Democratic gubernatorial candidates Wes Moore, John B. King, Tom Perez, Douglas Gansler and Peter Franchot are all vying for the Baltimore vote.

For the past eight years, Baltimoreans have watched as their governor, more often than not, criticized the city more than he praised the city.

Gov. Larry Hogan, like most politicians, professed to love Baltimore. But he axed a major transit project, engaged in pitched battles with city leaders, and counts bringing in the National Guard following civil unrest and rioting in 2015 as one of his greatest successes.

Now, with Hogan moving on after two terms, there’s an opportunity for a different relationship between the leader of the state and the state’s largest city. Arguably, a new executive could matter more to Baltimore than any other Maryland jurisdiction. A new governor could mean fresh choices for the budget, or crime and transportation policies that prioritize the city. A new governor could also mean more ability to work with a Democratic White House or Congress. And then there’s the less measurable benefit to Baltimore of no longer being caught in a power struggle between city leaders and a governor eyeing national politics.

“What I’m looking forward to is a complete reset,” said Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who is staying neutral in the Democratic primary for governor. “And when we’re talking about a reset, this isn’t about me. This is about Baltimore. It’s about how we can have deep and honest conversations about the state’s roles and responsibilities, how we can collectively work to make the city a safer place.”

Scott and other Democratic politicians in Baltimore have long lamented that Hogan has missed opportunities to make meaningful moves to help the city, such as improving staffing levels of parole and probation agents or participating in a multi-agency criminal justice coordinating council.

City leaders, activists and voters are hoping the next governor is a partner in helping Baltimore become a safer, thriving place.

It’s an unresolved question just how much political weight Baltimore still carries in Maryland politics. It wasn’t too long ago that it seemed to be a requirement that if a gubernatorial candidate was not from Baltimore, their running mate had better be from the city.

But Baltimore City has been steadily losing population, and voters, over the years. Baltimore City and Baltimore County combined have about 612,000 registered Democratic voters — significantly fewer than the 870,000 registered Democrats in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

What is known is that Baltimore still matters to candidates, especially Democrats, said Justin Schall, a Democratic consultant who managed Anthony Brown’s unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2014. Baltimore is the economic and cultural hub of the state, and most Marylanders care about the city’s fate.

“There’s the old saying: How goes the City of Baltimore, so goes Maryland,” Schall said. “It is the epicenter of Maryland and that will never change. It is the heart and soul of Maryland.”

In addition, it’s significantly cheaper for campaigns to run TV ads in the Baltimore market than in the Washington market, where broadcast ads also reach viewers in Virginia and D.C. who can’t vote in — and likely care little about — Maryland elections.

“It just makes Baltimore critical,” Schall said. “Those votes become super-powerful when you talk about efficiencies.”

The leading candidates for governor, both Democrats and Republicans, have often had Baltimore on their lips out on the campaign trail. They’ve made big promises. But most don’t live in Baltimore and none have ever won an elected position in the city. So are they connecting with Baltimore voters? Are they speaking to the city’s needs — or speaking past them?

“Instead of tearing down Baltimore, bring it up,” Lynette Carter of West Baltimore said as she relaxed at the AFRAM festival in Druid Hill Park over the weekend, where several candidates stopped by. “It seems like the governor and mayor are always attacking each other. They need to better communicate.”

Donye Harmon, who is from West Baltimore but now lives in White Marsh, said it’s frustrating to see a breakdown between the city and the state.

“I don’t think he really cares about the city,” Harmon said of the current governor. “He just leaves it up to the mayor, but he can only do so much.”

Dr. Melissa E. Buckley, an assistant professor of social work at Baltimore’s Coppin State University, said any candidate seeking to help Baltimore should consider the deep traumas that many city residents carry with them, whether from experiencing violence, emotional harm or economic instability.

“The danger is we blame victims for conditions that they did not cause. What we are seeing are behaviors that happen as a result of gross inequities, behaviors that happen as a result of lack of access,” Buckley said.

Looking at policy solutions and budgetary decisions through a lens of trauma is crucial, said Buckley, who is backing Democrat Wes Moore.

Working toward resolving the systems that cause the problems — substandard schools, lack of transportation, economic inequities — will go further than “tough on crime” approaches that some politicians favor, Buckley said.

Several candidates are pledging to be a partner with the city, working toward shared goals of safety and opportunity. One Republican candidate, on the other hand, wants the state to take control of the city’s government.

What the candidates are promising

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore.

“I don’t have to talk about Baltimore like it’s a foreign place,” said Moore, a bestselling author and former nonprofit executive who is the only candidate for governor in the primaries who lives in the city.

Speaking to the No Pix After Dark podcast at AFRAM, Moore underscored his point: “I don’t need to come to Baltimore,” he said. “I’m already here.”

Moore lives in Guilford, but has been questioned about just how deep his Baltimore roots are and whether he has failed to correct interviewers and reporters who have said he was born and raised here. As he wrote in his bestselling memoir, he spent much of his childhood in the Bronx.

Moore has said he’s been clear and transparent about his background, and said he fell in love with the city while visiting as a teen after his mother moved to Anne Arundel County. He often describes himself to crowds as a “Baltimorean by choice.”

“When I think about the things that we have to do both for and with Baltimore, I don’t look at it simply saying that, ‘Well, we need to do X, or we need to do Y,’” Moore said. “We need to do it all.”

For Moore, that means working to ensure residents feel safe, improving transportation options, increasing jobs and promoting tourism.

“We’ve got to change an entire dynamic about Baltimore,” Moore said. “And frankly, you need to have a chief executive who doesn’t talk about Baltimore like it’s over there.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perez.

“The most frequent thing I hear from folks here in Baltimore City, especially, is ‘We need a partner. We need a partner. Don’t bash Baltimore — work with Baltimore,’” said Tom Perez, a Democratic candidate from Montgomery County who previously led the Democratic National Committee.

To that end, Perez promises an array of actions in coordination with Baltimore leaders: reviving the proposed east-west rail line known as the Red Line, improving bus service, luring green energy and technology jobs to the region, getting more people on health insurance, boosting trade through the Port of Baltimore, supporting violence reduction efforts, and reversing the city’s population loss by drawing new residents.

The result by the end of two terms, Perez predicts, is that Baltimore’s news media will write bold headlines: “Baltimore is back, exclamation point.”

Democratic candidate John King has also emphasized the need for partnership over partisanship from the governor’s mansion.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate John B. King.

“I think the current governor has used Baltimore as a punching bag,” said King, a former U.S. education secretary who lives in Montgomery County. “I would want a real partnership with the city leadership. I’ve said to Mayor Scott that I want us to be partners.”

King traveled to Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood on Tuesday to unveil his ideas for the city, which he’s calling his “One Baltimore” plan.

“We must treat this as a New Deal moment for Baltimore,” King said, calling to mind the vast government programs that helped lift the nation out of the Great Depression.

Public safety, economic development and education in Baltimore would be King’s focus if elected. A former teacher and administrator, King believes that improving schools will have a multifold effect, not only preparing children for the workforce but making the city more attractive for businesses to operate here and for residents to stay. He promises an “all-rail” Red Line — trains, not buses — and policing improvements coupled with additional violence interruption programs and social and emotional supports.

And King said he’s willing to support higher taxes on corporations and millionaires in order to have enough money to fund these programs.

“It’s time that we realize as Marylanders, we all have a common destiny. Our communities will never reach their full potential until Baltimore does,” King said.

Some candidates have focused heavily on Baltimore’s pervasive violence that leaves more than 300 people murdered in the city each year.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Douglas Gansler.

Democrat Doug Gansler has stressed his background as the former state attorney general and former top prosecutor in Montgomery County, where he tried multiple murder and high-profile cases.

“This is something that I know,” Gansler said, standing outside Baltimore City Hall on a recent hot morning. “This is not something where you put in somebody who doesn’t have a background in criminal justice and hope they can figure it out along the way.”

Gansler pledged to reinstitute the multi-agency Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in Baltimore, encourage prosecutors to be assigned by neighborhood rather than by type of crime, ensure drug courts are “meaningful,” serve backlogged warrants and work closely with federal prosecutors on gun cases. He also promises to hire 1,000 new law enforcement officers in the state.

Gansler is calling it his “Safe Maryland Plan.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Franchot.

Democratic front-runner Peter Franchot, the current state comptroller, said Baltimore needs something like the Marshall Plan that directed post-World War II rebuilding efforts in Europe.

“But not simply spending money for spending’s sake,” Franchot said. “It’s got to be something that delivers results, is affordable, is pragmatic, is transformative.”

He has laid out a statewide vision of attracting 100,000 new jobs and boosting the state’s economic output that he believes will bring prosperity to Baltimore.

To combat Baltimore crime, Franchot also wants to “flood” the city with resources and “go specifically after repeat violent offenders when they have open arrest warrants, to get them off the street.”

Hogan has periodically supported bursts of state law enforcement efforts to serve warrants and help local police in Baltimore, but Franchot said the next governor should ensure the state has a “sustained” law enforcement presence in the city.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox.

Republican candidate Dan Cox, a President Donald J. Trump-endorsed state delegate from Frederick County, is the candidate vowing to have the state intervene in the city’s operations — though he acknowledges that he doesn’t yet have a full plan for how that would actually work. Cox envisions forcing the city into “receivership” where some type of third party would oversee city government.

The governor has “a sworn duty to protect the state of Maryland with law and order” and therefore is legally justified in taking such an action, Cox said.

“It’s an emergency there in Baltimore, people are being killed every day on the streets. There’s blood on the streets every day, it’s dangerous,” Cox said.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Kelly Schulz.

The Republican front-runner, Kelly Schulz, takes a serious — but less dramatic — view of Baltimore’s challenges. She recalls working as labor secretary to improve job training programs in the city and learning about residents’ needs.

“You don’t need people speaking from a podium or from the platform,” she said. “You need people to be there to show up in the city, in all parts of the city. And I think I’ve done that. Over the course of my career, I have showed up.”

She also takes something of a law-and-order view of combating violence, supporting stricter sentences for people convicted repeatedly of violent crimes. She touts endorsements from elected sheriffs around the state as proof that she’ll support policing and anti-crime efforts. But she said she’ll work with local officials on crime-fighting plans.

“The role of the governor is to be able to take everything into consideration and understand that there’s not a one-size-fits-all type of program for every jurisdiction, whether you’re on the Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland or Baltimore City,” said Schulz, who lives in Frederick County.

More than a city of problems

But do the candidates’ promises align with what city voters want and need out of their next governor?

Baltimore City Councilman Ryan Dorsey put several of the candidates through his own unique test to answer that question: He invited them to go on a bike ride through his northeast Baltimore district. He took stock of their willingness to do something that was a bit challenging for most of them, while evaluating their knowledge of the city and its challenges.

Five Democratic candidates — Moore, Gansler, Perez, King, Jon Baron and Mike Rosenbaum, who dropped out of the race last fall — accepted his offer and gave up two hours of their time. “I got lucky as hell,” Dorsey said.

Part of Dorsey’s goal was to introduce candidates to the thriving, middle class neighborhoods in his district — different than what the candidates might think of Baltimore, where narratives often skew either to neighborhoods with high crime and vacant homes or the Instagram-ready waterfront.

“I think it’s really important for a governor to have a sophisticated understanding of the nexus of different problems we face as a city and just how complex that is — none of which has been demonstrated by the current governor,” said Dorsey, a Democrat who has served on the City Council since 2016.

In the end, Dorsey was most impressed by Tom Perez, an experienced biker who not only biked through the rain on his ride but also showed a good grasp of policy solutions.

Whether Perez wins or not, the 2022 election represents an opportunity for Baltimore, Dorsey said.

“The governor has an immense ability to be a leader and the city is waiting and ready,” Dorsey said. “There are opportunities in virtually every facet of city life — many of which are politically challenging for individuals at the local level, but if a governor were to bring a vision … the governor can prioritize Baltimore.”

Christina Flowers worries that sometimes the good in the city is lost amid the discussions of its challenges. And she certainly knows the challenges as the leader of a nonprofit, Real Care Providers Network, that helps people living in homeless encampments across town.

“I think all of them want to take the initiative to look at the problem. They want to run on a problem. They want to campaign on the problem,” Flowers said.

But Baltimore is more than a city of problems.

“Anything I’d say to the individuals, if you’re coming into the city, a district or a neighborhood: Look for the good, look for what people are already doing that make an impact or a difference,” Flowers said. “The good in the ‘hood,” she calls it.

And whoever is elected, Flowers said she and other community activists will keep tabs on them. “We have to look at the way they conduct themselves after they get the position,” she said.

The Rev. Kobi Little has gone to Annapolis countless times to push lawmakers and the governor to do more for Baltimore. He hopes the next governor has a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics at play in the city; namely, that today’s challenges — violence, poverty, homelessness — are the byproducts of generations of racism and systemic disinvestment in the city.

“We need a governor who is going to address all of the structural inequity that has created the lopsided dynamics we see in Baltimore,” said Little, head of the city’s NAACP chapter.

And Little wants the next governor to realize that it’s not only Baltimore City that faces these challenges. And many of the challenges start in the suburbs and end up in Baltimore, as people struggling with addiction come here for treatment and as the homeless seek refuge.

Baltimore is also not a city to be pitied or pandered to, in Little’s view.

“We need a governor who is willing to partner with local leadership for the best outcomes,” he said. “This is not a question of charity, this is a question of democracy.”

Buckley, the Coppin State professor, is hopeful that the next governor has a genuine interest in, and passion for, improving Baltimore. She hasn’t seen that from Hogan.

“He obviously does not value or respect or care for the constituents here in Baltimore City,” she said. “That’s obvious.”

Even though Buckley is behind Moore, she hopes all the candidates do their homework.

“Come to Baltimore and get to know Baltimore outside of the Inner Harbor. Come to know our neighborhoods. Come to know the people. Come to understand the drive, the passion,” she said. “They’ll get a sense that the people in our neighborhoods and communities want to partner in our leadership. They want to trust leadership, but we have to see leadership.”