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Baltimore Mayoral race heats up as candidates take aim and incumbent takes claim

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Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake comes under fire yet remains the front-runner to most

On Monday, President Barack Obama filed his candidacy for re-election, approximately 9-months to the first Presidential primary, yet 20-months before the anticipated 2012 General Election. On Friday, most are expecting the incumbent Baltimore Mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, to make her claim for a four-year term, becoming the 57th‘elected’ Mayor of Baltimore City.

The daughter of the late-great Delegate, Howard ‘Pete’ Rawlings, the youngest member elected to the Baltimore City Council now seeks to become the second youngest elected Mayor – behind that of former mayor and current Governor, Martin O’Malley. The 41-year old Mayor took office at age 39, on February 4, 2010, succeeding Baltimore darling and former Mayor Sheila Ann Dixon, who resigned her position based on legal problems. The West Baltimore native then came in and obliterated any remanence of a Dixon administration (except that of those successful projects that worked of course). She’s been hailed as a no non-sense, hard nose attorney, who’d rather deal with the tough situations head-on, rather than ‘kicking the can down the road’. However, as of late, she has seemed to have come across a number of successive failures in her administration - at least according to those running against her.

In a press release issued by the Otis Rolley camp, detailing a string of management failures by the Rawlings-Blake administration in just the last month, it states that the Mayor has failed to provide the “needed leadership, sought by Baltimore residents” and questions “just who is in charge in City Hall?” Reflecting on issues such the awarding of contracts to ineligible vendors, her voting on contracts beneficial to the employer of her husband (John’s Hopkins), bringing forth a budget that doesn’t address Baltimore’s biggest challenges and details recent issues relating to the mismanagement of the lead abatement program while also stating that the Housing Authority, under her administration, refuses to pay the $12-million settlement costs owed by the City to winning plaintiffs of lead poisoning – Rolley contends her leadership leaves much to be desired by Baltimore voters.

“Baltimore faces real challenges and needs real leadership. Given the many changes to priorities and sudden reversals of decisions it is worth questioning just who is in charge and why decisions are being made,” states Rolley, who touts himself as the “outside” candidate for Mayor. However, the first time candidate, who is a graduate of Rutgers with a Masters from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), did work under “insider” politicians of Baltimore, first serving as the Director of Planning for the O’Malley administration, while later serving as Chief of Staff for Mayor Dixon. Yet the 36-year old father of three is himself looking to contend for the prestige of being the youngest Mayor elected in Baltimore, which he would be the same age as Martin O’Malley when he took office in 1999.

Though these mishaps seem to be of interest to some, long-time politico and seasoned campaign advisor Julius Henson, warns against those who may underestimate the young Mayor. “She [Stephanie] may seem lackadaisical in her demeanor whether it be in her style of campaigning or governing, however the Mayor is certainly nowhere near that in reality. I literally put a candidate of mine in the hospital, taking on Rawlings-Blake when she was in the council and 5 or 6 months pregnant, and she whipped us by being out there everyday, big belly and all, relentless in her campaign efforts.” This can also be seen in her 2007 campaign for Council President, against the initial favorite at the time, Michael Sarbanes.

This race, defined by a non-incumbent Mayor and Council President (Dixon and Rawlings-Blake) based on their succession to these offices due to the rise of Mayor O’Malley to the Governor’s Office in January 2007, saw what can be seen this year as a wide-open field for both citywide offices. However, in 2007, Rawlings-Blake announced her intentions to run a lot later than April, on June 14th, 2007, being polled then as the virtual underdog, coming within the margin of error in an early poll, thereby statistically tying that of Michael Sarbanes – who had never held elected office. Yet, running on a platform of improving education and reducing crime throughout the City, she ended up easily defeating Sarbanes by an 11% margin of victory 49-38% in the Primary elections. However, with redistricting efforts being mishandled recently by the City Solicitor’s Office and the Mayor’s Housing Authority stating it would not pay the court mandated costs in favor of nine plaintiffs, some are questioning how effective Stephanie will be in the lead role of this City for four more years?

“She can’t even handle the day-to-day operations of the Mayor’s Office in the year she’s been appointed, what makes you think she can handle another four years in this office,” questioned independent Mayoral candidate Catalina Byrd. Questioning the intentions of the Rawlings-Blake appointed, and Paul Graziano run, Housing Authority’s decision not to pay these plaintiffs, state elected representatives have issued a letter of reprimand to the Mayor, while one Senator questioned the Mayor’s decision as she eyes a possible run for Mayor herself. Senator Catherine Pugh (D-40), in a separate letter from the one issued by the 41stdistrict team led by Senator Lisa Gladden, including Delegates Nathaniel Oaks and Sandy Rosenberg, called the Mayor and Housing Authority’s decision of non-payment “unconscionable, unjust and completely unacceptable”.

In a stern letter sent by the 41stdistrict legislators, they contend that “many of the victims [of this lead paint case] will endure life-long disabilities due to the negligence of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC), an entity that is not above the law and is legally obliged to comply with court orders.” Yet, the possible 2011 Mayoral candidate Senator Pugh, referred to the Mayor’s reasoning that the fifth-largest public housing authority in the country, with an annual budget of $300-million, not being able to pay due to the lack of funds as laughable. “I have recently offered an amendment to the capital budget in reference to the state keeping an eye on the handling of these cases by the City,” said the 2nd-term Senator and former city councilwoman. “We cannot just ignore our children and these plaintiffs; we need a plan of action regarding payment of these lawsuits, as well as ensuring this situation doesn’t happen to others in the future, as the city must assume some type of responsibility beyond that of just saying we’re not going to pay. The people deserve better.”

Regarding the recent redistricting matter, having to draw the new lines of city council districts based on the city charter, the Mayor first came under fire saying she was favorably rewarding allies both on the council and others who work for her administration yet are expected to make a run for an open council seat. Seeing a relatively smooth process following her introduction of a redistricting plan and map on January 30, the implementation of the plan that would displace about 72,000 city residents was questionable at best. “It was a confusing decision handed down by the City Solicitor’s office, however I don’t believe it has any bearing on the Mayor’s ability to effectively lead this City – at least to the average voter of Baltimore,” says GCOMM Media campaign consultant Victoria Kent. “She has led by example in my opinion, putting forth a budget with no new tax increases, making the tough decisions on teachers, firefighter and police pensions, while at the same time pushing for tougher gun restrictions on the state level, thereby leaving her ahead of the pact, which quite frankly is not a very strong class of opponents.”

These contenders are said to be that of first time candidate Otis Rolley, long-time politico and current Circuit Court Clerk Frank Conaway Sr., 40thdistrict Senator Catherine Pugh, former Baltimore City Councilman Jody Landers, current Baltimore City Councilman and former Mayoral candidate Carl Stokes, independent candidate Catalina Byrd and the possibility of another independent candidacy, by way of the former councilman, congressman and President/CEO of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume. “This race, with the names currently being mentioned, stand no chance in contending with a Mayor with great name recognition and the backing of a nationally popular and well funded Governor such as Martin O’Malley,” said Henson. “Usually, a second or third tiered candidate at the start ends up being just that on Election Day. These candidates seem to be starting at a disadvantage both in name recognition and in funding.”

At last check, the campaign finance accounts of all those in contention saw the closest competitor in terms of finances, that of Senator Pugh, yet with the lack of name recognition outside her district, and the restrictions placed on her during the 90-day legislative session, she is going to be at a certain disadvantage, playing catch up throughout the summer. The current Mayor, having the advantage of name recognition, the use of the City’s bully pull-pit, the funding of those contractors and businesses looking to continue to do business with the City, sees her chances at election to the City’s top spot growing stronger by the day.

However, some think that her focus on the campaign seems to be negatively reflecting on the business and citizens of the city. “She seems to be more concentrated on increasing her campaign’s financial standings these days, thus leaving the city’s business and finances in dire straights,” said former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon. “You’ll probably catch her more often than not at the offices of Colleen Martin-Lauer (her campaign fundraiser), than that of the second floor of 101 Holliday St. (City Hall). You cannot honestly rely on your staff’s input without actually knowing all the details of the many things that keep this City running, such as lead abatement. It is this mentality that probably led to the lost of these federal funds, important for the improvement of the City of Baltimore.”

Yet despite the many criticisms made by campaign opponents and political analysts, many still believe that Mayor Rawlings-Blake wins on September 13th. “People consistently throw numbers and innuendos around as if these mean something to the average City resident, i.e. voter,” says Kent. “Most citizens don’t even concentrate on the race until mid to late August, and then make their decisions based on the best laid communications plan brought forth by a particular candidate unfortunately. The property tax issue won’t catch fire as many in Baltimore don’t own a house, which means the issue means nothing to them, while others just don’t understand the issue and the mathematical and legal jargon that follows, thereby dismissing it as just that – campaign jargon.” Even Henson, a long-time campaign consultant believes that most elections depend on one of two things catching fire, personality or issues. “Neither one particularly helps any of the contenders in this race, as most issues thus far raised by the mayoral candidates have yet to catch on to the majority of city voters and the personalities in the race aren’t over-the-top thrilling to an outside observer.”

Based on this Examiner’s observation, it is certainly to early to start predicting any race’s outcome in the 2011 Baltimore City elections, however with the next campaign finance reports not being due until midnight on August 16th, with the Primaries to follow less than a month later, we can only speculate as to the possibilities of those running based on their campaign strategies and tactical implementations along the way.

I shall be handicapping this race, as well as the citywide Council President and Comptroller’s races, along with the 14-council district races. Highlighting each candidate, via written and video interviews and profile pieces, while also giving you, the reader, an inside perspective as to the do’s and dont’s of campaign operations, revealing polling data and information, as well as on-the-ground voter sentiment of each race. Therefore, please stay tuned to this Elections Examiner page and become a political campaign regular by way of the information given here, portraying you as an expert amongst your friends and family.

For more information into these races, to place your candidacy on my radar or to inquire about campaign services provided by GCOMM Media Co. email me here or call the offices at 443.473.6401. You can follow me on Twitter, Friend me on Facebook, listen to and follow the Reporters’ Roundtable BlogTalkRadio program or view the campaign and communications services provided by GCOMM Media Co.

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