Baltimore’s most powerful political offices are exclusively held by men, but women fueled the campaigns that got them there.

A handful of women are the most sought-after — and effective — campaign fundraisers for races in Baltimore and across Maryland.

That several Maryland women represent most mainstream Democratic city and state officials is unusual, said Martha McKenna. The communications consultant advises federal and local campaigns, including Sheila Dixon’s current mayoral bid. McKenna spent a decade working for the national abortion rights political action committee EMILY’s List and several years at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“Most major campaigns have a finance director who bounces from race to race around the country, working for one client at a time,” she said. “In Maryland, we have a few women who work for several campaigns all at once.”

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Democratic fundraisers outside of Maryland have tried to replicate this ecosystem to no avail, McKenna said: “The people who have tried this in other states aren’t known as being as on the ball as fundraisers are here.”

Campaign financial consulting is a multifaceted process. Fundraisers are tasked with developing a marketing plan and campaign messaging, raising the money needed to promote it, and reaching the electorate. That translates to sitting down with a candidate and helping them cold-call potential constituents to ask for donations; developing a vision for political ads, such as TV commercials or mailers; and advising them on which endorsements to secure or community events to attend.

“This is a profession that requires logistical acumen, a sharp memory and an ability to multitask. Women have been managing various responsibilities and coordinating multiple systems since the dawn of time.”

Rachael Rice, Democratic financial consultant

In Baltimore and Maryland, most elected officials are men. Mayor Brandon Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby and Comptroller Bill Henry are the three most powerful people in City Hall. Only four women — Sharon Green Middleton, Odette Ramos, Danielle McCray and Phylicia Porter — sit on the 15-member City Council. Women make up 42% of the Maryland House of Delegates and about 32% of the Maryland State Senate, according to an analysis from the Eagleton Institute of Politics. There are no women in Maryland’s 10-member congressional delegation.

This gender discrepancy is not exactly surprising. Study after study has shown that gaps in resources between men and women make it easier for men to run for office, fund their own races, and donate to other people’s campaigns. Other studies suggest that men are both the majority of political donors and contribute larger sums overall to campaigns — meaning men are more likely to hold power directly, by serving as officials, and indirectly, through financing candidates who win.

“The lack of participation from women in campaign contributions and fundraising is less known, even though it helps shape who runs and who makes on the ballot,” said Kira Sanbonmatsu, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics.

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Though women may contribute to campaigns and run for office less than men, they are more involved within political party organizing, and they outvote men, Sanbonmatsu said: Fundraising is a form of political participation. It’s a way to be heard.”

Baltimore fundraisers often wield their power behind the scenes.

Take Adeo Advocacy, which is led by Sophia Silbergeld, Jamie Fontaine and Tracey Halvorsen. The firm’s employees founded and operate the super PAC supporting the mayoral candidacy of Sheila Dixon; federal laws prevent the super PAC from coordinating directly with Dixon or Democratic party leaders.

Fundraiser Colleen Martin-Lauer’s decision to drop then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as a client after her response to the 2015 uprising was viewed by many observers as devastating for Rawlings-Blake’s reelection; she eventually chose not to seek a second term.

The following women serve influential, but largely behind-the-scenes roles in electing city and state leaders.

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Colleen Martin-Lauer

Colleen Martin-Lauer is the OG. She is credited among city and state political circles for kick-starting the fundraising model that other financial consultants have emulated, and several of her former employees and mentees have gone on to open firms of their own.

Before launching Martin-Lauer Associates in June 1991, she worked on Eleanor Carey’s unsuccessful 1986 Attorney General campaign and U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s 1986 campaign.

“It became clear to me that money was a major obstacle for women and people of color, so I decided to deconstruct the federal fundraising model and start a consulting firm to see if it worked for state and local races,” Martin-Lauer said.

Throughout her career, she’s possessed the ability to tap into the city’s zeitgeist and successfully bet on underdogs. She moved on from Rawlings-Blake following the turning point in her tenure and guided Marilyn Mosby in her 2016 upset against incumbent Baltimore State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein.

She has worked for Mayor Brandon Scott since he was a councilman, and was a crucial component in his 2020 primary win in a crowded, competitive field.

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“I think history will show him to be a transformative figure in Baltimore,” she said.

Over the decades since she opened her firm, Martin-Lauer feels the needle has moved, but not far enough. Since white men continue to occupy most of the country’s political seats, it remains difficult for women and people of color in politics to raise large amounts of money due to the power of incumbency, she said. Martin-Lauer is supporting former City Councilwoman Shannon Sneed in her publicly financed bid for City Council President; she made the maximum contribution of $150.

Her current roster of clients include City Council members Sharon Green Middleton, Phylicia Porter, Odette Ramos, James Torrence and John Bullock.

“My name is on the door, and we only work with candidates who I believe in,” Martin-Lauer said.

Stephanie Mellinger

Stephanie Mellinger smiles for a portrait while sitting on a couch near a bookshelf.
Stephanie Mellinger, one of Baltimore’s top city fundraisers, smiles for a portrait on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Stephanie Mellinger got her start in fundraising at Martin-Lauer’s fundraising firm and was eventually recruited to serve as the Maryland Democratic Party’s finance director in 2000.

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Mellinger left the party to run a state senate campaign in New Jersey, “when the candidate at the last minute decided he didn’t want a woman to be in charge of his campaign,” she remembered. Instead, she launched the Mellinger Group in 2001, aiming to help women and Black, Indigenous and other candidates of color change the face of politics. Of the firm’s clients, 95% are women or people of color, Mellinger said.

“I can’t tell you how often a woman client has told me how others have tried to dissuade them from running because, ‘Did you think about your kids?’ Of course they thought about their kids!” she said. “I doubt many men are asked that question or used as a point to dissuade them from running.”

She likens her role to that of a coach. Her firm guides candidates on how to effectively ask people to invest in their political vision. Most people hate asking others for money, Mellinger said. Asking for money is not something most people want to do, nor do they enjoy it — in fact most of them hate it. “It gets easier the more you do it, but it’s never easy,” she said.

Mellinger’s clients include several Democratic state Senate caucuses, County Executive Jessica Fitzwater, Prince George’s County Councilwoman Jolene Ivey, Del. Vanessa Atterbeary and other candidates spread across the country.

Karen Miller

Karen Miller, a public relations professional and major political fundraiser, stands for a portrait in her consulting company’s office on March 11, 2024. Behind her is a montage of political and PR campaigns she’s worked on. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Karen Miller began her career as a civil servant in City Hall after graduating from Morgan State University. She worked her way up to serve as a marketing and public relations director under then-Mayor Sheila Dixon, after she automatically became mayor due to Martin O’Malley’s ascension to governor.

As Dixon prepared to run for mayor, Miller took a leave of absence to work on the campaign, where she would learn there were no Black fundraisers in the political scene. She enrolled in a now-defunct women’s entrepreneurship program, where she learned the basics of running a business, and opened Karen Miller Consulting in 2010.

Her first two clients were Bill Ferguson, who Miller met on the Dixon campaign and was challenging a four-term state senator, and Keiffer Mitchell, who lost the mayoral primary to Dixon and was seeking a seat in the House of Delegates. Both men won their races; Ferguson is now the Senate president.

The Democratic scene is very “members-only,” Miller said. Unlike nonprofit fundraising, where fundraisers target donors who align with a group’s mission, she said, wealthy political donors contribute based on three things: revenge, access, or party.

“If they are unhappy with who is in office and have the means to put forth their candidate, they will and they do,” Miller said. Donors also seek access to officeholders and wish to keep their preferred political party in office.

Miller is hopeful that public financing, which matches campaign donations $150 or less, will allow candidates to connect with more city residents. On the opposite side of the spectrum are “bundlers” — wealthy donors who contribute the maximum $6,000 to campaigns from both their personal bank account and every business they control.

Miller said she’s drawn to candidates with grit and spunk who have something to prove to the naysayers. She advised Bob Wallace in his 2020 mayoral run as an independent and is currently advising Shannon Sneed in her publicly financed campaign for City Council president.

Miller currently works for state Dels. Jackie Addison of Baltimore and Tiffany Alston of Prince George’s County and Baltimore County state Sen. Charles Sydnor. Over the holidays, Miller served as a fill-in host for WBAL radio.

Rachael Rice

Rachael Rice sits at her desk in Bel Air on Dec 27, 2023. (Heather Diehl/for the Baltimore Banner)

It’s no surprise to Rachael Rice that women dominate the city and state fundraising scene.

“This is a profession that requires logistical acumen, a sharp memory and an ability to multitask,” she said. “Women have been managing various responsibilities and coordinating multiple systems since the dawn of time.”

She entered politics in the early 1990s, working for the offices and campaigns of former Del. Mary Louise Preis, former state Sen. Don Fry and former Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. before joining the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. The party sent her to Vermont, where she first began fundraising. When she returned to Maryland in 2001 and saw that Martin-Lauer Associates didn’t have much competition, Rice launched her own firm. She has employed 70 staffers since her firm opened, 57% of whom were women, she said.

She likens the job to that of a personal trainer. “We guide clients, focus their effort, organize them, show them the way, but they have to show up at the gym and do the situps,” she said.

That means Rice and her team of eight employees arrange call time — dedicated hours where candidates call potential donors and ask for contributions — but the politicians have to show up and make the asks themselves. “I am not the person who wields the power, so donors don’t want to hear from me,” Rice said.

Her current Baltimore clients include mayoral candidate Sheila Dixon, State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, Councilmen Eric Costello and Mark Conway, and every sitting Circuit Court judge.

State clients, all Democrats, include Speaker of the House of Delegates Adrienne A. Jones, Maryland State Treasurer Dereck Davis and the Maryland Democratic Party, as well as state Sens. Clarence Lam of Howard County, Joanne Benson and Ron Watson of Prince George’s County, Pam Beidle and Dawn Gile of Anne Arundel County, Brian Feldman of Montgomery County, Mary-Dulany James of Harford County and Kathy Klausmeier of Baltimore County.

Other clients throughout the state include several state delegates and Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger.

Sophia Silbergeld

Sophia Silbergeld smiles for a portrait in front of an abstract painting while sitting at a table with her hands clasped.
Sophia Silbergeld, an advocate at Adeo Advocacy, poses for a portrait in Baltimore on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Sophia Silbergeld joined Adeo Advocacy in 2019, after a decade working for Martin-Lauer. The firm is a force to be reckoned with: Each of Adeo’s 2022 clients won their races. “I slept for about two months straight after everyone got inaugurated,” she said.

Of all the things that have to happen on a campaign, fundraising is the most tangible, Silbergeld said: Day to day, week to week, and month to month, she can assess whether a candidate is hitting their goals or whether it’s time to course-correct.

“I guide and motivate some of the most talented and passionate people in our state to do something no one likes to do — ask other people for money — while keeping it as organized, focused and pleasant an experience as possible for them,” she said.

Silbergeld was drawn to fundraising after a summer internship at the Office of the Attorney General and a year spent as an aide to a senior staffer in Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith’s administration. Witnessing the direct impact that elected officials have on their constituents’ lives spurred her to get “even closer to the work of getting those people into office.”

She likens fundraising to both an art and a science. There’s the data collection and analysis component, from conducting to polls to testing messages with the electorate, but other components are based on intuition and experience.

Silbergeld consults some of the state’s most well-financed campaigns, including U.S. Rep. David Trone, Gov. Wes Moore, and Baltimore City Council members Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Zeke Cohen. The firm also founded and operates a super PAC that supports Sheila Dixon’s mayoral run, funded largely by Sinclair television executive and Baltimore Sun owner David Smith and developer John “Jack” Luetkemeyer Jr.

“I describe myself as very progressive and wildly pragmatic,” Silbergeld said. “I like working with candidates who understand the job that they are running to do.”

Adeo Advocacy’s other clients include Freedom In Reproduction − Maryland, a statewide ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in Maryland’s constitution; Attorney General Anthony Brown; Comptroller Brooke Lierman; Senate President Bill Ferguson of Baltimore; Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.; Frederick County Executive Jessica Fitzwater; Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy; Baltimore Sheriff Sam Cogen; and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who is running for Virginia governor.

This article has been updated to correct Stephanie Mellinger’s current client list.