Many of you will carry out your civic duty today and select people who will represent you in myriad government offices — from governor to the school board on Baltimore City ballots.
And for some of those races, you will no doubt find yourself asking, as I did a few weeks ago when I downloaded a ballot that I later deposited in a drop box outside the Baltimore Museum of Art: Who the heck are these people I am supposed to choose from, and what are their positions on anything that matters to me?
I can almost hear a television voice from the 1960s: Rod Serling warning us that when we pick up our ballots in Baltimore we are entering “the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition ... It is an area which we call ‘The Twilight Zone.’”
It’s bad enough trying to sort through the candidates in the marquee races, starting with governor. But that bunch — all guys except for one Republican candidate and nearly all of them running in boy-girl, governor-lieutenant governor pairs — is bulldozing their way into our consciousness through multimedia advertising, websites and participation in forums. Most of the candidates are also featured in a slew of voter guides published by news media.
But what about the rest of the choices? Who knows those folks running for judgeships? On my ballot there were four candidates seeking four positions. So whether I voted or not, those four are likely to win their races. Who recognizes the names of those folks who are seeking two newly-created elected positions on an expanded school board? I recognized just one guy from high-profile civil rights protests and his work with the local chapter of the NAACP. When it came to clerk of the circuit court, a name was recognizable because someone in church mentioned that she is the sister-in-law of another church member.
When confronted with a ballot full of names, and instructed to pick up to three from one list of eight and up to eight from one list of 13, these tidbits become as useful a way of making choices as going eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Or making up your mind on the fly as you navigate a gauntlet of colorful campaign posters outside your polling center as a brigade of fast-talking campaign workers give elevator speeches about candidates and stuff your hands with leaflets. Or maybe you are swayed by the candidates’ last-minute scramble to promote their endorsements, counting on voters to remember names of someone they trust.
There’s also names repeatedly on the ballot that voters can’t help but recognize. Like the name “Branch,” as in Paula, who represented the 13th City Council district and was succeeded by Warren, of no relation. Similarly, the name Stokes. The current holder of council District 12, Robert Stokes, once worked for Carl Stokes, no relation, who held the office before him.
More often than not, however, the names on the ballots are not just people who happen to share a last name. They are people who share the same genes. As if they were carrying on ancient tribal hereditary assignments, some families are known generationally as the lawyers, the clergy, the undertakers, the police officers, the firefighters, the military, the teachers and, in Baltimore, holders of particular elected positions. They keep it all in the family.
Take the Currans, for example. Father and sons practically owned a Northeast Baltimore seat on the City Council from the 1950s until Robert Curran decided not to seek reelection in 2016. In this time, they also held sway in the state legislature and the state attorney general’s office. Robert’s brother, Joseph Jr., was attorney general from 1987 to 2007. Now his daughter, Katie Curran O’Malley, seeks that office. She is a Curran AND an O’Malley, as in the wife of the former mayor, former governor, and former presidential candidate, Martin O’Malley. He was groomed by the Currans.
Just about everyone who runs for office emphasizes their desire to serve. But one can’t discount the decent salary for jobs that also allow for other streams of income, especially if you’re in the state legislature. Indeed, connections made through holding office can generate those other streams for the officeholders and those favored by them. The register of wills will earn a salary of $146,500, starting Oct. 1. The governor and the state legislature agreed last session to also set $146,500 as a maximum salary for the clerk of a circuit court.
In Baltimore, those two offices have been synonymous with the Conaway family of Northwest Baltimore since the late Frank Conaway Sr. held the clerk post from 1998 until 2015. His wife, the Rev. Mary W. Conaway, was register of wills from 1982 to 2012. His daughter, Belinda Conaway, a former member of the City Council, has been register of wills since 2014 and is seeking reelection. His grandson, Belinda’s son Xavier Conaway, is currently running for clerk of the circuit court. Rounding out this picture is Frank Jr., who makes three Conaways on the ballot as he seeks reelection to the House of Delegates seat he has held since 2007. He followed in the footsteps of Frank Sr., who served from 1970-1975 and again from 1979-1983, leading the Black legislative caucus and mentoring men and women who are still in office today.
The Conaways see themselves as benevolent servant leaders providing vital services and opening doors. Belinda Conaway says she carries on her father’s practice of always being accessible. She takes calls from people whose crisis du jour might have absolutely nothing to do with death and legatees. “It’s not because my name is Conaway,” she told me, “but people know that I am accessible and I will help them. When people look at the Conaway name, they think about people who do the work, who support the community.”
Her son Xavier, 25, recalls getting involved in politics when he was a child, “knocking on doors, campaigning, giving out school supplies, literature” and he grew to love “seeing the impact that people like my mother and my grandfather have had on the people of Baltimore.” He seeks office as Xavier Conaway, though in the past he has also used Washington, the last name of his father, Milton Washington. Indeed, in some settings, Belinda is Belinda Conaway Washington. But when it comes to name recognition, Conaway trumps Washington.
The Conaways are a throwback to an old style of politicking and network building — and keeping it in the family. Both Belinda and Xavier say there is nothing nefarious and everything noble in what they are doing to “make a profound difference in people’s lives,” as Xavier puts it.
But all this begs a question for Baltimoreans: Are you OK with this?
Too many folks wipe their hands of local politics and yet complain that there’s too much nepotism and cronyism, and say that only insiders have a chance. That status quo need not be permanent. In fact, from various people I talked to about making sense of our ballots, including the Conaways, I was reminded that to vote responsibly we have to put in some work long before balloting time.
Part of that means busting through barriers to participation in the existing process. But another big part is taking the time, well before we are called upon to cast ballots, to learn about the system and the players who are perfectly fine with our confusion, frustration, and ennui. Ask questions. Make demands.
Entering the voting booth, literally or virtually, should not be a venture into The Twilight Zone.