Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on April 8, 2016.
By Donald C. Fry
“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
In today’s scrambled campaign landscape where politics and entertainment seem sorely intertwined, one might think that’s a remark from a late-night TV talk show host. But actually this gem of wit and wisdom comes from one of the finest politicians in American history: Abraham Lincoln.
It seems to have particular resonance today for Baltimore as the city nears what anyone who has closely watched the events of the past year unfold consider a pivotal primary election, especially in the city’s mayoral contest.
On Tuesday, April 26 Baltimore City voters will determine much about the future direction of the city – which many in the business community and the general populace believe is in dire need of inspiring, thoughtful new leadership.
It’s time for a leader who can champion big ideas and projects which will address some of the burning issues that have dogged the city for decades such as pockets of poverty, violent crime and blight, while also building on the tide of business interest and capital investment flowing into the area in the way of transformative, job creating projects including Port Covington and Harbor Point.
Registered voters will cast votes for mayor, city council president, comptroller and 14 seats on the Baltimore City Council.
All of those finally elected to these offices in the November general election are critical to the future of Baltimore City – and to an extent to the growth and health of the overall business climate in the Baltimore region.
The city is the economic engine of the state, and so the ripple effect of the 2016 election will indeed be felt far and wide.
There’s also the issue of image. The national press already has its eyes on this election – which coincides closely with the one year anniversary of the civil unrest last year – to see if it signals a turning point.
As already noted there are many important Baltimore City elected seats at stake in the April 26 primary, but also numerous critical contests exist on the national stage such as President, eight Congressional races and a U.S. Senate seat vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
And so, voters are faced with a lot of decisions.
With many choices – there are 13 candidates alone in the mayor’s race – and so much riding on the outcome, its imperative for all voters to become educated and informed about the candidates, where they stand on issues, including jobs, economic growth, education, public safety and other public policy agenda items.
With operations and employees located in the city – in some cases involving thousands of workers – companies and organizations in Baltimore have a lot to be invested in when it comes to this election and good reason to encourage employee engagement.
This is why the Greater Baltimore Committee, along with its Board of Directors, has an ongoing effort to encourage companies that have operations in the city or employees living in the city to become informed about the candidates – and above all to vote on April 26.
Virtually every candidate has a website, and news organizations and others have published voter guides. In short, there’s ample information and no reason to get engaged.
If you don’t get involved you’re going to miss a critical opportunity to make a difference in what may prove to be the most important election in decades in Baltimore.
Here’s why: The telling math.
Based on past voting patterns of low primary election turnouts, it is likely that only 30 percent of registered city voters will vote in either the early voting period that runs from April 14-April 21 or on election day – April 26.
The Democratic Primary Election has traditionally determined the mayor as Democrats have an almost 10-1 edge over Republicans in the city with 285,000 registered voters compared to the Republicans’ 29,000 registered voters. (Baltimore City’s primary is a “closed” election, meaning that only registered Democrats or Republicans can vote.)
In a city with about 621,000 residents, there are about 362,000 people who are registered to vote. A turnout of only 3o percent of the registered voters means that a little more than 100,000 voters will determine the future direction of Baltimore.
Even fewer – less than 30,000 votes – will likely determine the Democratic Party nominee for mayor and other key elected offices.
The race for mayor has been especially tight with Democrats Sheila Dixon and Catherine Pugh jockeying for first place in the polls jointly conducted by The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.
The latest poll result, released April 7, shows Pugh ahead with 31 percent – a six point lead over Dixon.
And so with a tight race and so few votes needed (more people attended the Orioles home opener this year) to essentially become the de facto next mayor, every single vote will count.
In many ways the mayor’s race is the most pivotal as this position is the actual and symbolic head of most American cities. But this is even more true for Baltimore with its historically strong mayor government structure.
The fact of the matter is that city residents, businesses, nonprofits, anchor institutions and major employers such as Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland will be looking to the primary winner of the mayor’s race immediately.
First, with an extended term for a lame duck sitting mayor, the de facto next mayor will be expected to inspire hope and a new sense of purpose by moving forward from, figuratively and concretely, the events of last year – including the tragic death of Freddie Gray, the civil unrest, the police indictments and trials, and the barrage of negative press.
And all eyes also will be on the nominee for mayor to clearly articulate a bold vision of a city that can and will show the critics near and far that they are wrong when they contend that Baltimore’s nothing but a troubled city.
But the only way for city voters to ensure that’s what starts to unfold is to become educated and informed about the candidates, their positions and their visions. Every vote will be needed to elect the best person who will assume the mayor’s seat and possess big ideas and a roadmap to get there at this critical crossroads for the city.
As President Lincoln noted, elections belong to the people. And so be it.
Unless, of course, they turn their backs and go on to suffer the blisters they were duly warned could be in store.
Donald C. Fry is the President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.