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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Jeff Barker

Baltimore is a wild card in US Senate race so far lacking a hometown candidate

BALTIMORE — From the owner’s box at Camden Yards, David Trone gazed out at the crowd — a sea of Orioles fans in orange and black — and pronounced himself one of them.

“We grew up all our lives rooting for the Orioles,” the 67-year-old congressman, who was raised in Pennsylvania near the Maryland border, said at the team’s sold-out home opener last month.

As the Orioles sought to dispatch the New York Yankees, Trone had his own mission inside the two-level VIP suite: to shore up his Baltimore bona fides as he prepared to campaign for the U.S. Senate in next year’s Democratic primary.

The race to succeed retiring Sen. Ben Cardin, 79, is notable not only for who is in it — Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, 52, and Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando, 40, are among the other Democratic contenders — but who is not. Unlike in previous Senate elections, there is no candidate so far from Baltimore, the state’s largest city, or the surrounding area.

As the campaign begins to ramp up, the Democratic-rich Baltimore region is a highly coveted wild card. The candidates from around the state are seeking to adopt Baltimore or, more importantly, have Baltimore adopt them.

“The truth of the matter is Baltimore’s success is connected so closely to Maryland’s success,” Alsobrooks said Thursday in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. “I have a lot of friends in Baltimore. I attended law school in Baltimore.”

Interviewed the same day, Trone, who represents part of Montgomery County and Western Maryland, said: “Baltimore is simply the most important thing in the entire race.”

Baltimore has had at least one senator for 46 years. While the late Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who served from 1977 until 2007, was born in the Eastern Shore city of Salisbury, he worked an attorney in Baltimore and represented the area in the General Assembly and the U.S. House before joining the U.S. Senate. Hometown Democrat Barbara Mikulski, a former U.S. House member and Baltimore City Council member, took office in 1987. She went on to become the longest-serving woman in Senate history until California Democrat Dianne Feinstein surpassed her record last year. By the time Mikulski retired in 2017, Cardin — who lives in Pikesville — had been in the Senate for 10 years and established himself as a staunch Baltimore defender known for his attention to infrastructure, small business and the Chesapeake Bay.

The 2024 race kicked off just under three weeks ago, when Cardin announced he wouldn’t run again. The filing deadline is Feb. 9 for the May 14 primary, however, which leaves plenty of time for candidates to enter — or leave — the race.

At this early stage, the candidates are mostly focused on introducing themselves to statewide voters.

On Wednesday night, Trone, Alsobrooks and Jawando were given two minutes apiece to address a Democratic fundraiser sponsored by an Asian American Pacific Islander political organization.

Audience members, who dined on Chinese food at a Gaithersburg restaurant, cheered loudly for Democratic Gov. Wes Moore, the headliner, and were comparatively subdued when the Senate contenders took the microphone.

Trone, who has emphasized combating fentanyl overdoses and improving access to mental health care, highlighted his Washington experience. “In the U.S. Senate, we can work across the aisle to get more stuff done. We’ve built those relationships,” he said.

Alsobrooks, a former Prince George’s County state’s attorney, said her county administration has invested heavily “in communities that have been left behind,” worked to end food deserts, and broken ground on new schools.

Jawando, whose father came to the United States after fleeing civil war in Nigeria in 1970, spoke about the power of diversity.

“When you think about Maryland, you think about this room. It’s about truth, the truth of coming from another country, and becoming successful here in this country,” he said.

Cardin has not endorsed a possible successor. “I am extremely confident we will hold the seat,” he said of Democrats, who have a better than 2-to-1 voter registration advantage in Maryland.

Democrats hold a 51-49 voting majority in the U.S. Senate.

U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, has not said yet if he will join. He’s holding a splashy online fundraiser Tuesday with guitarist Steven Van Zandt that he is promoting as a reelection event.

Former two-term Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has repeatedly said he is not interested in pursuing the seat, although he hasn’t definitively ruled it out.

Democrat Jerome Segal, a Montgomery County activist, is also in the race, along with Democrat Steven Seuferer of Montgomery County, Republicans Ray Bly of Howard County and Robin Ficker of Montgomery, and Moshe Y. Landman, a Green Party candidate from Montgomery.

Baltimore has fewer registered voters than Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, but “what’s consequential is that it’s so overwhelmingly Democratic,” said Larry Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor who taught Alsobrooks when she was a student there and supports her candidacy.

“In a Democratic primary, it’s even more powerful than in a general election,” Gibson said.

It’s no coincidence that Trone’s introductory campaign ads depict downtown Baltimore images, such as street scenes and a faded bench depicting the slogan: “Baltimore. Greatest City in America.”

“We’re making a very intentional effort to be in Baltimore County, Baltimore City, aiming for twice a week on average,” Trone said of his upcoming appearances.

Trone, a third-term representative in the 6th Congressional District, is the founder of the Total Wine & More store chain. He poured more than $12 million into his 2022 contest against Republican Del. Neil Parrott and says he will tap his ample personal resources in the Senate race, as well.

Alsobrooks had to start fundraising from scratch since her local campaign funds cannot be used to run for federal office.

If elected, she would be the first Black woman to represent Maryland in the U.S. Senate. Her campaign has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, which helps elect women who support abortion rights.

Alsobrooks clerked in the circuit courts of Howard County and Baltimore City after law school — ”I am no stranger to Baltimore,” she said — and has sought to broaden her support in the Baltimore metropolitan area through a string of endorsements.

“Baltimore is an interesting place because there is no one that quite literally controls different groups of political organizations throughout Baltimore and Baltimore County, no one politician that people look to for guidance and direction,” said Anthony McCarthy, a Democratic operative with long ties to city politics.

“The one individual that may have a certain amount of significance in Baltimore is Kweisi Mfume,” McCarthy said, referring to the Democratic U.S. House representative whom he helped get elected in 2020. Mfume previously served in the House for five terms until leaving in 1996 to become president of the NAACP.

Mfume endorsed Alsobrooks at her May 9 campaign announcement in Prince George’s County.

“It did strike me early on that [Baltimore] would not have what it usually had, which was representation in the Senate,” Mfume said in an interview Thursday.

But he said he believed in Alsobrooks’ “intellect and her ability to connect with regular people,” and that the city will continue to be well served in Washington and Annapolis, where Moore, Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, all Democrats, have strong ties to Baltimore.

Neither Moore nor Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott have made endorsements, and aides won’t say if any are coming.

Alsobrooks endorsed Moore early in the 2022 gubernatorial primary and she threw the weight of her campaign operation behind him in Prince George’s, a county that’s home to the largest number of Democratic voters in the state. Unlike Scott, Moore is not a Baltimore native, but he was a student-athlete at Johns Hopkins University and was living in the city and raising a family here before moving to Government House in Annapolis.

Alsobrooks has also received endorsements from Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

The latter is serving a second term as county executive. Olszewski considered running for the Senate himself, which would have made him the Baltimore candidate, but on Monday opted out of the race and endorsed Alsobrooks.

Olszewski said he worked closely with Alsobrooks as a fellow county executive on relief measures during the coronavirus pandemic and expected to appear with her in campaign appearances in the months ahead.

Olszewski said Baltimore County will be an important battleground because it is the state’s third most populous county and is not overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican.

“I think we are trending Democrat, but we are still a purple county,” Olszewski said.

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