The 2018 Primary

Dear friends and neighbors,

It’s been fascinating watching the primary election unfold around us over the past few months. A little frustrating, too, because I would like to be more involved than I have been–but work/family/community responsibilities are a bit overwhelming, and campaigns (even not your own) become all-consuming if you let them. It’s also been interesting because, for as fired up as people are about what is taking place in Washington or around the world, it feels as though relatively few people are paying attention to our local races, or even the governor’s race–though early voting starts THURSDAY! Just looking at the recent polls, where more than 40% of Democratic voters are still undecided, gives an indication of where the electorate stands these days.

I’m writing this e-mail on the chance that some of you might be still considering who to vote for in a few key races, and the even rarer chance that you might care how I’m approaching these races. Because I don’t imagine there will be a ton of interest in this, you’ll forgive me if I don’t edit it down too much but just let the thoughts flow. I hope that this may be helpful to you.

Let me also encourage you to do the same. That is, if you are particularly passionate about a few of these candidates, be sure to reach out and let your neighbors know your thinking–not because we all need to be pushy about such things, but because many people are still trying to figure things out and your thoughts might really benefit them.

It is important to note that the views expressed are solely my own as a Baltimore native, city resident, and politically-engaged person. They do not in any way represent the views of my family, Breath of God Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and, most definitely, God. ha.

Governor’s Race

What do I value most in a candidate: experience which reassures me of their being an effective governor; electability in the fall campaign against Governor Hogan; policy positions which I feel will be best for the city and state. I also value people that I know or have met personally (if it was a positive interaction).

As such… I’m most strongly considering State Senator Rich Madeleno. I’ve met him several times, and have followed his career in Annapolis for a few years. He is intelligent, effective in governing, progressive in policy, and has a great sense of humor such that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Other people I would like to consider because I know and respect their running mates: Jim Shea (because of Brandon Scott) and Rushern Baker (because of Elizabeth Embry). They both have plenty of good things to commend themselves on their own merits, it’s just that I particularly value the personal experience I’ve had with their running mates.

And then there is Ben Jealous, whom I respect deeply. He’s strong on the issues, but I expected him to campaign more vigorously and pull away a bit more in the race.

Krish Vignarajah and Valerie Ervin also have great strengths.

There is a reason that 40% or so of voters are still undecided. Partly it’s because they aren’t paying attention–partly it’s because there are a number of good options with no obvious great one or obvious frontrunner.
State’s Attorney Race

What do I value most in a candidate: effectiveness in the job, including intelligence, energy, administrative skills, and a team-building approach. This is a really difficult job from a leadership and an administrative standpoint, and few people have the mix of gifts to serve effectively.

My go-to strategy for this election, and previous ones, is to speak to good friends who are prosecutors, public defenders, clerks, and others who are working in the circuit court on a daily basis. They are experienced and smart enough to sort through the outward political posturing and say 1) this person is a strong lawyer; and 2) this person does or doesn’t have the gifts to manage the office and the team; all based on my years of experience working alongside them.

When you speak with your lawyer friends and neighbors, you may hear a different answer. What I hear most often is a strong recommendation for Ivan Bates.

I would share my thoughts on Ms. Mosby, but I don’t see much point. As I speak with people, most folks have strong opinions one way or the other and aren’t inclined to be persuaded. I will only say this–given the importance of this position in our efforts to create a more peaceful city (especially with the levels of crime we’ve been experiencing), the priority I place upon effectiveness is all the more important to me. Most people I speak to who work professionally in our courts think that there is great room for improvement in that regard (see this piece by an acquaintance of mine, public defender Todd Oppenheim). But you may hear differently when you seek out those conversations–as I encourage you to do!
House of Delegates–46th District Race
The first thing to note is that we have five Democratic candidates running for three slots on the ballot this fall. You may vote for one, two, three, or none of those candidates during the primary election.

The second thing to note is that all five candidates have the intelligence, commitment, communication skills, and other gifts necessary to be effective in the position. That is not to say that they are all equally qualified, or would serve equally well. But it is to say that there are no “bad” choices–none of them are duds. Quite the opposite, actually. So, for that we should be grateful.

Here are some resources for evaluating the five candidates.

Baltimore Sun Voter Guide (all candidates participated, but some declined to answer questions in specific policy areas)
League of Women Voter Guide
Bikemore: “I Bike, I Vote” campaign (three candidates participated)
Housing Policy Watch questionnaire (four candidates participated)

Some observations on the overall situation of the race: we have three incumbents. Delegate Luke Clippinger has served for eight years. He lives in Riverside with his husband and works as a prosecutor in Anne Arundel County. Delegate Brooke Lierman has served for four years. She lives in Fell’s Point with her husband and two children and works as a civil rights attorney. She was the top vote-getter as a first-time candidate in 2014. Delegate Robbyn Lewishas been a delegate for two years. She lives in Patterson Park and works in health care, focused on insurance access. She was selected by the state central committee late in 2016 to take the place of former Delegate Pete Hammen, who now works in City Hall. Challenger Dea Thomas lives in Otterbein, where she grew up. She works in health care for Johns Hopkins, and formerly worked for a large union and for Senator Cardin. She ran in the 2016 cycle for City Council in the 11th district, finishing second to Councilman Eric Costello. Challenger Nate Loewentheil has lived in Highlandtown since January 2017, when he returned to Baltimore from serving in the Obama White House and, previous to that, studying at Yale for undergrad and a law degree. His primary work since moving to Southeast Baltimore has been to campaign for office while also creating a new non-profit organization, Baltimore Homecoming.

What I value most in a candidate: servant-leaders with genuine roots in their community who have demonstrated community-based leadership over time, have earned the trust of their neighbors, and have made the effort to learn about and understand the communities where they live and serve. It is important that people have “good” positions on the issues (from my perspective), but also that they be accessible and open to reasoned arguments from their constituents. As a community member, I appreciate delegates who are collaborative, responsive, and creative–who are willing to do the real work of making change in communities and who don’t always need to see their name or their photo at the top of the list of partners.

I think the first question in any race which features incumbents is to ask whether they have been effective delegates for us over the years. The answer there is a distinct yes, particularly in the case of Clippinger and Lierman (simply because they have had more opportunities to contribute over their years in office). While we certainly haven’t agreed on every single issue, they have proven to be capable legislators who are able to identify clear priorities for our district, city, and state, and who are also able to build coalitions to advance those goals by legislation. That they are able to be effective even while being relatively new to the General Assembly, and with a Republican governor these past four years, is a further testimony to their value as our representatives.

Given that those two delegates are doing very good work with us here and on our behalf in Annapolis, and given that they are still early in their legislative careers, I see no good reason for losing either of them from our delegation in Annapolis. I appreciate their service to the district and I enjoy working with them when we have the chance to collaborate on various projects or issues. You, of course, may have different opinions or a desire to change course away from our current delegates. I’ll proceed, though, as if we retain both of them.

That leaves Delegate Lewis, as well as challengers Thomas and Loewentheil, for our third and final seat. As I would like to think was true with the city council race two years ago, we have several good people but only one opening. So, how do we determine who would best serve our district?

I know each of the three to varying degrees, and have appreciated knowing them. That is to say… I met Delegate Lewis back in 2003 when I was working in the neighborhood as part of a team research project at the University of Maryland. Even then she was a passionate, engaged, visionary leader in a community which was just beginning to turn around from a decade of disinvestment, neglect, and residential turnover. I was glad to meet her again when I returned to the neighborhood as a pastor some five years after I had left. Dea Thomas and I grew up together in the same neighborhood, often hanging out with our siblings at her house, in the park, or at the pool in the community. Our parents were friendly and were connected not only by profession (nursing) but by the shared experience of being original homesteaders in Otterbein. Their commitment to the city, and to family, was a lesson imparted to both sets of children. After some years of little contact, it was good to meet Dea again three years ago as we both were running for City Council. Nate Loewentheil and I do not go back nearly as far, but he made a point to introduce himself as he was settling into our great Highlandtown neighborhood early last year. He worked quickly to get to know the leaders in our community and to integrate himself into some of the great things happening here–though it is challenging to really settle into a neighborhood while engaged in the all-consuming process of running for office at the same time. I don’t envy him the task he set for himself!

Based on the values I mentioned above, my order of preference is Delegate Lewis, then challenger Thomas, then challenger Loewentheil. Here is why I have Delegate Lewis at the top of my list of good options.

Robbyn Lewis is the consummate community leader. She has been committed to the success of our neighborhood and of all the people living in it for the long term–at least the fifteen years I’ve been associated with the neighborhood, and probably longer. She is passionate about whatever initiative(s) is before her. She identifies challenges, devises solutions, finds resources, and mobilizes people to address the issue at hand. She does all of it with a collaborative, team-based approach, always putting the good of the community as the highest priority for the group. She is intelligent and fierce, using her knowledge and her voice to persuade neighbors and to lobby in Annapolis or in City Hall for our priorities. Whenever I would stop by to visit our delegation over the past few years (before Robbyn was a delegate), I was never surprised to turn a corner in Annapolis and run into Robbyn preparing to meet with a representative or testify before a committee about mass transit, healthcare, the environment, or a number of other issues.

Robbyn is not a “natural” politician in the way that we so often think of politicians here in Baltimore. She didn’t grow up here in this city which she has made her home, so she doesn’t have those family ties which can set someone up for electoral success. She didn’t attend City, Poly, or one of our local private schools like me and so many others. She has spent her considerable personal and professional energies focused on advocating for our communities and for people who are so often left behind by our political and economic systems. She hasn’t spent her time currying favor with political leaders or the donor class in order to position herself for an inevitable run for office. To be blunt… she also happens to be African-American in a part of our city which unfortunately struggles with racism and has never elected a black state senator or delegate to this point. And, unlike me, she hasn’t ever seen much of a point to pushing her own name out into the community via social media–which is one of the reasons why her name doesn’t “ring out” quite the way I think it should. She simply works with her neighbors and her colleagues to get things done, every single day.

In short, Robbyn is the kind of elected official we say we want but we so rarely wind up voting for. We stumbled into our good fortune of having her as our delegate for these past two sessions. I say we recognize a good thing when it happens to us and we send her back to Annapolis again to continue to put her considerable gifts to work as our delegate.

Saying all of that, of course, puts the challengers Thomas and Loewentheil in a tough place. They have run spirited and energetic campaigns. In the case of challenger Loewentheil, it has been a remarkably well-funded campaign, too–he has raised at least $421,000 for his campaign alone since the beginning of 2017, while all three delegates together raised less than $400,000 in total over that time. But even solid candidates, plenty of funds, and well-run campaigns don’t guarantee success when lined up against incumbent delegates who are generally doing a very good job in their positions. That may be why some of the messaging coming out from challenger Loewentheil is heavy on fear of crime (a base if at times effective motivator) and contains such gems as “Our state delegates have done next to nothing to make our streets safe”–a statement so hyperbolic as to be quite untruthful were it not so vague. Perhaps our city would have been in a better position if challenger Loewentheil had moved back to his home district in West Baltimore to run there instead, as there is one completely open delegate seat and a tremendous amount of upheaval in leadership. His talents and his vision might have been just what the 40th district was looking for this election cycle. Certainly we all agree that we need as many good people as possible serving all of the districts in our city, not just our watery corner of it.

None of that is to say that he or Dea might not both win here in our district! It’s certainly possible. And if they did, I know they would serve us well. Still, I can’t help but think that the current delegates we have, our current team, are some of the best in the city. For this election cycle, at least, it seems prudent to move forward with them as our delegates once again. I am particularly looking forward to seeing Delegate Lewis have the opportunity to put her talents to work on our behalf for a full term.

Democratic State Central Committee–46th District Race
There are many fine people in this race. I encourage you to look them up on social media and on their websites. I just want to mention three of them in particular because I know them well.

I commend to you Mike Ball, Mark Edelson, and Nick Frisone.

The 2018 Primary

The Unfolding Port Covington TIF

With all of the understandable focus on the election tomorrow and the various anniversaries connected with the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, the ongoing negotiations regarding the massive TIF for Kevin Plank’s Port Covington project is being lost in the noise–which is exactly how the current power structure in the city wants it.
Make no mistake–this $535 million dollar TIF is being pushed through this summer in part to avoid having to involve a new mayor and new City Council which has been hearing ANGER about our city’s current practice of corporate welfare at many of the doors we’ve knocked on during this campaign.
Please note: I am not opposed to all TIFs. The concept of TIFs–floating public bonds to cover up-front infrastructure costs, then paying off those bonds using increased property tax revenue from the project in question–can make good sense. But I am opposed to a bad deal. This is shaping up, so far, to be a terrible one for our city.
1) No provision has yet been made in state law, or in this TIF application, for a permanent solution to the GCEI state funding formula for our local schools. That is to say–we risk losing tens of millions of dollars annually in state support for our public schools if this TIF goes forward with our laws as they are today. Yes, a temporary fix was passed in Annapolis, but that will expire in just a few years.
2) There is no true inclusionary housing as part of this plan. Sagamore has been given permission to set a goal of 10% of the housing being “affordable”–in the terms of this deal, “affordable” meaning suitable for a 4-person household with $65,700 in income. That’s 57% higher than the MEDIAN household income in our city. How can “affordable” housing be intended for people making far more than the median income?
3) It’s not just the $535 million dollar TIF to pay for infrastructure. With federal and state contributions, the public investment gets close to a billion dollars. On top of that investment, the projects are eligible for property tax breaks totaling $807,610,695. That’s right. Not only are we fronting $535 million of bonds to pay for infrastructure (which will cost $1.4 billion by the time we finish paying off the debt), but we’re also piling $800 million in tax breaks on top of it. $346 million of that is Enterprise Zone funding, intended to spur commercial development in impoverished parts of Baltimore. There’s nothing impoverished about Port Covington. It’s mostly vacant land with no natural geographic connection to any residential neighborhood at all–and certainly not an impoverished one.
4) Based on our experience with previous TIFs, the TIF money itself will likely not be sufficient to cover all of the infrastructure projects imagined in the TIF application. Will the City be on the hook for cost overruns or infrastructure not included in the TIF application? That’s exactly what has happened in Harbor Point with the Central Avenue bridge and a new water line.
5) After the Brownfield tax credit and the Enterprise tax credit and the Homestead tax credit chops the tax liability down by greater than 85% for the first ten years, and the remaining money goes to pay off our TIF bonds, how much tax money (if any) will actually be left to provide police services, fire protection, and schooling to the people in the 5300 residential units and 9.4 million square feet of commercial space? Not much.
Alright. I’ve gotta get back to campaigning. But this was too important to simply let slide, which was the intention of people running the process (seeing as how they released the full TIF application late on a Friday before Election Day, when they knew people wouldn’t be paying attention).
I look forward to working on this critically important matter more when I am serving alongside you as our councilperson.
Some other recent news coverage:
The Unfolding Port Covington TIF

Tools for Comparing the Candidates

There are many neighbors still trying to decide who to support for City Council here in the 1st District. I’ve put together some resources to review and make an informed decision. Please share away and make well-informed choices on Election Day!

Video from Candidates’ Public Events
Canton Forum
Patterson Park Forum
Fell’s Point Forum

Radio/Podcast Content
Roughly Speaking with Dan Rodricks (eight candidates)
First Edition with Sean Yoes (four candidates).
Interview with Roberto Alejandro from On Background (Just me–Zeke has one too on that site).
Transportation Forum with Marc Steiner (four candidates)

Written Voters Guides & Questionnaires
The Baltimore Sun
The League of Women Voters
CrowdPAC Candidate Overview (good financial breakdowns)
Housing Policy Watch Questionnaire (two candidates).
Bikemore Questionnaire   (four candidates)
Candidate Profile in the Baltimore Guide
(note: there’s no one link which connects to all the profiles, but simply search the other candidates’ names at and you’ll find them)

Campaign Donation Summaries
An analysis by a Canton neighbor on overall fundraising.
An analysis by some Fell’s Point neighbors on money from developers.



Tools for Comparing the Candidates

More than just an ice rink

The “Mimi” DiPietro Family Skating Center in Patterson Park is a key public resource for families in Southeast Baltimore. It is a rarity – a low-cost public ice rink that’s so accessible that more than 1,800 kids at three neighborhood schools are less than a ten- minute walk from the ice. And now, with the rink at a crossroads in its existence, the city proposes removing it from our diverse neighborhood and relocating it closer to county residents who can pay more for the privilege of ice time.

On a daily basis during skating season, the “Mimi Dome” welcomes kids, families, and adults of all backgrounds. More than 70,000 residents live within a mile and a half of the family skating center, meaning families from throughout East and Southeast Baltimore can easily come together by foot, by bike, and by bus to share time on the ice. Children learning to skate, couples embarrassing themselves on a date, flirting teenagers crisscrossing the rink, parents trying to keep up with kids, adults playing broomball, kids learning hockey – at the Mimi Dome, the ice has room for all of us.

Unfortunately, that time may soon come to an end. During my involvement in the Patterson Park Master Plan process, it became clear that the residents’ goals for the future of the rink did not mesh with the city’s mandates. Running the rink is an expensive proposition, made more so as it ages. The rink cannot continue for long in its present state and is in need of replacement. The mayor’s office decided in recent years that the rink has to generate enough revenue to cover its operating costs without support from the city’s general fund. The city budget office expects our ice rink to function like a private suburban skating facility, prioritizing revenue over public benefit. Meanwhile, in the 2015 budget, the city spent 36% more money on our police than on city schools, recreation, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library combined – yet the ice rink, unlike our parks and pools, must pay for itself.

And so a search has begun for a new location to allow the rink to be “revenue neutral” – a site with abundant parking where suburban residents can stream in by car from points north and east of the city. Access to the ice would be effectively limited by the relative poverty and lack of transportation of many of the rink’s current users. A proposal to move the rink to the Canton waterfront was greeted coolly by residents there. But another potential shift has also been discussed, to an industrial area east of Haven Street – significantly less accessible to neighborhood residents. If such a proposal moves forward, make no mistake as to its implications – the rink’s users would, overnight, become whiter and wealthier, and travel far more than a mile and a half to use a relatively inaccessible “public” facility built using our tax dollars.

As a city, we’ve talked a lot in the last year about how Baltimore’s history of racial segregation, its pervasive economic inequality, and its mind-numbing approach to transit shaped a city and a metro area of haves and have-nots, communities of poverty and communities of means. The General Assembly has recognized the historic pattern of disinvestment regarding children and families as a root cause of our struggles, and is pushing forward legislation to increase mentoring programs, improve city parks, provide college scholarships, extend library hours, expand after school & summer programs, and restore some lost funding to our public schools.

With that context in mind, we have the Mimi Dome–an affordable public ice rink used by residents of all races and circumstances, which is supposed to be relocated to better accommodate wealthier residents from the county. The relocation of the ice rink would be yet another message to young people in our community that their lives don’t matter–that they are an afterthought in our public policy. Instead of moving the rink, we should come together to change the mandate for a revenue-neutral ice rink and identify a location for the rebuilt family skating center in the heart of our community.

* First published in the Baltimore Guide, April 13, 2016 *

More than just an ice rink

On the Mayor/Council Balance of Power

I’m often asked for my opinion on these charter amendments in particular, and the balance of power between the mayor and City Council in general. With the passage of these bills, now I can address the specifics of them.
1) Board of Estimates moving from 5 members (three controlled by the mayor) to 3 (the three city-wide elected officials). I support this move. What’s the point in having the BOE when a) it’s all up to the mayor anyway, so why waste time and money; and b) it consistently awards contracts to low-bid, non-union, non-local companies who come back repeatedly for approvals on cost overruns. See:
2) City Council ability to decrease and increase budget line items. I support this move. The budget is the most important business of our city government, and the City Council needs to be a stronger partner in shaping it so that it actually matches the priorities and needs of our residents instead of the vision of one person. Shaping the budget needs to be a broader conversation, inclusive of the council members and the districts we represent.
3) Moving from single member to dual-member districts. I DO NOT support this move. First, let me say the one good thing about it: having two representatives serving larger districts could help to build coalitions across the city around key issues and get us out of our parochialism.
Second, the negatives: a) accountability–when two or more people are responsible for constituent service in an area, it becomes incredibly easy to pass the buck back and forth, to the point that no one is actually accountable; b) two member districts are a huge benefit to incumbents, who can form tickets to discourage new leadership or, in the case of a retirement, can hand-pick the next person and drag them to victory. It’s a bit interesting that Councilwoman Spector, the longest-serving person on the council, who lives in a different part of the city from where she serves, would advocate for this change as she heads towards retirement. I don’t think it’s a shock that a group of incumbents would vote in favor of this change as they look toward an election when somewhere around nine of the fourteen seats will be turning over. No one likes to be pushed out of office by genuine, grassroots, democratic pressure.
On the Mayor/Council Balance of Power

That’s One Expensive Bridge: Transparency with TIFs

This is some classic Baltimore government business-as-usual infuriating but we’re-not-surprised dysfunction.
Note: I am not ideologically opposed to every TIF request or every development subsidy. That’s not what this is about. I am, however, strongly in favor of transparency, accuracy, thorough analysis, and thoughtful decision-making about when and how the City partners with private sector folks to make development projects happen in our city.
Let’s review:
1) Summer 2013, Board of Finance (in closed-door meeting) and City Council (by suspending the normal rules) voted to approve a $107 million dollar TIF for Harbor Point, which was supposed to cover all of the necessary infrastructure expenses for that development, including the Central Avenue bridge. $6.6 million in TIF funds are dedicated to the bridge project. In addition, $29.8 million of Federal transportation funds are diverted from other projects in the city to go toward this bridge instead. All of this to increase the profit margin for the developer from 10-11% to 14-15%. Even our local chamber of commerce, the Greater Baltimore Committee, recommended a TIF in the $30-35 million range.
2) Winter 2014, the city signs documents promising to pay “all eligible costs” beyond the $6.6 million allocated for the bridge. At the time, that additional cost was estimated at as much as $3.4 million.
3) Spring 2016, when the bridge was already supposed to be complete (now scheduled for a 2018 opening), total costs for the bridge have jumped to $47 million. $6.6 million from the TIF, now $35 million in Federal funds diverted from projects like the Harford Road bridge over Herring Run and much-needed improvements to Boston Street, and an additional $5 million directly from the city.
All of this is in addition to the estimated $88 million in straight property tax credits the project will receive over ten years because it was roped back into the city Enterprise Zone boundaries–a program originally designed to spur development in distressed city communities. The state reimburses half of those costs, so it’s another $44 million in straight city support.
For those who were still wondering why I called for a thoughtful and deliberate approach to the $535 million Port Covington TIF, including pushing it to the next mayor and council to approve… this is why. Add this bridge debacle to the tens of millions of state money our school system has lost because of the inflated property values of these projects (without generating General Fund revenue)… and it’s clear that the current city leadership has demonstrated an inability to review these TIF requests in such a way as to be transparent and accurate about the real costs and benefits of the proposals.
That’s One Expensive Bridge: Transparency with TIFs

Don’t Rush Port Covington through a Lame-Duck City Council

The $535 million tax increment financing request from Kevin Plank’s Sagamore Development for Port Covington deserves lengthy public conversation and independent review.

It is far too significant a project, and far too large a request, for the current Mayor and City Council to approve this year on their way out the door. Let the current elected leadership of the city finish up their important work on Transform Baltimore (comprehensive rezoning), on the financial and performance audits that are due this year, and on the details of the city budget for next fiscal year.

Given the long-term financial implications of this request, the still unresolved situation regarding the impact of TIFs on city schools’ funding (the current legislation in Annapolis to ‘fix’ this issue has been amended to only have a three year window), and the robust conversations regarding TIFs/development taking place throughout the city this campaign season–this needs to be the first order of business for our new City Council and Mayor, not the last order of business for a group of incumbents who will soon be out of office.

To recap the numbers below: the total project cost is $5.5 billion. The infrastructure is $1.4 billion. Of the infrastructure costs, Sagamore imagines that 37% would come from the TIF, 24% from the state, 16% from the federal government, and 23% from their own funds.

To those who have pushed me to have a yes/no position on this TIF request, to do so at this point would be irresponsible. Each proposal needs to be evaluated in detail. I will make it a priority to attend the City Council hearings on this TIF request in order to be as informed as possible. My main concerns are: 1) impact on state education funding; 2) long-term manufacturing jobs; 3) public transportation; 4) environmental impacts, parks, and green space; 5) affordable housing; and 6) what revenue sources will be used to pay for the police/fire/school/trash services of future Port Covington residents if the entirety of their property taxes are being used to pay bonds floated to cover up-front infrastructure costs?

campaign sagamore proposal

Don’t Rush Port Covington through a Lame-Duck City Council