No Democrat in Baltimore’s 12th District has won a majority of the primary election vote since at least 2016.

Jermaine Jones says that’s key to unlocking the race. The longtime labor organizer and East Baltimore resident is challenging incumbent City Councilman Robert Stokes in the Democratic primary next week in a two-way battle for the seat, which also includes parts of Remington, Little Italy, Greenmount West and Harbor East.

The competition has revved up over the last few weeks as Jones, the former president of the Metropolitan Baltimore AFL-CIO unions, sees a boost in support from labor leaders and community groups. In April, Jones outraised Stokes by a nearly 25-1 margin, pulling in more than $50,000 from trade associations, special-interest groups and some smaller donors.

Seeking to harness the combined power of money and endorsements, Jones, 39, said he’s running to elevate workers’ voices in City Hall. But beating Stokes, an East Baltimore staple who has spent decades in public service, will be no easy feat, he said.

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Jermaine Jones attends the AFSCME press conference, where he was endorsed along with Mayor Brandon Scott, Councilman Zeke Cohen and Comptroller Bill Henry on March 21, 2024. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

“There is a sense of that old, East Baltimore machine,” Jones said. “That entrenchment where, regardless of how successful or popular you are as a candidate, there’s a loyal sense among voters.”

When Jones knocks on doors, he said, people are quick to mention growing up with Stokes, coming up with him at the neighborhood rec center or knowing him through the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School network. Being rooted has helped the incumbent clinch two terms in office, including against well-funded candidates who have gone on to win many of the same endorsements Jones now touts.

At the same time, Jones said, he can also sense a hunger for change. He said his platform — which includes raising workers’ wages, securing more economic investment in low-income neighborhoods and making more training and skills opportunities available — is resonating.

“I got a good sense of what people are looking for,” Jones said. “And even the people I haven’t reached, I let them know: I’m here and available.”

The 12th District is far from an easy nut to crack. City Councilwoman Odette Ramos ran there for the seat in 2011 after former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young vacated the post to serve as City Council president. Facing incumbent Carl Stokes, whom Robert Stokes worked for as a legislative aide — the two are not related — Ramos finished second in a crowded race.

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When Carl Stokes stepped down to launch a bid for mayor in 2016, Robert Stokes edged out six other primary election challengers. He drew about a third of the vote; he beat second-place finisher Kelly Cross by less than 350 votes. In a six-way race the following cycle, attorney Phillip Westry finished second to Stokes by a nearly 250-vote margin.

This time around, Jones said, he called up a few other potential candidates to ensure he could challenge Stokes head-to-head. He’s won key endorsements, including from AFSCME Maryland Council 3 and, of course, the Metropolitan Baltimore AFL-CIO.

Baltimore City Councilmember Robert Stokes Sr. listens as Mayor Brandon Scott gives the annual State of the City address on Monday, April 17. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Still, Stokes, in many ways, still has the advantage.

“He’s from the old-school politics,” said Gary Crum, who has run twice in the district and finished third to Stokes both times. “Jermaine would be a great candidate, but if Stokes was to win, I think he would be able to keep doing the work he’s doing.”

Crum said he also tried to run as a change agent, offering fresh blood and a new perspective from the older East Baltimore guard. But he ran without big money, he said, and in a district with relatively low voter turnout.

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Now, Crum, who has since moved out of the district, he said he’s not sure which of the two candidates he would support.

“I told Jermaine, that if he was campaigning two years prior, he might’ve had an even better chance,” Crum said. “Money is always good, but you still got to be able to get out there.”

Stokes, 66, did not respond to a request for an interview. Ahead of the 2020 primary race, he told The Baltimore Sun that constituents can feel his impact day in and day out, whether it be at community meetings or at ribbon cuttings.

At council hearings, Stokes has been unafraid to challenge city agency leaders, especially at the Department of Housing and Community Development, over their inefficiency. Over the last year, he has sponsored legislation related to sanctioning improperly registered vehicles; eliminating blight; and recognizing teachers, registered apprentices and people experiencing homelessness.

In addition to having a 49% stake in a local development company, Stokes also owns and is renovating two properties in East Baltimore — a fact he omitted in his City Council financial disclosure forms.

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In this cycle, his campaign has received support from Sheriff Sam Cogen, the Baltimore Fire Officers Local and City Councilman Eric Costello.

Jones, who rose through the union ranks from an unpaid volunteer to a regional leader, said a brief experience being unemployed in his early 20s helped shape his political bent. He lives in Oliver, across the street from his grandmother, and has worked with family members to rehabilitate some homes there. In 2016, he ran for City Council in the 3rd District, finishing second to Ryan Dorsey.

The 12th District, redrawn last year to address population loss, would benefit from new stewardship, he added.

“I’m excited about providing an opportunity for people to vote for something different,” Jones said. “We’ve been endorsed by 14 different labor unions, and other elected officials, and they see it. I’m excited.”

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

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