The three building blocks of any successful political campaign are: money, media and organization. It’s possible to win with any two as long as one of them is money. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has a swatch of money and solid support. So with everything else going for her, it is fair to ask, who needs a message?
The rap on Rawlings-Blake, mainly from her roster of potential rivals, is that she lacks vision. But when it comes to running a city, what’s more important than an inspired master plan is a fleet of garbage trucks, an armada of snow plows and the moral fortitude and good sense to keep your fingers out of the tambourine. The message is in the performance.
Rawlings-Blake is on her own now, facing the voters for the first time as a candidate for mayor, the office she inherited more than a year ago when Sheila Dixon was decapitated for, among other things, being a shopaholic on somebody else’s dime and for pilfering gift cards that were intended for the poor. Victory in the September primary is tantamount to election in a city that is nine-to-one Democratic and light voter turnouts favor the incumbent. Organization—identifying the vote and getting it out—is the key to harvesting votes in a primary election where as general elections are determined more by issues and personality.
But between now and the primary, there is a roll call of candidates hoping to abbreviate Rawlings-Blake’s career: Otis Rolley III, former city planning director; Jody Landers, a former Councilmember and vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors; Councilmember Carl Stokes; State Sen. Catherine Pugh; and Clerk of the Court Frank Conaway. A winnowing of the list will no doubt occur between now and show time.
Rolley, Landers and Stokes have begun to test-drive the issue of property tax reduction as the centerpieces of their campaign warm-ups. Last week, Stokes released a Rube Goldberg of a plan that makes little sense but grabbed the intended headline. Landers is leaning on the vague plan he devised earlier. And Rolley is calling for a reduction without having offered the specifics of a proposal at all.
Running against an incumbent is a daunting undertaking. Rawlings-Blake already has nearly a million dollars in the bank as well as an A-list of supporters. And both will continue to grow as her campaign rolls out. On the same night that she and Rolley had competing fundraisers, for example, Rawlings-Blake raised more than $600,000 while Rolley pulled in only $14,000—with Comedian Bill Cosby as the draw. Money and those who have it tend to rally around incumbents because familiarity is their comfort zone.
As Baltimore’s old-line political organizations have faded into virtual non-existence, the new reliable voting base that has emerged in the city is the sisterhood of black women. They form the solid bloc of voters that Rawlings-Blake had relied on as City Council president and now and again as a candidate for her first full term as mayor.
Superimpose that on her friendship with Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and his political backers in Baltimore as governor and from his years as mayor and Rawlings-Blake has the ingredients of a rock-solid political organization. And now, with O’Malley’s brother, Peter, as chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party there are even more strings and levers to pull as the party of O’Malley and the party of Rawlings-Blake fuse into a single entity for the mutual benefit of both, whatever the other might be in the future. O’Malley regularly racks up 90 percent of the black vote.
Consider this year’s mayoral primary in Baltimore a warm-up for the 2012 presidential elections as well. When Rawlings-Blake assumed the mayor’s office in February 2011, among the first messages she received was an invitation to the White House from President Obama after Dixon had been frozen out during the investigation of her misdeeds. The warm relationship between the White House and City Hall has been restored as Rawlings-Blake has returned several times, as has O’Malley, for conferences and meetings. And Obama has returned the favor by appearing in Maryland frequently for photo-ops and speak-and-greet occasions. And there has, too, been a shuffle of Maryland appointees into Obama’s high-level federal bureaucracy.
Reliably Democratic Maryland may not be key to Obama’s reelection because of its miserly 10 electoral votes, but it is an important element in the blue-state coastal margins of the map that make up the population concentrations in America as well as the Democratic base. Nearly everything in between is red-state Republican. The Rawlings-Blake and O’Malley line-up will be the backbone of the mayoral election as well as the presidential contest and the reelection of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) in what appears to be a united Democratic line-up.
Rawlings-Blake assumed the mayor’s job at a tough juncture in the quirky city’s pile-up of miseries: She had to clean up the mess Dixon left behind; and money for the impecunious city was drying up at both the state and federal levels because of the near collapse of the economy. Beyond those, she was bedeviled almost immediately by the heaviest snowfall in history that virtually paralyzed the city. But with outside help, Rawlings-Blake dug out the citizenry and the city and got commerce moving again. And she made a series of tough fiscal decisions, increasing fees, facing down unions and public sector workers, to keep the city solvent and afloat.
One of her major challenges upon becoming mayor was to overcome her stiffness, almost brittle aloofness, in public appearances. As City Council president, she once upbraided a constituent for failing to address her as “madam president.” But the snowstorms humbled her. Rawlings-Blake, known for designer threads and her immaculate coif, was actually prowling the snow-covered streets in jeans and a baseball cap.
And now, through no fault of her own, Rawlings-Blake is dealing with a wide-ranging towing scandal within the police department that has lead to the investigation and suspension of a couple of dozen police officers. She has appointed a commission to study the city's towing arrangements. She has appointed another group of law enforcement specialists, including former Attorney General and U.S. Attorney Stephen H. Sachs, to review the Baltimore Police Department's findings in the shooting of an undercover cop. He mission in Annapolis during this session, other than begging for money, has been to seek tougher sentences for gun crimes.
Politics is a form-follows-function kind of business. What you see is pretty much what you get. Rawlings-Blake picks up the trash, plows the snow and so far there have been no major embarrassments in her brief Administration. What more can be asked of a mayor?
Personal note: David Broder, dean of the Washington press corps and a Washington Post reporter and columnist, died last week at 81. Broder was the courtliest reporter in Washington and a genuinely nice guy, rare attributes in a business where cynicism is a lethal weapon. I came to know Broder very well during my years as press secretary to Gov. Marvin Mandel when Broder was a fixture and friend at political conventions and governors’ conferences. Later, in my political afterlife as a columnist for the News- American, Broder and I alternated days on the paper’s editorial page. I saw Broder at a downtown Baltimore political rally and mentioned the ironic juxtaposition of our columns. “That is as it should be,” Broder said. That’s the kind of person he was. Broder was the best political reporter and the most thoroughly decent person of his era.