Baltimore voters in the November election will encounter a ballot measure with the potential to upend the flow of power in City Hall. If passed, Question K would limit the mayor, comptroller, City Council president and council members to two terms in office. The count for every official would begin in 2024.
Local advocates for the measure argue it would empower voters and force a regular cycle of fresh blood into City Hall, while opponents question why term limits are necessary in a city rife with partially-completed terms and high rates of executive turnover.
While the idea has polled well, analysis from most political experts is more measured. Research suggests that while term limits can help youthful politicians rise quickly, career politicians who hop from one office to the next still exist.
Elected officials don’t tend to enact term limit legislation
Charter amendments have two paths to city ballots: The Baltimore City Council and mayor sign off on a proposal, or a petition signed by more than 10,000 Baltimore voters is submitted to the city’s board of elections.
Question K will wind up on ballots after a top Sinclair Broadcast Group executive spent about $385,000 funding a political action committee that canvassed signatures. David Smith, executive chairman of the network, oversees more than 180 stations, including Baltimore’s WBFF Fox45. The station and network are known for its conservative leanings, and Smith has often donated to Republicans.
Baltimore voters haven’t struck down a ballot measure since 2004. Although a slew of politicos and activists opposed to the measure haven’t been able to match Smith’s contributions, their crusade against Question K includes signage and campaigns of support from the Maryland NAACP and several high-profile unions.
Term limits are usually enacted through voter efforts such as ballot measures, not through bills created by legislators themselves, said Kathryn DePalo-Gould, a professor of politics at Florida International University and an expert on term limits. “Generally, elected officials never want to limit their power,” she said.
City Hall officials have attempted to do just that twice before. Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and then-Councilman Bill Henry introduced legislation to limit council members, the mayor and the comptroller to three consecutive four-year terms in the same office. Their bills died in 2020 and 2018, respectively.
Henry, now the city comptroller, is unaffiliated with the Smith-funded PAC. He supports the measure, noting that people still have a pathway toward lifelong public service should it pass.
“If you want to spend eight years as a council person, then spend eight years as council president or comptroller, then spend eight years as mayor, then spend eight years as governor, and then you still can’t bring yourself to retire so you become state comptroller, people will probably be very happy that you devoted your life to that and they’ll probably build statues and name buildings after you,” he said.
But spending more than three decades as sheriff or 25 years as comptroller takes away the opportunity for residents to see what other people could accomplish in those offices, the Democrat said.
Term limits are broadly popular with voters, DePalo-Gould said: They tend to understand and connect with the concept, given that so many executive roles — including the president of the United States — are term-limited.
Leaders both effective and ineffective are booted
In 1992, Florida voters approved legislation that set term limits for statehouse officials. Representatives are capped at four consecutive two-year terms; senators are capped at two consecutive four-year terms. Officials can move from the Senate to the House, or vice versa, without exiting the legislature.
DePalo-Gould has extensively researched the effects of Florida’s term limits. Over the last three decades, career politicians have not disappeared from the state. Officials continue to run for higher office or return home to run for local office. “We’re still not attracting pure citizen legislators — career politicians are still a real thing for both parties,” she said.
Still, she said, term limits are likely responsible for the rise of two prominent politicians: Marco Rubio and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Rubio served in the Florida House for two terms, becoming the speaker of the House at age 34. After hitting his term limit as a state representative, he ran for U.S. Senate rather than attempting to re-enter the state legislature. After hitting term limits for the Florida House, Wasserman Schultz was elected to two terms in the Florida Senate before joining U.S. Congress.
“They may not have had those opportunities otherwise. You have people who can sort of rise to these positions because term limits were there,” she said.
One unintended consequence of the law was the empowerment of middle managers and lobbyists, DePalo-Gould added: “The people who are constant, who stay no matter what the turnover has to be, tend to be those who lobby.”
When new lawmakers are hiring staff or seeking advice, they tend to seek out aides that have been in political circles for a long time and lobbyists with demonstrated impact, such as those behind prominent laws.
“Lobbyists are paid by groups to advocate on their behalf, but they also have to fully research their issues. They are never familiar with solely ‘their’ side, and that turns them into important information providers,” she said. “Of course, most are honest brokers.”
She pointed to another chief criticism: Term limits may force ineffective leaders out, but effective leaders can’t stay.
Mary Pat Clarke, who spent more than three decades in City Hall before she retired in 2020, said term limits instead take out of the public’s hands the opportunity to reward or punish elected officials for the job done.
The Democrat served as 2nd District councilwoman from 1975 to 1983. She became the first woman ever elected City Council president, a role she held from 1987 to 1995, until a failed bid for mayor. And after Baltimore redrew council boundaries to include more districts, Clarke was elected in 2004 to represent the 14th District.
“The best term limit is a well-attended election,” she said.
Council member Odette Ramos, who was elected to Clarke’s district in 2020, said City Hall veterans like Clarke hold invaluable institutional memory. The guidance she provided to generations of council freshmen ran the gamut, from writing legislation to working with agencies to responding to constituent needs, she said.
“If we had only had eight years of her, where would we be?” Ramos said.
But the governing structure of the council does not support institutional memory, Henry said, arguing there is no power based on seniority or expertise. Instead, a council member’s power in City Hall is almost a complete reflection of their relationship with the mayor and the council president, he said.
“In the Baltimore City Council, if you’re a committee chair, it’s because the council president likes you,” he said. “If you happen to also be a subject matter expert, that’s a convenient coincidence.”
The endless election
Both critics and supporters of Question K tend to reference the city’s most visible role — mayor — when discussing its potential effect on Baltimore. But city voters haven’t elected someone to the office for more than two terms since 1995, when then-Mayor Kurt 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.
The period kicked off when Schmoke’s successor Martin O’Malley resigned during his second term in 2007 to become the governor of Maryland. Sheila Dixon, who was serving a second term as City Council president, automatically replaced him. The council tapped then-Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to fill Dixon’s vacancy.
Dixon won the 2007 mayoral election, but she served a partial term and left in 2010 after she was found guilty of misdemeanor embezzlement. Rawlings-Blake was automatically elevated to the mayor’s office while then-Councilman Jack Young was elected by the council to replace her.
Rawlings-Blake won a full term as mayor in 2011, but declined to run for reelection. Then-state Sen. Catherine Pugh bested Dixon in the Democratic mayoral primary and was sworn in in 2016, but left three years later amid a self-dealing political scandal. She later pleaded guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy.
Young, who was elected as City Council president in 2012 and again in 2016, automatically became mayor, bringing total of two full terms and two partial terms as the council’s chief legislator. Brandon Scott was a second-term councilman when his peers tapped him to replace Young; he parlayed the role’s visibility into a win in the 2020 mayoral election. He has said he plans to serve no more than two terms as mayor.
Scott is hardly the only fresh face around City Hall. City Council President Nick Mosby and Henry are also serving their first terms, as are council members Ramos, Mark Conway, James Torrence, Antonio Glover and Phylicia Porter. The longest-serving member of this council is Sharon Green Middleton, who was appointed to the role in 2007 following a vacancy. She was elected vice president of the council by her peers in 2016.
“When you have constant elections, you have constant electioneering,” said Roger Hartley, the dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore.
It may seem intuitive to assume that term limits could bring other political parties into the fold, but in a city as deep blue as Baltimore, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by ten to one, it will likely only enforce the Democratic party structure, he said.
“When someone leaves office mid-term, and this happens a lot both in the city and state, someone gets appointed, and that doesn’t happen without the behind-the-scenes approval of the local Democratic committee,” he said. “Those appointees get a year or two of incumbency advantage and then they get re-elected.”
In Florida, the race for House speaker — a position chose by representatives — now begins before candidates are even elected, DePalo-Gould said.
“Every freshman class that comes in tends to select who they want to be that next speaker even before the election,” she said. “This somebody might have an easy seat to win. They have the time to go campaign for fellow candidates of their party running for other House seats. They get to know them and predetermine who later gets to be the committee chairs.”
While term limit referendums tend to succeed, DePalo-Gould said Baltimore’s may not pan out. “This is tied closely to a conservative effort. If that’s the way that it is marketed to a city with a lot of Democratic voters, I could certainly see it go down in flames,” she said.
Hartley said the measure will be hard to combat in a culture where many voters don’t trust their government. But outreach from individual council members might move the needle, he posited. He recalled the saying that “people hate Congress but love their congressman.”
“Well, people hate City Hall but love their councilperson,” he said. “The question opposition might want to raise is, how do you feel about your council member being forced out?”