Lots of primary candidates, little grass-roots activity

URBAN CHRONICLES

September 07, 2006|By ERIC SIEGEL

At the risk of sounding egocentric, I feel like I'm at the city's epicenter of Tuesday's Democratic primary.

My house just west of Wyman Park puts me not only at the edge of the 40th legislative district, the most hotly contested of Baltimore's six General Assembly districts. It also puts me in a corner of the convoluted 3rd Congressional District, the most competitive of the three U.S. House of Representative districts that include parts of the city -- and, indeed, of the eight in the state.

These, of course, are in addition to the more than interesting statewide primary races for the U.S. Senate, comptroller and attorney general.

What makes the races so wide open are the absence of incumbents. U.S. Rep. Benjamin Cardin is vacating his 3rd District seat to duke it out with Kweisi Mfume (and several others) for the Democratic nomination to the Senate. State Sen. Ralph Hughes is retiring, and two of the three sitting delegates are seeking his seat -- meaning that of the four 40th District seats up for grabs, only one is held by an incumbent.

The upshot is that in the three races there are eight Democrats running for Congress, six for state Senate and nine for the House of Delegates -- a solid majority of whom are recognizable and at least somewhat substantial.

And so there's a knock on the door -- from a young woman I guess to be in her 20s passing out literature for Peter Beilenson, the former city health commissioner running for Congress. The phone rings -- and the voice on the other end belongs to a woman I guess to be middle-aged to elderly. She asks if she can count on my support for Catherine Pugh, the delegate and former city councilwoman running for the state Senate.

Lawns in my neighborhood and beyond are dotted with multicolored placards that sprout up like quadrennial flowers. They range from the simple (former City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III's sign with his last name writ large and the state Senate seat he is seeking in smaller type) to the self-parodying (Frank M. Conaway Jr.'s state delegate sign featuring a picture of a hot dog and the slogan "Select a Frank.")

On Tuesday, I returned home from work and mixed in among the bills and unsolicited shopping catalogues are brochures and fliers on slick paper -- as opposed to slick brochures -- from congressional candidate Kevin O'Keeffe ("The Coaches' Candidate") and Salima Siler Marriott, the other delegate seeking the state Senate seat, and ticketmates Antonio Hayes and Shawn Tarrant ("TEAM 40 will put education first").

I turn on the TV to catch the late news and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and see, for at least the sixth time, spots for Beilenson and fellow 3rd District congressional candidates Paula Hollinger, the Baltimore County state senator, and John Sarbanes, the lawyer and son of retiring U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

It's a lot to absorb -- especially given that just four years ago my neighborhood was redistricted into new congressional and legislative districts. Since then, two of the state delegation's most prominent members, Dels. Howard P. Rawlings and Tony Fulton, died in office.

Still, I expected -- and would like -- more.

Lawn signs, for example, are apparent but hardly ubiquitous; maybe, like me, a lot of people have yet to make up their minds. Literature comes in a steady stream, not a torrent. And for all the talk about door-to-door campaigning, I have yet to have a candidate come to my house, though admittedly I'm not home all that much.

I'm surprised at some of those I haven't heard from at all. Bell, for one. And Del. Marshall T. Goodwin. And Sarah Matthews, an activist and member of the state central committee, even though her campaign address is in an apartment complex down the street from my house.

The League of Women Voters Web site, which lists the candidates' backgrounds and answers to a half-dozen questions, is some help. Still, three candidates for state Senate and five for House of Delegates failed to post.

And as of yesterday morning, of all the candidates, only Beilenson, civil rights lawyer and state Senate candidate Tara Andrews and youth advocate and House of Delegates aspirant Kinji Pierre Scott posted their background and a statement on a new Web site run by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which is linked to the State Board of Elections Web site.

Donald Norris, a UMBC professor who helps oversee the Web site as director of the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis & Research, attributes the lack of response in part to the newness of the site. But he finds the relative paucity of grass-roots activity somewhat perplexing. "That's about the only thing candidates in local contests can do," he said.

I'd even welcome a tad of negative campaigning, to highlight possible shortcomings of the candidates and to counter the earnest endorsement of fathers (Sarbanes), daughters (Beilenson) and fellow lawmakers (Hollinger).

Still, one way or another, I'll have my mind made up by Tuesday.

eric.siegel@baltsun.com

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