**SPECIAL EARLY EDITION**
In five days, on Tuesday, 2/4, voters in Maryland’s 7th District — covering portions of Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Howard County (to see if that includes you: http://mdelect.net) — will choose a new representative to send to Congress in place of the late Elijah Cummings. Well, technically this is only the primary, but, considering how past races have gone in this district, it’s safe to assume that whomever wins the Democratic nomination has the seat.
It’s disturbing how many people have no idea this is happening. Would it be too much to ask for the Board of Elections to send out a notice? And of those who do know about it, so far I’ve run into few who’ve made up their minds, with such an overwhelming array of options and so little time to research. That’s why I’m putting out this column a few days early, because I’ve made my choice and I want to talk about why before election eve.
So, there are **24** candidates in the Dem primary race (can we PLEASE have ranked choice voting???), including a lot of people who suck, some people who seem cool, and some people who I frankly know nothing about. Take this advice in that context — I’m not claiming to know it all here — but I’m supporting State Senator Jill P. Carter based on her record in the state legislature, the way she shows up in the community, and her strong, progressive stances on national issues, including Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.
A couple of the other biggest names in the race include former Congressman Kweisi Mfume and Elijah Cummings’ widow Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, both of whom are non-starters for me. After his time in office, Mfume had a troubled tenure as head of the NAACP, facing allegations of sexual harassment, nepotism, and mismanagement. He also was a key force behind the passage of the devastating 1994 crime bill. Cummings has literally no policy platform on her campaign website (how could you think it’s ok to run like that??), mingled the finances of her non-profit and her business in very ethically murky ways, and drove the Dem party into debt during her tenure as its head.
Jill, meanwhile, pushed for greater transparency in UMMS finances after a complaint from a minority contractor that their procurement process wasn’t fair, which ended up being the only reason that former Mayor Catherine Pugh’s financial misdeeds were uncovered. She’s been in public office for well over a decade, focusing on nuts and bolts bills to advance justice causes, and without a hint of scandal. She has committed (to me verbally, at least) that she’ll introduce a bill for local police control for Baltimore City once the primary is over (an issue which I’ll talk about more in the near future).
Is she a 110% perfect candidate? Nah, one can fairly point to missteps she’s made, things like when she co-sponsored a marriage equality bill in 2011 and then held up the vote in an attempt to draw attention to school funding. But imho, she’s by far the best person for the job with a shot at actually getting the seat. She’s the first and only person I’ve canvassed for so far this campaign season, and at one door I ended up speaking to someone who served with her when she was the Director of the City’s Office of Civil Rights and who had glowing things to say (always a good sign when those who’ve worked with you first-hand say positive stuff behind your back) (also, say it with me: oh, Smalltimore).
For more about Jill’s legacy and what she hopes to accomplish, let’s hear from her in her own words. In between forums and canvassing, she found a few minutes to sit down with me on Sunday. This interview has been lightly edited for length.
Abby: Senator, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it. So, take me back to 2002. What prompted you to run for office in the first place?
Jill: I was working with a group of minority contractors and we went to Annapolis to protest a bill that was going to expand the minority business enterprise goals to include white males in rural areas. The bill had actually passed the House of Delegates and we were protesting it before the Senate. We testified, and actually the Senator for my district, Clarence Blount, was the chair of the committee and he killed the bill.
After that, some of the contractors prodded me to run for House of Delegates, even though I didn’t really have an interest at first. I filed and I had the intention of withdrawing, and then some people that knew me in the community reached out and said “This is wonderful, I support you.” Once I had support, I stayed in the race.
I can honestly tell you that I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the Maryland legislature before that. I paid some attention to the City Council, and some national issues, but the Maryland legislature was just something I didn’t really focus on. I got there and found out that it’s where most of our attention should really go, because more than nationally, these are the laws that govern our state, these are the laws that govern our public schools, the laws that govern our criminal justice system, which affect us most.
Abby: I’ve had that same experience of being like, I can pay attention to the crazy story of national politics, and I wanna know about local politics, but do I really have to look at that middle level? I have to do that too? And then the more you get into it, like you said, the more you realize how crucial it is.
So, what would you say you’re proudest about about your time in the legislature?
Jill: That I endured it and survived.
Jill: I say this a lot, so it may not be new news, but when I got there in 2003, I was the only Black female Attorney in the House, the third ever elected to the entire General Assembly, and I found it to be a bit of an unwelcoming environment. So, there was an adjustment period, and in addition to that, when I ran, I ran against the establishment. I was not endorsed by anyone in my first race except for a group called Acorn, which then was grassroots. But none of the unions, none of the politicians, nothing like that, and then I came in first.
I was also a younger woman coming in independently of the machine. And it was hostile a lot of times. Couple that with the fact that I was a criminal defense attorney and I discovered the data around the number of arrests that were happening in Baltimore City under O’Malley, his “zero tolerance,” or I call “illegal arrest” policies. I began to advocate against it, and so my career just started off with me on the whole opposite side of the coin of the establishment Democrats. It wasn’t planned, it was just how it happened, and it kind of continued in that realm for the whole time.
So, even after working for automatic expungement of uncharged arrests without having to sign a waiver, which did pass, it was really when I discovered this report from the Malcolm X Grassroots organization that every 28 hours, a Black man, woman or child was killed by law enforcement in America. I read that report probably around the time of Trayvon Martin, and I pulled the data for Maryland. It wasn’t a lot in Baltimore City, but it wasn’t just in Baltimore City and what was really, really crazy is sometimes the data would just have “Anonymous,” it wouldn’t even have a name of the person.
Abby: The person who was killed?
Jill: Yes! So, I talked to the ACLU and said, “You guys have to start taking on this issue of law enforcement reform, at the very least they should not be killing people.” If someone does something wrong, they should arrest them, death should not be the result.
We just passed the death penalty repeal, and so the argument was that we don’t have the death penalty here, and so this is pre-adjudication, and that’s why they call them extra-judicial killings. We as a state have decided that we reject the idea of a death penalty, but we’re allowing people on the streets in uniform with guns to kill people.
So, that was the thing that got me. And then, Christopher Brown happened some time subsequent to that. He was a teenager in Baltimore County, and he was a beautiful young man who was in ROTC, played football, good student. I spoke with his mother who reminded me that we were in elementary school together, and I asked her how could I help and she said, “Well you know, the thing that troubles me is that they used a chokehold on my son, which is a policy that they’re not supposed to use. And we’ve been unable to get information on the officer statements.” So, that whole issue of the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights and the length of time that they have before they have to speak, that came up in that discussion.
It took us two years, but we got Christopher’s Law passed. I named the bill after Christopher Brown, it was important to me to humanize a Black young man in our state that was killed by law enforcement. This was a bill that required enhanced training in diversity, use of force, life-saving skills, and handling issues with persons with disabilities. Then I went on to push modifying the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights in various ways, like how long an officer has to talk. I’m very much a proponent of allowing other entities to investigate the police, not just inside, internal investigations.
Jill: I think that there should be outside, independent investigations and those should be civilian-led. Before it became popular, the idea of having civilians on the trial boards was one of the things that I pushed for. It’s happened now, but in a very one-and-done fashion.
Now here’s what’s interesting, we did this for two years. The second year we thought we were gonna get it passed because we had a lot of support, we had mothers and families come to Annapolis to testify about their experience with law enforcement, many had lost children at the hands of law enforcement. I really thought because we had built a coalition, we had all these advocacy groups and all this strong testimony, that we were gonna get it passed, and I was informed at the end of session that the Speaker was not gonna allow any of these bills to pass, and I was devastated, really.
And then, very short time out of session, Freddie Gray happened. The leaders of the body pulled together a legislative workgroup. And they basically looked at the bills that I had pushed that didn’t pass, put them in front of the workgroup, watered them down, and then passed something to say we did something. But I was excluded from the workgroup, intentionally —
Abby: Oh wow!
Jill: — so it was after that I decided to leave the legislature. That wasn’t the sole reason, but it was the last straw. I was out for two years, I was Director of Civil Rights and then I was pushed to run for Senate last year because people didn’t wanna see O’Malley’s son-in-law be the Senator of our district. So, that’s how I came to the Senate.
And thank goodness. I’m happy, I like the Senate better. The culture is changing in the General Assembly, it’s much better than it was when I was starting out and for most of the time I was there. The change of the Speaker and the Senate President for two things, the change in the Baltimore delegation. The Baltimore delegation in the House was a nightmare for me when I was there, and now you look and you have the wonderful Stephanie Smith that’s the new chair, and Melissa Wells. When I was there, it was solely oppressive to me, the elder legislators were hostile. So, it’s completely changing.
Abby: I’m really, really glad to hear that. One more question, what do you wanna do in Congress?
Jill: Oh my goodness. This is gonna sound maybe trite, but it’s true, I want the people to have a champion. I was a little girl when I campaigned for Parren J. Mitchell [the first African-American elected to Congress from Maryland] and what he represented to our community at the time was hope, someone that lifted people up, someone that made people feel proud, someone that made people in communities feel that they had an advocate and a champion in the Congress.
In addition to the fact that he actually used his position as a very strong, articulate, civil rights minded person, he was a Democrat but something of an independent. He was not the type of person to go there and just follow the lead of whoever was in leadership, which is the same kind of legislator I’ve been. He left the Congress every night from Washington and he came to Baltimore and walked the streets of his neighborhood, he walked West Baltimore, he talked to people on the street, he tried to find out what people’s needs were, if he could help them, get them jobs.
He talked about, near the end of his career, how he actually had to stop doing it at the end because the problems were too many, the needs were too great, the lack of employment was too great, and it was just too much. He couldn’t help enough people.
The point is, we haven’t had that type of representation in a long time. Even though we’ve had people who’ve had their strengths, like Elijah Cummings, the truth is, this concept of fighting for equity, of putting the needs of your constituents first, before what the agenda in the legislative body is, whether it’s Annapolis or Washington, is something that we need.
I do think there are a lot of smart people in the race for Congress, but my concern is that they won’t be able to withstand the seduction of the powerbrokers. And I know this because I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years, and you can tell it’s difficult to do. But we need someone who will do it, we need someone who will stand up and fight for us, and not just the regular establishment Democrat who’s down there to suck up to leadership so they can get a better office space or a better committee assignment.
I’m already over my word-count, and have limited time to get this out before I go camping for a few days in a location without internet service, so this week I’m afraid we’re skipping the cultural event and green event of the week sections. Find your own fun, friends!