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After Rawlings-Blake exit, motivated voters could influence the city’s political landscape

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STEPHEN JANIS, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, TRNN: If we had predicted just six months ago the race for mayor in Baltimore would be a wide open, potentially city-altering event, a few would believe it. But that’s exactly where we are now. In the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray in police custody everything has appeared to have changed in a city not known for dynamic political contests. Out is Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who last week announced she would not run. In are candidates like Carl Stokes, Catherine Pugh, and former Mayor Sheila Dixon, to name a few. But the bottom line is this: will a seemingly-competitive race change anything, and are the candidates willing to offer plans to address the systemic poverty and heavy-handed policing that almost everyone acknowledges brought us to where we are now? To help me answer that question are two journalists who have been closely watching as this story unfolds. Sean Yoes is a [veteran] award-winning journalist who writes a column on race for the AFRO American Newspaper and hosts First Edition on WEAA nightly from 5:00-7:00. Taya Graham is a Real News Network correspondent who focuses on race, incarceration, and women’s interaction with policing. Thank you both for joining us. I want to start out–and I’ll start out with you, Sean, about just how the mayor’s withdrawal from the race, which of course was a stunning development for all of us I think in the press corps, how that affects the other people who have joined the race thus far. Does it give us a clear frontrunner? SEAN YOES, JOURNALIST: No. I don’t think anything–I don’t think anything’s clear at this point. I think it opens the process up. I think it invites people who may have been on the fence about getting into the race, maybe they’re leaning more towards actually getting in, whereas before they may have been much more trepidatious. So I just think it opens the process up. There may be more individuals who decide to get in. And quite frankly, it opens the money up a little bit more. I mean, some of that money that was attached to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, much of it, is going to go elsewhere, right. JANIS: Right, when she lost her connection to Colleen Martin-Lauer, who was the main fundraiser. So that does mean other people have access to that. YOES: Absolutely. JANIS: Well, Taya, what do–you know, you covered, you’ve been covering the race. Do you think anybody emerges from this–I mean, does Sheila Dixon have any advantage, or anyone that you see having an advantage now the mayor has withdrawn? TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: Honestly, because the mayor withdrew I think Sheila loses the initial advantage she had. Before it was going to be a battle of two titans. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake versus Sheila Dixon, old mayor versus new. And now Sheila Dixon’s, her notoriety, her name recognition, I don’t think has quite as much power because now people like Catherine Pugh, there’s a chance Jill Carter might come into the race, Carl Stokes has come in, there’s so many names. There’s a possibility Wes Moore might be coming into the race. Connor Meek, a 27-year-old young man, a millennial who had an amazing experience where he went to the police station to talk about his bike being stolen. They didn’t help him. Now he’s running his own campaign holding the police department accountable. So there are all these people who are jumping into the race, and I think it could really split the vote. JANIS: So Sean, that raises a great question, then. How does someone distinguish themselves out of this field that seems to be growing? I mean, Nick Mosby hasn’t said anything yet, but we think he might get in. So what do you do to put yourself out in front of this in terms of, is it about issues? Or is it about just name recognition? YOES: I think it’s about, it becomes more–I hope it becomes more about issues. I mean, we heard Carl Stokes on my show talk about diverting money from the police department to education. Well, that’s a pretty radical position in the context of Baltimore politics. JANIS: Well, and I mean–I’ve never heard it before. YOES: I haven’t either. JANIS: I’ve never heard a politician in Baltimore City run anything but more police here, we need more police. So that, that’s the first time I’ve heard that. YOES: So I think policy-wise if people were paying attention, and I don’t know if they are at this point yet or not, but if people were paying attention that’s the type of policy position that I think that would kind of place him out by himself, clearly, right. JANIS: Yeah, yeah. Well–but okay, so I watched Sheila Dixon’s video, right. And all she talked about was–. YOES: The ice cream social. JANIS: Right. Where she did a video, she released a video. It was pretty, pretty just, here I am. I’m here. So Taya–do you think policing can really become, you know, can bolster a candidate to the front, like–given that Sheila Dixon already is just saying, I’m just Sheila Dixon. GRAHAM: If it was any other year other than this one I would say her name recognition would be enough. And the simple fact that she’s Sheila Dixon and that she’s still popular among the people. But in relation to the Freddie Gray’s in-custody death, in relation to the international spotlight that Baltimore has been in for its police brutality and its police militarization, I think it really does change the conversation so that a policy engaging policing really might gain traction. JANIS: And that brings up a good question. So we have the Freddie Gray situation, so it’s really made Baltimore the epicenter of police dysfunction, right. So does that, with the trials going on, how does that affect the race as it unfolds, do you think, given that we could be going through the entire race with the Freddie Gray trials being adjudicated. How does that affect the race in your opinion, Sean? YOES: Well, now that the mayor has decided not to run for reelection, I mean at least she’s taken, for lack of a better term, off of the hook as far as what transpires. JANIS: And she’s sort of taking the hit, in a way. YOES: Right. And that target isn’t there anymore, really, as far as candidates for mayor is concerned. But does it start to fall back on Sheila Dixon? I mean, she’s connected directly to zero tolerance policing. She’s connected directly to much of the dysfunction that is manifesting itself now. JANIS: And she was, she was mayor when [BFL] had the famous [vset] unit which was the unit that incurred all those lawsuits that the Sun wrote about, the $5 million lawsuits. So that’s a good point, so you think Sheila Dixon can’t walk away from that. YOES: Well, I think she’s less able to walk away from it than anybody else who’s in the race. I mean, Carl Stokes is kind of known as someone who has railed against the way law enforcement had been executed over the years. And his current position on diverting funds from–he’s become the antithesis of an FOP candidate, right. So it would seem like Sheila Dixon would be the likely, most likely target now that Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is out of the race. JANIS: But let me–Taya, would you–let me challenge the idea of policing being–okay. So Martin O’Malley was recently on Democracy Now!, right. And Democracy Now!, they brought up David Simon, who obviously has recently discovered that there was zero tolerance, and gave Martin O’Malley a very hard time for the zero tolerance policy, which if people don’t know, the city arrested about 100,000 people a year under Martin O’Malley, it was very controversial. Martin O’Malley said, well you know, it’s not true that people in the city didn’t like zero tolerance because everyone voted for me. I won a majority of the vote. So how has policing suddenly become an issue when people ten years ago voted for what was considered to be one of the worst police policies in the history of this country? GRAHAM: Well, I saw the same clip you did on Democracy Now!, and he said that he had received 88 percent of the Baltimore City vote. Well, I’m not quite sure where he got his numbers from. When I checked the Baltimore Board of Elections website I didn’t see numbers like that, but perhaps he was referring to the runoff against the Republican candidate. I would say this: if he actually got 20 percent of Baltimore City residents voting and let’s say 15 percent–. JANIS: Well you’re saying about the low turnout, with–because it was only 20 percent turnout. GRAHAM: Of the low turnout. So it’s only 20 percent turnout. And if the majority of those residents voted for him, we don’t really know what the demographic of that group of residents was. I mean, a lot of times in Baltimore people vote with their feet. And I think that’s shown with Governor Hogan’s race against Anthony Brown. He won. And I think that’s because people did not show up to vote for Anthony Brown. JANIS: So what are you saying, is it we don’t really know if people really voted for zero tolerance, or it was just the low turnout. And that raises a great question. Because Sean, we’re talking about a different kind of election. They moved the election back from the off year, which is 2015 with a separate primary, to a primary that will coincide with the Democratic president–how does that change the dynamics of the race, in your mind, in terms of candidates? Does it help anybody, hurt anybody, does it change it at all? YOES: That’s a good question. Because if someone–because we don’t know, first of all, everyone who’s going to be in the race. So is it possible that someone could connect to a national figure and try to ride some sort of wave of–I don’t know. That’s a great question. JANIS: Yeah, well like for example, someone could join with Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. But I mean, traditionally we’ve had really low turnout. I think Stephanie’s last victory in 2011 was 18 percent of the population. Now you’ve got I think voters who are probably less vested in the process, right. So people who’ve been–maybe that would help an outsider, or something. YOES: Well, but then again I think the larger issue of law enforcement reform is one that connects on a national level as well. So that may be a platform that a candidate, a national candidate, would take up. And it could be a–it could be a platform that a local mayoral candidate can connect to. I don’t know. It’s–I don’t think, my gut says that it probably won’t make much difference. But there are scenarios that could play out that could make it relevant, maybe. JANIS: Yeah, interesting. Taya, do you think–do you think, also, another big issue that Carl Stokes has raised and we’ve heard, is about development downtown. You know, tax breaks given to developers. Most recently Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in 2013 gave a $100 million tax break to Michael Beatty to build Harbor Point. Do you think that issue will raise to the level of being a campaign issue, given Carl Stokes has introduced it? Do you see it having any traction? GRAHAM: Well, for example with Exelon, they’re supposed to establish our corporate headquarters here in Baltimore City. They were obligated to, it was contractual. And yet an incredibly generous tip was given to them. And Carl Stokes has come out time and time again about these gimmes, essentially giving away taxpayer hard-earned money to these developers who certainly don’t need it and use it to gamble on risky projects in Baltimore City. And I think the nation, as well as the world, was shown that Gilmor Homes and [Sandtown Winchester] had no benefits from the enterprise zone. It benefited the developers, not the citizens of Baltimore. JANIS: That’s really interesting. That’s interesting, yeah. YOES: And Carl Stokes was, he was pretty much a lone kind of voice. JANIS: He was absolutely a lone voice on that. YOES: In that process. JANIS: But that raises an interesting question. So you know, in this sense what had once been sort of a, a nebulous idea, a tax break, is wedded to this image. Because let’s face it, during the Freddie Gray uprising we had image after image of that tale of two cities. So does that tale of two cities–could someone sort of glom that on to the Bernie Sanders sort of economic populism and make a charge? YOES: Well, sure. Because the tale of two cities didn’t manifest itself in April of 2015. Tale of two cities has been going on since they started developing the Inner Harbor, and maybe even before that. I mean, Baltimore has always been a tale of two cities, in one way, shape, or form. This is the town that invented segregation, literally. So we’ve always been a tale of two cities. JANIS: Yeah. And it could be a campaign issue. Taya–you know, most political experts will tell you that it is African-American women who decide the vote in Baltimore City, it has been and always will be. Do you see any candidate emerging from your–because you’re a women’s studies major, someone who knows this subject. Does that give Sheila Dixon an advantage in this race? GRAHAM: It’s possible that it gives Sheila an advantage in that she’s familiar, she’s recognizable, she’s seen as a mother. I do think though that there are other people that can appeal to the African-American women space. I don’t think we’re monolithic. I think we’re more diverse than people think. And I think if we’re presented with someone who’s truly presenting policies that are going to benefit Baltimore’s citizens, benefit families, benefit children, I think we’ll choose that person. JANIS: Yeah, go ahead. YOES: I agree with Taya, the black community is not monolithic in any segment of it. But black women have always identified with Sheila Dixon in Baltimore City, it [seems to me]. All throughout her career they have supported her tremendously. I think a significant portion of the black women’s vote will again support Sheila Dixon. How much is, I think is the key thing here. And–but like Taya said, there are others that could enter the race that could have similar appeal. Maybe not similar appeal, but appeal to the black women’s voting bloc. Someone like Wes Moore. I’ve heard people trot out these different thoughts about him being the son of a lot of these–the grandson of a lot of these women. This young man, born and raised in Baltimore, went off to accomplish great things. JANIS: Successful. Yeah. Great story. Great backstory. YOES: Right. Yeah, yeah. GRAHAM: But we–we shouldn’t ignore the young people in Baltimore City. I mean, the way they organized, the way they turned out to support Freddie Gray’s family, to show their concern about their city and the way that it’s being policed, I think we can’t count our young people out. I think they’re really going to step up and make some changes in our electorate. JANIS: So that raises the question, who would, you think would be their candidate? Anyone off the top of your head? GRAHAM: Wow. Well, first off I’d have to say Jill Carter. Because she’s already reached out to the young African-American leadership that’s burgeoning in our city. But also there’s a chance that someone, an outsider like Connor Meek might appeal, as well. I mean, he’s a millennial, and he’s saying a lot of things that are interesting. I mean, he wants transparency, accountability, communication. He won’t accept campaign donations. He says donate it to a nonprofit that needs it. That might appeal to a lot of young people. JANIS: Well, the final question. We’re kind of in the age of the Donald Trump candidacy. Is there anybody, a character in this race who might emerge, that would have a story? Would it be like–not they would be like Donald Trump, but would it be someone like Wes Moore, or someone who emerged who just transcends the politics of it with his character or personality? YOES: I don’t know. I mean, we’ve tried it out, a couple of–we’ve had a couple of informal polls on the First Edition. And Wes Moore didn’t fare very well. Now, obviously that’s a rather small, informal kind of sampling. But he didn’t–there is an aversion, you know, this, there is a–even though Wes Moore is from Baltimore he’s still kind of seen as a guy who’s not, you know, what high school did you go to? Where did you–I mean, that’s, those are the–those–that’s a key question for a lot of people. And he may not have the right answers. JANIS: It’s called, like, the prime rib factor. The restaurant’s have been over 40 years, never changed its menu. YOES: Right. JANIS: There’s a certain amount of, like, you’ve got to be–and that’s interesting because that’s what Sheila Dixon’s message was. You know me. YOES: That’s her, that is her, that is her message. JANIS: Yeah. Well, listen, very interesting conversation. Sean and Taya, I both appreciate you coming in and talking to us about this. We will continue to have a conversation about the mayor’s race as it unfolds, because I’m sure if nothing else it’s going to be interesting, right. GRAHAM: Absolutely. JANIS: Thank you. My name is Stephen Janis. I’m a reporter for the Real News Network in Baltimore.


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Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns. Follow her on Twitter.

Host & Producer
Stephen Janis is an award winning investigative reporter turned documentary filmmaker. His first feature film, The Friendliest Town was distributed by Gravitas Ventures and won an award of distinction from The Impact Doc Film Festival, and a humanitarian award from The Indie Film Fest. He is the co-host and creator of The Police Accountability Report on The Real News Network, which has received more than 10,000,000 views on YouTube. His work as a reporter has been featured on a variety of national shows including the Netflix reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, Dead of Night on Investigation Discovery Channel, Relentless on NBC, and Sins of the City on TV One.

He has co-authored several books on policing, corruption, and the root causes of violence including Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore and You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths about Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. He is also the co-host of the true crime podcast Land of the Unsolved. Prior to joining The Real News, Janis won three Capital Emmys for investigative series working as an investigative producer for WBFF. Follow him on Twitter.