Party evaluates outcome in city vote

Close Ward 4 race forces Democrats to confront new demographics

February 04, 2007|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,[Sun reporter]

Democratic insiders are doing some soul-searching after the party's hand-picked candidate for Annapolis city council won by a razor-thin margin, not the landslide they'd predicted.

Sheila M. Finlayson, former head of the powerful Anne Arundel County teachers union, beat James M. Conley, her Republican opponent in Ward 4, where Democrats hold a nearly 3-to-1 voter registration edge - by 35 votes.

Going into the special election Tuesday, Finlayson seemed to have everything on her side: She was coming off a decisive defeat of her primary opponent, enjoyed wide name recognition and had a list of 500 voters who said they would pull the lever for her.

But the result in the election, one of two city races decided last week, was 247 to 212.

"I was surprised, especially from looking at the margin from the primary. ... I thought it would be better," said Finlayson, an English teacher at North County High. "It's a clear message that the Republicans are getting stronger, and we are going to have to come up with a greater strategy of getting out the vote."

Specifically, political observers said, Democrats failed to mobilize the traditionally Democratic black vote for Finlayson, who is African-American. The black base in 2005 helped Mayor Ellen O. Moyer win a second term and elect Wayne Taylor as Ward 4 alderman, 72 percent to 27 percent. Taylor resigned in December to lead the Anne Arundel County Department of Aging and Disabilities.

In a memo to supporters after the election, Kathy Nieberding, Finlayson's campaign manager, noted a demographic shift, which she said would be a challenge for Democrats in Ward 4 and throughout the city as more affluent voters settle in Annapolis. Ward 4 includes the communities of Newtowne 20 and Bywater, and more upscale ones such as Kingsport and Annapolis Walk.

"Kingsport Republicans came out strong for our opponent," Nieberding wrote. "As Park Place and other communities pop up around town, the voting dynamics will continue to change."

Conley, president of Martin Mortgage Associates, also noted the shifting demographics.

"She had me on name recognition, but the only reason I lost is that 50 of my neighbors didn't vote," he said. "I obviously got some Democratic support from the Bywater community and made inroads in all communities."

Conley, who is white, found an "in" with the working-class black communities - Taylor. Taylor had backed Brian Tucker as his successor, but Tucker lost to Finlayson in the Jan. 2 primary, and Taylor declined to support her.

"She has not been involved in any forms of activities that have to do with traffic or crime in her own ward," Taylor said.

Finlayson countered that Taylor is too new to the community to know about her involvement.

"I have a long-standing and strong background in working with the community on many different levels," she said.

Conley, who ran unopposed in the primary, came away from a 90-minute meeting with Taylor in mid-January with an endorsement that observers said was a key factor Tuesday. Taylor, who described himself as "a Democrat, for now," said Conley's focus on crime particularly impressed him, although Finlayson had similar ideas.

"I stepped out for Conley, I sure did," Taylor said. "I told him he could use my name in conversations because I was truly in agreement with the actions he wanted to take."

On the ground, Taylor passed out fliers and encouraged his former constituents to vote for Conley.

At the polls, political observers say, Taylor's influence may have delivered Democratic votes to Conley and depressed the vote.

"I think Sheila made a connection, but I think people were torn," said James Taylor, who worked on Finlayson's campaign and is not related to Wayne Taylor.

Still others dismiss that point, offering apathy, "election fatigue" and the traditionally low voter turnout in Ward 4 as the causes for the final tally.

"It goes to show when you have special elections on a cold January day without a mayor's race, people aren't paying attention," said former Ward 8 Alderman Joshua J. Cohen, an Eastport Democrat who serves on the County Council. "...With Kingsport becoming more fully occupied, it's tending to more Republican."

With the rising Republican presence, there is also a growing sense of apathy among lower-income residents in Bywater and Newtowne 20. As a result, some said, Republicans saw a viable shot for victory in Ward 4.

In the Ward 8 race, Democrat Ross Arnett defeated Republican Frank B. Bradley 507 to 244.

Democrats said that getting back to basics is key and that in the coming days, they will start a long-term outreach effort to Latinos and blacks in the run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign and next mayor's race in 2009.

"I think Democrats need to not forget that it's not only the candidate, it's the message, and we have to continue to engage people at the message level," said Chuck Weikel, a member of the Anne Arundel County Democratic Central Committee and a city resident. "We need to go back and reorganize, and we need to find people on the street level and make that engagement occur."

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