It's rare for an election to so clearly capture the changing nature of a community the way the race for Baltimore's 46th state Senate district does. The traditional blue collar communities around Baltimore's waterfront have, for years, been transforming into an enclave of young professionals, and each constituency has a representative in Tuesday's Democratic primary.
On one side is the incumbent, Sen. George W. Della Jr., as old Baltimore as it gets. He has been in the Senate since the year his opponent was born, served on the City Council before that, and inherited his political machine from his father. He's the kind of politician you're likely to meet on a stool at a corner tavern, or maybe right outside because of the statewide indoor smoking ban, which he voted against.
His challenger, Bill Ferguson, you're more likely to find at a Tweet-up. He's a native of Montgomery County who came to Baltimore for a job with Teach for America, met a girl, got married and settled down. He worked for Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso and got into politics to advocate for school reform, an issue he sees as crucial if Baltimore is to attract and retain young families like his.
It may be an oversimplification to call Senator Della the district's past and Mr. Ferguson its future, but there's some truth to it. Senator Della is immersed in the old pathways of political power — getting his guy appointed to the liquor board or working to tweak the legislative redistricting process. Mr. Ferguson is about using social media and other tactics to mobilize grassroots support behind progressive goals, such as expanding charter schools. You can follow his campaign on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. When constituents e-mail Senator Della, his assistant prints them out and hands them to him. Mr. Della says he recently created a website, but good luck finding it — the Ferguson campaign had already snapped up the georgedella.com domain and has used it to paint an unflattering portrait of the incumbent.
The fact that he is old school is no sufficient reason to dump Mr. Della. By and large, he votes the way people in his district would want, he is independent of the leadership in Annapolis, he is accessible to his constituents and has experience in the ways of the Senate that Mr. Ferguson would take a long time to match.
The reason we endorse Mr. Ferguson is not because of the incumbent's shortcomings but because of the challenger's potential. There are few true champions of school reform in the state Senate, and the recent debates over legislation that led to Maryland's successful application for a federal Race to the Top grant served to illuminate how much more the state needs to do to stay in the forefront of that issue. Mr. Ferguson's platform of working to strengthen the charter school law, improving the physical facilities in our school systems and aligning teacher pay with classroom effectiveness is crucial for the entire state — and even more so for Baltimore. If recent improvements in the city's school system are to be maintained and expanded, it will require the kind of expert leadership and passion that Mr. Ferguson can bring to the state Senate. His political inexperience will be a liability, but lawmakers can quickly win respect in Annapolis by working hard and knowing the material. If the way Mr. Ferguson has attacked this campaign is any indication, he will do just that in the Senate.
Senator Della's service in the legislature and City Hall have made him a political institution, but Mr. Ferguson is the leader for Baltimore's future.