With Baltimore voters set to decide the leadership of their City Council next year, Councilman Zeke Cohen holds a healthy 13 point lead over incumbent Council President Nick Mosby, according to a new survey of Democratic Baltimore voters from Goucher College Poll in partnership with The Baltimore Banner.
Thirty percent of those polled said if the election for City Council president was held today they would vote for Cohen, who has held the council’s 1st District seat in East Baltimore since 2016. Just 17% of respondents said they would cast their ballot for Mosby, suggesting vulnerability at the top of the 15-member City Council.
Still, the Democratic primary for City Council president, slated for May 14 of next year, is far from decided. Though only Cohen and Mosby have declared candidacies, 34% of poll respondents said they would vote for “some other candidate,” a greater share than either council member received. Another 18% of respondents said they are undecided on how they would vote, leaving more than half of the voter base up for grabs.
The Goucher-Banner poll surveyed 711 registered Baltimore voters by phone, both landline and mobile, between Sept. 19 and Sept. 23, with a 3.7 percentage point margin of error. For the question about the primary contest between Mosby and Cohen, the poll surveyed 537 registered Democrats and had a 4.2 percentage point margin of error.
Despite representing a concentrated section of East Baltimore, the poll and interviews with respondents suggest that Cohen has made inroads in other parts of the city.
Christopher Murrow, 33, an accountant who lives in Riverside in South Baltimore, said he doesn’t know a whole lot about Cohen but likes what he’s seen. Cohen’s advocacy for establishing a cabinet-level office to support senior citizens — a proposal recently signed into law by Mayor Brandon Scott — sticks out as one appealing priority to Murrow.
Cohen, a former Teach for America instructor who started a nonprofit in Baltimore prior to his 2016 election, has emerged as one of the most visible members on the City Council. The Massachusetts transplant has drawn the spotlight in recent years for championing more equitable internet access for students during the pandemic, and more recently for aligning with utility customers against Baltimore Gas and Electric’s requested rate increase and plans to install gas regulators outside of homes.
But while Murrow said there seems to be “a positive energy” around Cohen, he said he could also be swayed toward a third candidate if someone else jumped into the race.
“I’d vote for Santa Claus before I voted for Nick Mosby,” said Thea B., a retired auto parts worker in Northwest Baltimore, who asked not to publish her last name to protect her family’s privacy. Cohen seems like a fine candidate, Thea said, but her leaning toward the East Baltimore councilman has as much to do with her distaste for the sitting council president.
“Anybody but Nick Mosby,” she said. “So I guess I’d vote for Zeke.”
City Council president is the only position in the body that is elected citywide, and Cohen will vacate his 1st District seat no matter the outcome of his challenge to Mosby.
Mosby’s tenure at the top of the City Council has at times been rocky, and the latest poll results suggest a fall in popularity from the 2020 Democratic primary, when the then-Maryland delegate and former West Baltimore councilman rose to the top of a crowded race for council president to secure 40% of the vote and beat Councilwoman Shannon Sneed by 15,000 votes. Former council member Carl Stokes also bid for the position that year, drawing more than 20% of the vote.
This time, 60% of 711 registered voters polled expressed disapproval or strong disapproval for Mosby, with just 26% saying they approve or strongly approve of the job he’s done. Mosby’s numbers are similar to his approval ratings in a Banner/Goucher College poll conducted in June of 2022.
Since his election in 2020, federal investigators charged Mosby’s wife, former Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, with perjury and falsifying mortgage applications on two Florida vacation properties — a case still playing out today. Nick Mosby has not been charged with any crimes. But a city ethics board ruled in May of last year that he had violated ethics laws by indirectly soliciting donations to fund the legal defense for him and his wife against the federal investigation, including contributions from at least two unnamed city contractors.
Like some other respondents who spoke with The Banner, Murrow, the Riverside resident, said he wouldn’t support Mosby in light of the federal case against his wife. Murrow feels that “when there’s smoke, there’s fire” though Nick Mosby has not been implicated in the case.
While Mosby has already won a citywide election and has broad name recognition across Baltimore, he will likely have to overcome a steep financial imbalance. As of the most recent campaign finance filing deadline in January, Mosby had just $954 on hand. Cohen, meanwhile, had more than $372,000.
In an interview after the poll’s release, Cohen said he was “thrilled” to come out of the gates with a double-digit lead over the incumbent but also noted that it’s still early in the race. Considering that he’s represented one district in Southeast Baltimore for his entire time in elected office, Cohen said it’s no surprise that parts of the city don’t know him yet. The number of undecided or unsatisfied voters in the poll just represents an opportunity reach more of the city and build support across demographics, he added.
Regardless of poll numbers, Cohen said, “we’re gonna play like we’re 20 points back.”
In a statement, Mosby pointed to the work he and the City Council have been doing to represent Baltimore residents.
“That work and my family have been my only focus,” he said. “As the calendar turns toward election season, I look forward to presenting a clear vision and sincere message to our residents and aggressively championing all that we’ve accomplished in the Council President’s office.”
The challenge from Cohen — a fellow City Council member — may represent the biggest political threat Mosby has seen since emerging from the 2011 Democratic primary to secure a seat on the council. Mosby, then an electrical engineer, defeated Belinda Conaway, a two-term City Council incumbent from a well-established political family, to represent West Baltimore. He was appointed to the Maryland House of Delegates in 2017 before returning to the City Council as its president three years later.
For some poll respondents, the qualities that helped lift Mosby to the No. 2 elected position in Baltimore still have their appeal.
Eric Jones, a cook for a cafe at Johns Hopkins Hospital, appreciates the insistence on bold reform that he hears from Mosby.
“He’s really talking about making a change,” said Jones, a lifelong resident of East Baltimore who expressed particular concern about youth-involved crimes. “Something really needs to be done right now. We can’t wait.”
Compared to some peers in City Hall, Jones feels Mosby is a straight shooter. “He’s not scared to stand up and take a stand on either side,” said Jones, a quality the East Baltimore native hasn’t seen in other high-ranking leaders like Scott.
Jones doesn’t consider himself a Mosby die-hard — “I’m not just wearing a Mosby t-shirt,” he said — but he also thinks the council president is doing a good job and shouldn’t be punished by voters for missteps by his spouse.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College, said Cohen holds a strong position at this early stage in the race, especially for a representative who may not be broadly known beyond his district. Mosby’s share, on the other hand, “is not where the incumbent would like to be.”
Still, it’s the more than one-third of respondents who indicated they would cast their vote for some other candidate altogether that stuck out most to Kromer, who conducted the Banner poll.
“That’s an awful lot of people” who essentially say they want another option, Kromer said. Whether there’s a viable contender for the council president seat still waiting in the wings, though, isn’t clear.
And neither candidate is performing particularly well among Black residents, who make up the majority of Baltimore, the poll shows. Among white registered Democratic respondents, Cohen holds a wide, 50 point margin over Mosby. But much smaller shares of Black registered Democratic respondents expressed support for either council member: 22% said they would vote for Mosby and 18% said they would vote for Cohen.
Notably, the share of Black respondents who said they would vote for an unnamed third candidate was much higher than for white respondents: 40% compared to 21%.
“You need a large percentage of Black voters to win citywide. Period,” said Kromer, who argued that the large share of unsatisfied respondents indicates that if a third candidate steps into the field, the effects could be dramatic.
Debra Brinson, a longtime resident of West Baltimore’s Evergreen Lawn community, said she hasn’t missed an election since the 1970s but isn’t satisfied with either of her options in the race for City Council president. A medical coder who used to work as a COVID-19 tracer for the city health department, Brinson didn’t like how Cohen handled an outbreak of crime and rowdiness in Fells Point in 2021, which spurred frustration from businesses in the 1st District neighborhood.
“He gets his face in the news media a lot but he does not back up the words that he says,” she said. “I hear what you’re saying, Zeke, but when are you going to get it done?”
When it comes to Mosby, Brinson is less critical than some others who don’t back him. But there’s too much going on in the incumbent City Council president’s personal life to give adequate attention to the job, Brinson feels. “You can see it in his face,” she said, suggesting that Mosby back off and take time away and campaign for a different position at some point down the road.
Crime and the the quality of education in Baltimore City schools are urgent problems for Brinson, and, at the end of the day, she thinks current leadership in City Hall just isn’t getting it done.
“Give me some fresh people — with new ideas, with new perspectives,” she said. “If you’ve been there before, just go away.”
Reporter Emily Sullivan contributed to this story.