One Baltimore #42, Elections in the Time of COVID-19

5/25/20

Sorry about the ten-week hiatus just now. Can you believe it’s almost June?

There’s been a lot I’ve wanted to say, but I just haven’t been able, for a lot of reasons. Long story short, my day job morphed and fused with my activist life in a way that’s been uncomfortable (getting better) but productive. I ran myself ragged for a good five weeks, and then got knocked out for a weekend by an acute bout of gastrointestinal distress (was it COVID? stress? did the leftover lamb from Passover go bad? who’s to say).

I evened out after that. Started sleeping regular-ish hours, going on walks in the park sometimes. I started re-sharing my previous columns on politics, explaining that I was gearing up to regular publishing again.

Am I though? I’m honestly not sure that I’m up to it. It’s a lot of sustained focus every week, and things are still pretty intense. So… we’ll play it by ear. Maybe start with irregular publishing.

I needed to at least get something out this week though. After a long delay (did you know that the President of the city’s Board of Elections is a Republican? I don’t know the man, but it kinda makes you wonder if he wants us to vote…), we finally have our mail-in ballots in hand for the June 2nd primary election (if you don’t yet, contact absentee.SBE@maryland.gov or 1-800-222-8683 ASAP). Some people have already sent theirs in! Ongoing pandemic or not, personal crisis of public identity or not, the time is now or never to get on the record about the candidates.

So here it is — when I take the time to sit down with a pen (a black pen, gotta remember to not screw that up), it’s gonna be Sanders for Prez, Jill Carter for Congress, Brandon Scott for Mayor, Bill Henry for Comptroller, Shannon Sneed for City Council Prez, and Joe Kane for the 14th Council district. Oh, and I’m NOT filling in the bubble for Sylvester B. Cox, who sentenced Keith Davis, Jr. to 50 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit (https://one-baltimore.org/2020/03/09/one-baltimore-40-the-sentencing/), for Judge of the 8th Circuit Court.

You can find my writings on Carter, Henry, and Kane, as well as a few of the mayoral candidates, here: https://one-baltimore.org/category/bmoreelections2020/. But for now, in the time we have left, let’s talk more about the mayoral race. I don’t think its potential importance to our city can be overstated.

Consider the COVID-19 crisis. The Mayor has to decide how to deploy the resources of the city agencies and coffers, how to support the hungry and homeless, who’s essential and who’s not, whether we’re opening up along with the rest of the state or not, and a thousand other things. And I don’t even want to think about what all this means for our already precarious municipal budget. Whoever leads us through these next four years is going to be a big piece of the story of how we recover — or don’t.

My plan was to restart publication last week by finishing my interview with mayoral candidate Rikki Vaughn (first half here: https://one-baltimore.org/2020/03/16/one-baltimore-41-rikki-vaughn-part-one/), but then Rikki dropped out of the race. I was still deep in the editing process, and I had a choice — finish the time-intensive work despite the fact that it was no longer relevant to the outcome, or put my energy elsewhere. I opted for the latter, and I gotta admit that my decision was driven in part by frustration with Rikki for announcing that he was backing Thiru Vignarajah for Mayor, in part on the basis, he told me, that Thiru had offered him a job in the mayor’s office.

Thiru… Thiru is a piece of shit. I very much do not want Sheila Dixon as mayor again, as I’ve written about at length (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/12/16/one-baltimore-28-corruption-competence/), but I would take her in a heartbeat over Thiru, without reservation. Dixon is a crook, but as far as I know she’s never dedicated herself to keeping a very-probably-innocent man in jail, like Thiru has with Adnan Syed.

For those not familiar with Adnan’s story, I’ll give you the highlights. In 1999, Adnan Syed was 17 years old. He went to Woodlawn High (coincidentally both the school Thiru attended and my own local school, which I attended for three months before transferring to a magnet arts school), along with his ex-girlfriend, 18 year old Hae Min Lee. Hae Min went missing, and her body was found in Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park a month later. The cops zeroed in on Adnan as their suspect.

The state’s extremely flimsy case against Adnan was based on two things. First, the wildly inconsistent testimony of a drug dealer who has only changed his story more over time as he’s also admitted more about the level of pressure he was under from the police (https://www.vox.com/2014/12/31/7472965/jays-interview-adnan-serial). Second, cell phone tower pings supposedly revealing the location of Adnan’s phone at the time of the murder, which the very expert who testified against Adnan at trial now says are not reliable in the way he had thought at the time (https://relevantmagazine.com/culture/serial-development-cell-phone-expert-who-testified-against-adnan-now-says-data-was/). It’s worth noting that cell phone tower pings, a very controversial form of evidence, were also critical to the case against Keith Davis, Jr.

Adnan and his supporters have been fighting for his freedom for the last 21 years. A cornerstone of their argument is that Adnan’s defense attorney, Cristina Guttierez, was incompetent (she was, in fact, disbarred just two years later) due to the fact that she failed to follow up with Asia McClain, a fellow student who reached out to Adnan of her own accord as an alibi witness, explaining in a hand-written letter that he could not possibly be the killer, because she had spoken with him at the very time the state claims the murder was taking place. McClain, who maintains her credible and consistent story to this day, never got the chance to be heard before a jury.

For a while, things were looking up for Adnan. In 2016, his conviction was vacated! But the Maryland Attorney General’s office appealed the decision, so he continued to languish in prison for years as the courts fought over whether or not he would get a new trial. The man leading the fight to make sure he didn’t: Thiru Vignarajah, then the Deputy Attorney General for the state. Thiru even kept up his role in the case after he transitioned to private practice, acting as a “Special Assistant Attorney General” in legal filings, despite no longer working in the AG’s office (https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/serial-baltimore-states-attorney-race-could-mean-freedom-for-adnan-syed-630462/). In the end, Adnan lost his bid for another chance to make the state prove that he is in fact the murderer they claim him to be.

At the end of the day, I look at all the facts in Adnan’s case and come away with the clear impression of an innocent man. Others see it differently, I get that, but as to whether or not he deserves a retrial? That seems incontrovertible to me. Anyone interested in justice, when looking at how it all went down, should say “ok, that’s a do-over.” For Thiru to take it upon himself to fight tooth and nail to stop this second shot at justice just because it could make the state look bad… that’s not someone I want in any sort of position of power.

All of this barely scratches the surface of the problems with Thiru’s candidacy. He’s being pushed heavily by our local Sinclair Media-owned Fox outlet (https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/columnists/zurawik/bs-ed-zontv-vignarajah-miller-wbff-20200513-uqx2mp7vpndlngv3gebwg3rh6q-story.html), he’s being heavily funded by the Texas millionaires who are funding the spy plane (https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/baltimore-mayoral-candidate-thiru-vignarajah-nets-thousands-at-fundraiser-hosted-by-surveillance-plane-backers/ar-BBXnAZO), he asks for and receives special treatment by the cops (https://www.thesuiterfiles.com/post/thiru-on-greenmount). I could go on but you get the picture. I not just don’t trust him, I think he’s actively dangerous and he terrifies me.

Luckily, according to the most recent polls, Thiru isn’t in the lead. Instead, it appears to be a roughly three-way tie between Dixon, Mary Miller, and Brandon Scott (https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/elections/bs-pr-pol-mayoral-poll-20200520-4bcqt5gccnd3jf6xc6lswfagne-story.html). Of course, the bulk of voters still list themselves as undecided, so anything could happen. For instance, maybe the Dixon-mobiles going around blaring campaign slogans will drag down her support (I finally encountered one of those ridiculous things the other day, I could hardly believe it! so cheesy!).

What I very much hope will happen is that voters will think hard about the choices and collectively decide that Brandon Scott is our man. He’s the only one that makes any sense to me out of the choices remaining (with the exception of Dante Swinton, but I’m sorry, we don’t have ranked choice voting yet and I gotta think about the numbers at play here). While I don’t trust any politician… being an actor, you learn how easy it is to fake being a good person, and, being an activist, you learn how often that turns out to be exactly what they’re doing… I think that I could, given time, really believe in him.

One notable example of Scott doing the right thing is his stance on ending gag orders. He sponsored the legislation that finally ended the city’s practice of routinely silencing victims of police brutality, going head to head with Mayor Young in order to do so (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/09/09/one-baltimore-17-voices/). He came to our New Year’s Day Speak-Out Session about the bill and read an anonymous victim’s story. At that event, he didn’t say his own name once, even though the race was very much underway by then. I really appreciated that.

Ultimately, though, I’m taking my cue from others on this one. I don’t know Scott terribly well, but people I trust do, and the verdict is generally glowing. I’ve seen a few valid criticisms here and there, like the fact that he gave not-great-dude Yitzy Schleifer chairmanship of the Committee on Public Safety (I’m listening to a podcast on the French Revolution right now, and if it teaches us anything, it’s that we should pay attention to who we put on any committees with that name…). But overall, I’ve found that those who’ve worked closely with him, even those with gripes, think he’s the leader we need.

Since I’ve relied so much on other people’s words to guide me in this, I thought I’d share some from friends who agreed to be quoted:

“Pros: Committed to transparency and ending corruption in city government including restructuring city government to reduce his own powers as mayor. Fresh ideas and well thought out and presented plans. Calm, thoughtful demeanor. Unlike several of the other candidates, he has NOT already proven himself untrustworthy. Cons: Not many that I can find, unless you consider his young age a “con”. I do not. Some feel not enough experience, but he’s been on city council and serving as president for several years, I believe. Seems reasonable experience to me. Some have said he is not “hands on” enough in the neighborhoods, but I don’t have any examples of that…just what I’ve heard others say. I like him…Far more than any of the others.” — Gayle Weaver Harrod

I found Gayle’s point about Scott’s attempts to reduce the outsized power of the Mayor (https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-pol-board-of-estimates-20200128-pcblws45ifcb3jmflbga2gn5oa-story.html) to be particularly compelling. What sort of man lessens the authority of the office he’s (hopefully) about to take? Perhaps, one who wants to lead but who truly isn’t just seeking power for himself. That would be a pretty rare man.

[in response to the point that Scott is pushing for safe consumption sites in Baltimore] “While this is true and incredible, I actually think the element that recommends Brandon for the job most is his evolution on this issue. He came into the council treating addiction as mostly a criminal justice issue because as he says in the recent Sun article, he was taught to see drug users as criminals but over the years he has grown tremendously and evolved on this (and other) issues and now understands drug use is primarily a public health issue and has come to support SCSs. It’s rare to see a leader change their mind and even more rare to admit they were incorrect. I find this super impressive.” — Josh Greenfeld

This is another one that struck me, for exactly the reasons that Josh cites in the last two sentences there. Again, a politician is a politician, but we may just have someone special on our hands with Scott.

I cannot beLIEVE I’m going to wrap this up without even getting into the also-super-important City Council President’s race, so I’ll just say this… no more Mosbys.

And hey, it’s good to be back. Thanks for reading. ❤

#OneBaltimore #BaltimoreMayoralRace

COVID-19 Resources of the Week: Let’s talk testing! Is it possible to get it? Maybe! It depends.
Using this hotline number — 410-601-2222 — I found that someone who’d had contact with someone who’d tested positive or had symptoms was eligible to get tested at Pimlico racetrack, but not someone who was a degree of separation away from that.

Same for this CVS testing service — https://www.cvs.com/minuteclinic/covid-19-testing — currently at least, you can get it if you’ve been exposed, but otherwise it’s a no.

But, ding ding ding, then there’s Rite Aid — https://www.projectbaseline.com/study/covid-19/. I took their survey and said no to everything. No, I haven’t had contact with anyone positive, no I don’t have any symptoms, no I don’t have a referral from my doctor, and yet I got scheduled for a test later this week! I’ll let you know how it goes!

Stay safe, y’all.

Strips cut out from the political mailers my household has received recently, ranked in order of preference.

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