been bugging the mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, for years about this kind of blank check that the city of Baltimore, taxpayers of Baltimore, provide to the police department. There’s no checks and balance. They need overtime, they get paid. I mean, this, this budget through this fiscal year, which is the fiscal year ’16 budget, it’ll easily be over $500 million. Twenty-two to twenty-three percent of the budget in the city of Baltimore goes directly to the police department. Half that amount is what the city allocates to its school system. Now, granted, a lot of money comes through the state. But imagine if the state said, okay, here, we’re going to give you, we’re going to give you to the city of Baltimore. You’re going to take control of schools, and you’re going to get the same formula as everybody else. What would happen? Think of what would have to happen. What mayor is going to say, oh, no. You know what? I’m going to, you know, be really cheap on the education side, and continue to provide all this money on the policing side, without a good result. It’s not that it’s, that you don’t want to fund your police department. You do. You just want a better result. You want a more effective result. I’ve said this many times. If you had a private company that got along terribly with its customers, nobody wanted to deal with them, they would be out of business in a heartbeat. And that’s what, the kind of accountability that has to happen, not just in Baltimore, but all around the country, is exactly that, is to have an effective policing strategy and personnel. JANIS: Well, when you talk to people–I mean, is it, is it true that policing is sort of something that people are afraid to broach? Is it the power of the FOP, from when you interview people, and–. BROADWATER: I think the problem largely is a problem of short-term thinking. Most, most Baltimoreans in surveys list crime as one of their main concerns. When you talk to the fontrunners in this race they all say that the hear from their constituents about crime a lot. So what is the short-term way to drive down crime? Well, it’s to fund more police. And so what we’ve seen over the past decade, or even two decades, is the police budget increase and increase and increase. But what we haven’t seen is long-term reductions in crime as we, as we saw last year with the record murder rate. So we know what we’re doing hasn’t been working. So these short-term fixes of funding more and more police are not fixing the problem. So who is the candidate that’s willing to look at the long-term issues, and cut down the levels of these short-term fixes, which will be a tough sell to the public? Who has the courage to do that? JANIS: Well, you’ve done some great reporting on campaign finance. I mean, does the FOP put a lot of money into these races, generally? BROADWATER: I haven’t seen them hot and heavy in this race yet. They did, as Jayne noted, donate to Nick Mosby before he declared. MILLER: In February. Well, it was also before the–before his wife charged–. [Crosstalk]. JANIS: Wow, that’s interesting. To Nick Mosby–. So that was before–yeah, I was thinking, like, wow. MILLER: It was well before that. So that was, like, pre-Freddie Gray. BROADWATER: And they donated to Marilyn Mosby’s campaign initially, too. MILLER: Yeah, not much. But they did give some. BROADWATER: Right, so–. MILLER: They, they have enough money, just to follow up on that, they have a political fund which they started about more than ten years ago to have more political influence. They donate around the state. So they are a force to be reckoned with, in terms of financial support. BROADWATER: I suspect they will choose a candidate in the coming weeks or months, and we’ll see them probably max out for somebody. Or who knows–. JANIS: Well, they tried that with Kieffer Mitchell in 2007, and that–. BROADWATER: Or, or maybe they’ll decide to sit it out. We’ll see. I don’t know, I haven’t heard any concrete plans from Gene Ryan and the FOP yet. You know, they did–they obviously were supporters of supporters of Gregg Bernstein, the past state’s attorney. He’s a big supporter of Elizabeth Embry, who’s running for mayor. So will that translate to their support, we’ll see. GRAHAM: That definitely supports the idea that I heard, that the FOP essentially fired Mayor Rawlings-Blake. JANIS: You think, you think that’s the FOP? Well, Jayne, you were talking that. I mean, did the FOP have a role in Stephanie not running? And the firing of Batts, I mean, is that what you think? GRAHAM: I think it’s certainly more than a coincidence. JANIS: Jayne, what do you think? MILLER: You know, I think they were very, very critical. Harshly critical. And created this whole narrative after the riots that–. JANIS: And they had a report, too. MILLER: That we were, you know, told to stand down, and dah-dah-dah-dah-dah. I mean, this has been the, you know, this has been a difficult topic to talk about, is what really happened on April 27, and there’s been a lot of finger pointing. JANIS: And even more, there was a report from the state, and that [inaud.] prepared. BROADWATER: I would say they set, they set a very negative environment in which they were harshly critical of incumbents. And even if they didn’t directly influence these decisions they, they created this environment which I think made the top leaders of the city very, very uncomfortable, and maybe at their wit’s end for how to remedy some of these problems [when you have] such extremes and such polarization. JANIS: Well, Taya, I want to ask you because, you know, David Warnock, as you pointed out, is self-funding. He’s got a million dollars. So a million dollars buys the mayor’s race, right. He’s been doing a lot of advertising. But you know, do you think, you’ve interviewed him, do you think that he can actually appeal to African-American voters? Because there is some wariness about a white candidate coming in, you know, saying I’m going to do X, Y, and Z, like Martin O’Malley. Do you think he can, can actually appeal, or how–do you think black voters are going to be apprehensive because of what has happened in the past? GRAHAM: That’s actually a really interesting question. I think from the people I’ve spoken to in the African-American community that they were initially very concerned by the number of African-American candidates that were running for mayor. They were concerned that was going to split, fracture the black vote, creating an opportunity for an O’Malley to come into play. So back in 1999, 2003, the black vote was fractured and O’Malley was able to come in. So people were concerned that perhaps, you know, Elizabeth Embry or David Warnock would be able to take advantage of the fact that there’s so many candidates running. But I don’t think a white candidate can repeat what O’Malley did. I mean, first off, he had the blessing of Delegate Pete Rawlings, who is of course Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s father. He was already on the city council, he had the name recognition. Whereas Elizabeth Embry and David Warnock, they don’t have that name recognition. They don’t have a political career to be able to point to. And they also don’t have a wedge issue. They don’t have a single issue for people to be able to focus on, like, crime, which is what O’Malley focused on. So because they’re, even though there are a lot of African-American candidates, I think it’s neutralized by the number of white candidates. So I really think it’s anybody’s race. I don’t know if David Warnock will be able to push himself to the forefront. JANIS: Well, Jayne, what do you think of–you know, Warnock obviously has all this money, he’s running all these ads. Do you think he could–do you think he could be, like, a Bernstein where he solidifies–or even Elizabeth Embry, but Warnock most intriguing, because of the money. Is it–and this really isn’t the year [inaud.] money. MILLER: Well, the others [inaud.] have enough money [inaud.] TV. Catherine Pugh has enough money to get on TV. Nick Mosby will probably have enough money to get on TV. I don’t know about Sheila. She’s got–I mean, Catherine had a–. JANIS: She did about $200,000–. MILLER: Huge fundraising quarter. Elizabeth Embry, we pointed out, had raised $400,000, and half of it came from 35 individuals who wrote $6,000 checks. It’s like, whoa. JANIS: That’s not a Bernie Sanders campaign fund. MILLER: No, not at all. And then a lot of those checks are from, you know, kind of around the–I mean, it’s, yeah. That’s an interesting thing [inaud.]. JANIS: Yeah. Well, who’s surprised by that? Because as we know, you know, her father is–. MILLER: Right. Correct, yeah. BROADWATER: Yeah. The breakdown of the, the really–the concentrated wealth in this race is going to Embry and Pugh for, for a little bit of different reasons, and Mosby, Stokes, and Dixon are sort of left with the smaller donors. At least that’s what we’ve seen so far. JANIS: Well, this year has been a different year in the presidential race, and I wonder if it’s all parallel. I mean, Bernie Sanders is a very issues-oriented, highly progressive candidate, who doesn’t have all the privileges of being, you know, a handsome guy with lots of, you know, big-time donors. And it is work. Can you run a campaign like that in Baltimore, where you say, I’m going to cut the property taxes X, Y, Z. I’m going to do X, Y, Z, and sort of ignite a base here? Is that kind of a campaign possible in Baltimore? MILLER: That’s a good question. You know, you look at the November 2014 results, Larry Hogan won Southeast Baltimore, and the waterfront area. By ten points. I mean, it wasn’t even close. So you’ve got a–the voting demographic has changed a little bit, I think, in Baltimore. I, I think it’s going to be interesting to see what happens after the Democratic primary. Is there a candidate that we don’t know about yet who says, I’m going to run as an independent for the general. JANIS: That’d be interesting. Luke, you just interviewed Carl Stokes, who went with a pretty specific plan. How substantive was it, what was the main thrust of his plan, and how appealing do you think it will be? BROADWATER: So, Stokes is the first candidate in the race to introduce a plan just on economic development. We’ve seen crime plans from Dixon and Embry. We saw an education plan from Warnock. And we saw an overarching sort of comprehensive plan from Nick Mosby, which is perhaps the most detailed of all the plans. You know, Stokes–Stokes focused on a bunch of things. He wants a big property tax cut. He thinks that will self-fund through as, you know, the economic growth–. JANIS: The [inaud.] Dr. [Steven Walters], [inaud.], yeah. BROADWATER: Yeah. You know, I don’t, you know, I don’t think–. JANIS: It’s risky. But you know, there–. BROADWATER: I think there are some economists that believe that that happens. But there are others who believe that economic growth is somewhat outside of the control of a local jurisdiction. You know, if China stops ordering so much steel or something, and then America goes into a recession, well, will those big tax cuts come back, come back to haunt you? We don’t know. He also, though, has introduced a new rule on TIFs that he wants to impose if he’s mayor, which is that each, each economic subsidy for a developer would have to be combined with a substantial community benefits agreement of about 25 percent or more. So by [crosstalk] change in policy–. JANIS: So if I give you $10 million [inaud.] give back, [inaud.] I’ll give it 25 percent, instead of just keeping 99 percent of it. Yeah. BROADWATER: And that would be important because we all know this Under Armour, huge development in South Baltimore is going to be coming online. And everyone expects that they will ask for a sizable amount of city subsidy. JANIS: Okay. So wrapping it up–I’m going to go down the, Jayne, who do you–do you have anyone you think is a favorite, maybe–. MILLER: I think this is Sheila Dixon’s race to lose. Because she, I mean, I’ve heard on polling and you can see it in the polling, is she’s around 30-32 percent. I mean, with all those other candidates, who has, who can get enough votes to overcome that? So I think it’s, it’s her race to lose at this point. Now, that could change in the weeks before the primary, if we get some other TV advertising going on. I don’t know that she’s going to have the money to get on TV. JANIS: Luke, you have any thoughts at this point? BROADWATER: I completely concur. All the polling shows Dixon’s base is really rock solid. Half of Democrats do not want Sheila Dixon to be mayor, but they are split among five or six candidates. JANIS: They’re so diffuse. There is 25 percent undecided. BROADWATER: Catherine Pugh is within striking distance, and has doubled the money of Dixon. If she could convince other people to get out of the race, there’s perhaps a, a path for her. JANIS: And Taya? GRAHAM: I have to agree with my colleagues, here. And honestly, you know, Luke makes a great point. Unless someone like Catherine Pugh can make a deal to either have someone step aside, to make some promises for how they will benefit later for stepping out of the mayor’s race now, I think Sheila Dixon has an incredibly solid lead, unless something amazing happens, like, for example, Jill Carter coming in and running as an independent. I think it’s Sheila’s race. JANIS: Okay. Well, thank you, everyone, for joining me. I really appreciate it. It was a fascinating discussion. We’ll have you back to reassess the mayor’s race in hopefully, hopefully a little bit. This is Stephen Janis for the Real News Network in Baltimore. Thank you for joining us.