Baltimore’s November ballots will include a charter amendment with the potential to dramatically reshape City Hall by limiting the mayor, City Council president, comptroller and council members to two terms in office.
Local elections officials announced in late August that Question K would appear on ballots, after David Smith, the chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group, put $385,000 toward canvassing efforts to gather a required 10,000 signatures from registered city voters, as well as another measure to recall elected officials. The former netted 19,448 signatures; the latter failed to meet the requirement.
The signatures represent about 5% of the city’s roughly 394,000 registered voters, but the ballot measure faces great odds: Baltimoreans have not struck down a ballot measure since 2004. If passed, the law would go into effect in 2024; the term count for each official would start that year — including those already in office.
Publicly, City Hall officials and advisers have remained largely mum on the measure. But last week, after the Smith-financed political committee People for Elected Accountability and Civic Engagement kicked off a publicity campaign to drum up support for the measure, a cluster of politicians, advisers and activists have quietly developed campaigns of their own.
Their grassroots responses lack the funding and central organization of PEACE, but anti-Question K advocates hope their cumulative efforts will sway voters to strike the measure down, including Larry Gibson, a professor at the Francis King Carey School of Law in the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and longtime adviser to Democratic city politicians including former Mayor Kurt Schmoke. Gibson held a news conference outside City Hall on Thursday morning, attended by leadership from the NAACP, prominent Black churches and city and state workers unions.
Both critics and supporters of Question K tend to reference the city’s most visible role — mayor — when discussing its potential impact on Baltimore. But city voters haven’t elected someone to the office for more than two terms since 1995, when Schmoke won his third term. Since then, the offices of both mayor and City Council president have been subject to political musical chairs and marked by more than a handful of partial terms.
“Since the Second World War, we’ve had only three mayors serve more than two firms and they are without a doubt the three most productive mayors in my lifetime,” Gibson said.
Voters have also booted two longtime officials out of city government in the last several years — former Comptroller Joan Pratt lost her bid at a seventh term in office in 2020, while Sheriff John Anderson lost his primary bid for a ninth term this summer. Mayor Brandon Scott, Comptroller Bill Henry and City Council President Nick Mosby are all in their first terms in office. Gibson and other opponents question why Smith would bother pursuing such a measure.
“What we need is more political stability, not less,” Gibson said. “I’m hearing of more and more people who learn what this provision does, and they turn around and say they’ll get involved to educate people.”
Financial ties to Sinclair
Headquartered in the Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley, Sinclair operates more than 180 stations in more than 80 media markets throughout the country.
The company’s flagship Baltimore station, WBFF Fox45, frequently airs coverage of city officials that CNN media critic David Zurawik described as a steady drumbeat of criticism toward Democratic leaders.
“To make the argument that the Democrats are bad at governing, they have to have the premise that Baltimore is evidence of total dysfunction. They say, ‘The city’s in crisis, the school system sucks, the mayor is terrible, the police are out of control.’ All of that fits that narrative,” said Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun’s former media critic.
Smith didn’t respond to interview requests by The Baltimore Banner.
PEACE was established in January of this year; 18 other people besides Smith contributed to the PAC as of late August, according to campaign finance reports. The group spent the bulk of its money — $315,240 — on canvassing efforts by Rowland Strategies, a Baltimore political consulting firm, which collected voter signatures at locations including city farmers markets and The Rotunda and distributed political flyers over the summer.
Such direct politicking by the head of a major media company is deeply misaligned with the values of journalism, Zurawik said.
Jayne Miller, who covered city affairs for WBAL for more than four decades before retiring this summer, said the measure goes far beyond the endorsements that newspaper editorial boards, which operate separately from newsrooms, bestow upon candidates.
“This is a very well-funded effort by a media organization, which also does stories about the issue and about the candidates, to change the law,” she said on WYPR’s Midday program last week.
Detractors of Question K have disparaged PEACE’s description of the measure as a grassroots effort, pointing to Smith’s funding.
“But that depends on what the definition of ‘grassroots’ is,” said Bob Wallace, a businessman who ran unsuccessfully for mayor as an independent in 2020.
Grassroots efforts are not “just a person coming from Cherry Hill, from East Baltimore; it’s a composite of different people using different resources to make change happen,” he said.
Jovani Patterson, who ran for City Council President as a Republican in 2020 and serves as PEACE’s chairman, framed the measure as a way to “return the power” to residents.
“The citizens of Baltimore have suffered long enough. It’s time to make term limits in our local government a reality,” he said at a PEACE event outside City Hall last week.
“How we’re going to counter $300,000, I’m not quite sure”
Campaign records filed in late August, the most recent available, show PEACE has spent all of its funds and then some: It has a negative cash balance of $1,650. At PEACE’s event last week, spokesman David Nevins said the organization is seeking additional funding from Smith and other donors.
Councilwoman Odette Ramos, a freshman who represents North Baltimore, lamented what she described as a lack of response to the measure until very recently.
“We’ve had since July to prepare for the possibility that this might be on the ballot,” the Democrat said. “How we’re going to counter $300,000, I’m not quite sure.”
She said that many elected officials have privately decried the measure, but are hesitant to air their grievances due to a central tenet of city politics: the messenger is just as important as the message.
“Of course, it seems self-serving for council members to say, ‘Don’t do this,’” she said. “All I can do is try to spread the message: ‘Don’t let Sinclair decide for you.’”
Her word-of-mouth approach, adopted by many other politicians in the city, has translated into tapping into her community and social media networks to discuss the proposal. Others are leaning on prominent community group to come out against the measure and bringing the measure before national civil rights and urban advocacy organizations, hoping that someone bites.
At Gibson’s news conference, Glenn Middleton and Patrick Moran, leaders of AFSCME Council 67 and AFSCME Maryland Council 3 which represent city and state workers, respectively, said they will run membership outreach campaigns against the measure. The two unions include tens of thousands of city voters who can spread the word to their communities, Middleton said, adding that AFSCME Council 67 will pay for and distribute signs reading “VOTE NO ON QUESTION K.
Another official from a major union, speaking on background because their plans are not finalized, say their organization will host similar outreach. “But we’re going up against a hurricane here,” a separate union official said. “Most measures pass. No one is particularly hopeful.”
Marvin James, a political strategist who helped Gibson arrange the news conference, said that union organizers are working to establish a political action committee or independent expenditure firm of their own within the next week. He added that Fox45 was invited to the news conference; they did not attend.
Gibson created his own independent expenditure campaign to fund lawn signs opposing the measure. He declined to specify how much he spent.
“They’ll say ‘Paid for by Larry Gibson.’ I’ll continue to come out against it and urge other people to do the same,” he said.
The Maryland NAACP will also lead anti-Question K campaigns with partner organizations. It is the nation’s oldest civil rights and voting rights organization’s duty to “not only ensure that folks are registered to vote and turn out to vote, but ensure that they are educated voters,” he said.
Leading a fight against a well-financed ballot measure is like David going up against Goliath, acknowledged Rev. Mark-Anthony Montgomery, the pastor of Union Baptist Church.
Sen. Antonio Hayes, who represents parts of West and Southwest Baltimore in Annapolis and would not be affected by Question K, opposes the measure and called it a solution looking for a problem.
Though some of Question K’s quiet detractors hoped that the state Democratic Party’s Coordinated Campaign, which focuses on electing Democrats up and down the ballot, would distribute literature on the measure, campaign co-chair Hayes said such outreach is unlikely.
“That work is strictly partisan. I don’t see it playing much of a role as it relates to the question, compared to what our individual members can do to spread the word,” he said.
For him, that entails connecting former mayor Schmoke to a group of ministers within his district for an informational phone call about the measure. They can take his analysis back to their communities, Hayes said.
Schmoke said he is not part of any formal organizing efforts against the measure, but is happy to share his take on the measure with people who ask him about it. That take boils down to: Turnover doesn’t seem to be a problem in City Hall, which has been rife with partial terms due to corruption scandals and office-jumping over the last decade.
“Term limits themselves, in terms of impact, you can argue it both ways,” Schmoke said. “I’m just wondering: why now?”