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On a hot August afternoon in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, Neal Carter unlocks the door to an empty row house along a street that saw rioting after Freddie Gray’s funeral in 2015. “Most people here see this every day," says Mr. Carter, gesturing to the wreckage inside. "So sometimes it’s hard to even think about hope.” The grim mood stands in contrast to the nationwide narrative about Democratic excitement ahead of the midterms. A record number of women, minority, and LGBTQ candidates who speak to the Democratic Party’s younger, more diverse base have stunned incumbents in primary races. Headlines this week have celebrated Massachusetts' Ayanna Pressley, who beat 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano and is now set to become the first black woman to represent the Bay State in Congress. But places like Sandtown highlight just how big a challenge it will be to generate similar enthusiasm on a statewide scale. To win by appealing to the Democratic base instead of hewing to the middle, candidates need first to convince those constituencies that their votes will make a difference – even when there's a history of evidence to suggest otherwise.
In April 2016, one year after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, church elder Clyde William “C.W.” Harris climbed to the roof of his office building in West Baltimore and refused to come down. He would stay put, he announced, until at least 500 people voted in the city’s mayoral primary, set to take place in just over a week.
“I stayed on the roof for four nights and five days,” Mr. Harris, pastor at Newborn Communities of Faith, says with a note of pride.
This year, Harris may need to do more than hold a rooftop vigil to get his congregants to the polls. At stake in November’s midterms is the chance to elect Maryland’s first black governor and a window for Democrats to retake a majority in Congress. But turnout requires hope, and in the swath of Baltimore that Harris both serves and calls home – the same community where Mr. Gray was arrested and died three years ago, and where the violent protests that followed took place – hopes are not at their highest.
For Harris's neighbors, the 2016 elections not only replaced a beloved president in Barack Obama; it also brought an unpopular candidate to the White House. The adjacent and almost entirely black neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester, Upton, Druid Heights, and Penn-North went heavily for Hillary Clinton. In two precincts here, President Trump received no votes at all.
Locally, residents say that new leadership in City Hall and at the police department has led to little change for the better over the past three years. None of the officers who arrested Gray were convicted, and all six were put back on duty last November. Incomes are still low, unemployment is still high, and drugs are everywhere. At the parking lot of Avenue Market, where Harris sits in his pickup describing the plight of his neighborhood, a man in a nearby car nods frantically at his steering wheel – a symptom, Harris says, of fentanyl use.
“We have for years been the caboose, the tail end of all the struggles, the forgotten community,” he says. “I understand the reason why folk aren’t voting.”
The grim mood in this corner of Baltimore stands in contrast to the nationwide narrative about Democratic excitement ahead of the midterms. A record number of women, minority, and LGBTQ candidates who speak to the Democratic Party’s younger, more diverse base have stunned incumbents and moderates in primary races across the country – from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th district to Andrew Gillum in Florida’s gubernatorial primary.
This week the headlines belong to Ayanna Pressley, who beat staunch liberal and 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano by 18 points. Running unopposed in November, she is now set to become the first black woman representative Massachusetts has ever sent to Congress.
Those victories have bolstered a growing school of thought within the party that, strategically, it makes more sense for Democrats to work on generating higher turnout among the base rather than trying to appeal to moderate swing voters. As with Ms. Pressley, many upsets have come in Democratic strongholds where the primary – not the general election – is where the winner is decided.
But pulling off a win on the strength of the minority vote in a congressional district primary is a far cry from doing it statewide.
In Florida, Mr. Gillum is facing a candidate who is as far right as he is left, in a swing state that’s been run by Republican governors for nearly two decades. Stacey Abrams, a moderate who could become the first black woman to lead Georgia, is also facing an uphill climb in the ruby-red state. Ben Jealous, the progressive gubernatorial candidate here in Maryland, is facing a GOP incumbent who remains popular with state Democrats. Governor Hogan is running 14.5 percentage points ahead of Mr. Jealous, the former head of the NAACP, in the Real Clear Politics rolling average of polls.
Places like Sandtown-Winchester highlight just how big a challenge it will be to generate Democrat enthusiasm on a statewide scale. To win by appealing to the Democratic Party’s liberal, majority-minority base instead of hewing to the middle, candidates need first to convince those constituencies that their votes will make a difference – even when there's a history of evidence to suggest otherwise.
“If I was a candidate, I would be showing the receipts, like, ‘During Freddie Gray, this is where I was. During hurricane Harvey in Houston, this is where I was,’ ” says Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies race and inequality, in a phone interview. “There better be proof that you can bring hope and leverage your power in times of struggle.”
Among the most persistent narratives following the 2016 election was the drop in black voter turnout and its devastating consequences for the Clinton campaign. The 7-percentage-point decline between 2012 and 2016 is the largest on record for black voters, the Pew Research Center reported. In Maryland, where African-Americans make up 30 percent of the population, turnout soared during early voting – and then slumped on Election Day to 66 percent, the lowest the state has seen in a presidential year since 1992.
Maryland (and Baltimore County) still went to Mrs. Clinton. But the broader issue of black voter turnout led to questions, and criticisms, about the Democratic Party’s ability to retain a constituency that has supported it since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
“A lot of Democrats ask for black votes during a campaign but don’t do a good enough job listening to black voices once they’re in office,” notes former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau in an episode of his podcast, “The Wilderness.” “It’s understandable why people of color would lose faith in a political system that continually fails them ... especially when it sometimes seems like the party that’s supposed to represent them takes them for granted.”
Sandtown-Winchester reflects that reality. Households in this 72-block neighborhood earn roughly 60 percent of Baltimore’s median income of $41,800. In 2017, the homicide rate was more than twice that of the city. Drug and alcohol abuse was the third leading cause of death. Everywhere, crumbling buildings and “abandominiums” stare out at a shrinking population.
On a hot August afternoon, Neal Carter unlocks the door to an empty row house along a street that saw rioting after Gray’s funeral in 2015. Mr. Carter, a local entrepreneur and community advocate, plans to restore the space and rent it out, as he has with half a dozen or so other properties in the neighborhood. But for now, the place is a gutted mess: Wooden beams trail from the ceiling to the pitted floor, and a pile of what looks like ash or dirt blocks a hallway.
“Most people here see this every day,” Carter says, gesturing at the wreckage. It’s his answer to a question on how his neighbors are feeling about creating change by casting votes. “They see this every day, so sometimes it’s hard to even think about hope.”
Some candidates understand the need to address that sense of despair – and have drawn from their own experiences to do so. “When I was growing up, my mother and I felt voiceless and invisible, but she made sure I knew that on Election Day we were powerful,” Pressley said during her speech accepting the Democratic nomination.
Still, Sandtown is a reminder that not every black vote is guaranteed, even when the candidate is also black.
“We’re not a monolith although we vote monolithically. There is an apparatus that low-income blacks do not feel a part of,” says Mr. Perry of the Brookings Institution. “If you want to see a strong [turnout], you have to speak very plainly about community needs and not shy away from saying that black people” – and poor black communities in particular – “need x, y, and z.”
In the ring
No one knows those needs better than the community itself.
On Pennsylvania Avenue, just steps from the building where Harris, the pastor, held his rooftop protest, Calvin Ford has been running a boxing gym for about 15 years. A Baltimore native, Mr. Ford spent his own youth as a lieutenant for the Boardley-Burrows drug organization in the 1980s. Today his students often show up to the gym hungry, without clothes, or with stories about relatives dealing drugs or friends getting killed. He sees the Upton Boxing Center as a place where those kids can work through trauma, find stability, and engage in community issues.
“A friend of mine told me the reason why politicians don’t pay attention to your kids is because they don't vote,” Ford says. “If I start to train the kids to start talking like that, if I start bringing them guys that can teach them about politics and that show them how politics works, then that gives them a voice.”
It’s folks like Ford – and the work they do – whom candidates will need to tap into if they want to revive the black vote in November, both analysts and activists say. “It’s important that whoever’s running for office take time, energy, and effort to meet the people where they are,” says Nykidra Robinson, founder and executive director of Black Girls Vote, a Baltimore nonprofit. “It’s going there and talking to people who are in need of help and in need of hope.”
The No Boundaries Coalition, also headquartered on Pennsylvania Avenue, focuses specifically on voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, making sure that people have what they need to get to the polls and understand how their vote could affect their lives. In 2016, the organization helped boost turnout in the neighborhood from 7 percent in 2014 to just under 30 percent, the local NPR station reports.
Harris also plans to “take souls to the polls” on Election Day. The pastor has applied for a $5,000 municipal grant to rent vans to bus people to and from polling stations on Nov. 6. If the funding doesn’t pan out, he says, he’ll lean on the goodwill of volunteers. “We will express ourselves nonviolently by pushing down that lever,” he says.
“So many people died in the struggle to have the right to vote,” Harris adds, as he watches as a small group of volunteers hand out bananas, granola bars, and chicken soup to a gathering crowd outside Avenue Market. “We need to honor that. For us to ignore that – sitting down, not going to the polls – is unacceptable.”