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7.16.22 – Washington Post — 

Crime in Baltimore and beyond has become a top issue in the governor’s race in Maryland, a stark departure in a wealthy, highly-educated state where the economy and education usually draw the most voter attention.

Even before the mass shootings in Highland Park, Ill., Uvalde, Tex., and Buffalo, persistent gun violence in Baltimore and beyond were reshaping the debate in the gubernatorial primary as frustrated residents pressed candidates to push beyond thoughts, prayers and talking points and provide solutions.

“We can’t keep doing what we’re doing,” said Marvin “Doc” Cheatham Sr., 71, a community activist and president of the Matthew Henson Neighborhood Association in Baltimore, who sponsored a candidate’s forum last month.

Recent high-profile incidents thrust the wreckage and root causes of shootings into candidates’ laps as they struggle to break through in an election where many voters remain undecided headed into the final stretch, shifting the focus and tenor of the governor’s race: a gunman sprayed 60 rounds from an assault weapon in Northeast Baltimore, killing a man in his mid-20s; a bullet ricocheted into the home of an 83-year-old women as she lay in bed; a 15-year-old allegedly opened fire in downtown Baltimore, killing one teen, injuring two others, sending hundreds scrambling for cover.

The tension has echoes in races up and down the ballot nationally and comes against a backdrop of urgency and consequential bipartisan federal action on firearms last month. Tough-on-crime messaging, a hallmark of 1990s-era politics driven by fallout from the “war on Drugs,” is reverberating through midterm races across the country as cities face upticks in gun violence and homicide rates, squeezing Democrats caught between promises of advancing social justice and reducing violence.

Democratic candidates vyingto succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who sparred with city leaders on crime as he sought to elevate his national profile ahead of a potential presidential run, have been talking about crime with more urgency, and in some cases, more aggressively, than in past election cycles. One candidate suggested declaring a state of emergency in Baltimore. Another, who wants to hire more officers, launched a campaign ad that some voters described as fearmongering. The ad opens with a hooded carjacker wielding a crowbar, banging on a windshield and startling a woman at a red light.

“I have the experience and plan to tackle crime now,” former Maryland attorney general Douglas Gansler, who has made crime fighting a central plank of his campaign, said in the ad. Gansler, who trails in polling, fought back against criticism over his ad, saying “with almost 3,000 people killed in Baltimore City alone during this administration, this is not a scare tactic. This is real.”

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Gun violence — a category that includes homicides and nonfatal shootings — jumped 10 percent in Baltimore since last July 2, while overall violent crime ticked up six percent, Baltimore Police Department data show. Meanwhile, the Anne Arundel police chief called for an “all-hands-on-deck approach” this month after a recent string of shootings in the suburbs of Baltimore. Last month, a gunman killed three people at a factory in Smithsburg, near the Pennsylvania border.Statewide crime tallies for 2021 are not publicly available, and data across jurisdictions show spikes in some categories and dips in others. For example, in Prince George’s County, homicides and nonfatal shootings dropped but carjackings soared year-over-year, while neighboring Montgomery County saw relatively flat rates of gun-related homicide and nonfatal shootings rose 75 percent.

“We’re watching crime that feels like it’s more brazen, and we’re watching … answers that feel more elusive,” said best-selling author and former nonprofit chief Wes Moore, one of three front-runners in the Democratic primary. Moore said voters are increasingly becoming aware of the state’s role in addressing the problem and what he described as Hogan’s failure to partner with city leaders — a characterization the governor’s spokesman contested, citing funding for police, crime control, victim services and community-based programs.

Two years ago, following protests after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Democrats were discussing ways to rethink policing and to ensure that police are held accountable for misconduct. Now candidates to lead a state that passed sweeping police reforms want voters to know that their support for social justice does not mean they are soft on crime.

“We can’t have people dragged out of their cars and have their cars stolen at intersections,” said state Comptroller Peter Franchot, who is in a horse race with Moore and former U.S. labor secretary Tom Perez for the Democratic nomination in the 10-person field. “You can’t have a buoyant economy in the state of Maryland if people don’t feel safe in their communities.”

Franchot, who said he would have “zero tolerance for any kind of violent crime” and “zero tolerance for wrongful misconduct by police,” plans to deploy state police to bolster police presence in select neighborhoods.

Moore recently called on Hogan to immediately fill the more than 100 open state Department of Parole and Probation jobs. City leaders said last year that 1 in 3 suspects in nonfatal shootings and homicides are either on parole or probation, under the state purview. He also wants to increase funding for community violence prevention groups.

“We have to actually build strong partnerships across state and local and federal law enforcement agencies to be able to track and trace and solve these gun crimes,” said Moore,who while campaigning mentioned attending the funeral of a friend’s brother who was shot recently in a case of mistaken identity. “And we’ve got to get these guns off the streets. That is how you’re going [to] actually stop [crime] from happening before it even happens.”

Perez said a “true partnership has been absent” between the state and local leaders. He said the state has a legal responsibility to address the failings of its department. As a former federal prosecutor, Perez said, he would work with former colleagues at Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to deal with illegal guns and would create a statewide violence prevention coordinator.

John B. King Jr., who is endorsed by Our Revolution Maryland and other left-leaning organizations, agreed with a need for greater oversight from parole and probation and advocated for “policing plus” mental health services, addiction treatment and job training.

But he cautioned against a return to an old way of thinking on solutions, which fueled Maryland’s high incarceration rates and ultimately left the state leading the country in its percentage of people serving life sentences who are Black.

Gansler’s own ticket encapsulates the complexity of the issue.

He wants to hire 1,000 new officers statewide, install 10,000 new lights on Baltimore city streets and get illegal guns off the streets. His running mate, Candace Hollingsworth, founded a political party, Our Black Party, whose platform includes “defund the police.”

Gansler, who is endorsed by the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #4, said he and Hollingsworth share a vision to make the state “safer, stronger” and their platform “builds accountability, ensures that law enforcement agencies have the resources they need to address violent crime, establish stronger community connections and invests deeply in the additional resources that communities need that prevent crime from happening in the first place.

“Black communities deserve to be safe from violent crime and they also deserve to be safe from those responsible for protecting them,” he said in an emailed statement.

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That sentiment echoes a message that Rushern L. Baker III hammered during his short-lived time on the trail. Baker called for a state of emergency and deploying the National Guard in Baltimore. His first campaign ad complained of inaction, asserting that Black men were being “slaughtered,” and “because they’re Black, nobody in power gives a damn.”

Hogan has repeatedly said Baltimore residents, including its Black residents, are fed up with feeling unsafe, citing his internal polls as evidence of support for his crime-fighting legislative package that included tougher sentencing for repeat violent offenders.

“It’s outrageous,” he said during a recent appearance on WBAL radio. In “Baltimore, they just continue to have no accountability whatsoever for their actions.”

Several Baltimore residents said they have objected to the city being used as a political tool by Hogan and in past years by former president Donald Trump.

“I don’t like how he talks about Baltimore,” Rita Crews, a community association president in Belair in Northeast Baltimore, said of Hogan, who is finishing up his second and final term in office. “Stop talking nationally about Baltimore City and talk to us first before deciding this is what Baltimore needs. He’s not in the trenches with us. He doesn’t walk in our shoes.”

Crews said she would like to see a strategy that includes ensuring that police officers “are trained in being compassionate and caring for the community, not just out to make an arrest. Some people have mental illnesses. They don’t need to be arrested.”

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She said a “major start” would be to shut down the open drug markets. “They are scary and you can tell where they are,” she said.

Cheatham meanwhile liked Baker’s idea of deploying the National Guard. Others, like Elijah Miles, head of community organization the Tandea Family, said more resources should be given to grass roots organizations like his that work with teenagers, trying to head off violence. Miles knew 17-year-old Neal Mack, who was gunned down in the Inner Harbor in May. Mack had become involved with Tandea Family, which offers $50 to youths to help clean up the community.

He said Mack had also attended some of the group’s programs where they talk about what it means to be Black and becoming a change agent in your community.

Mack was on his way, Miles said: “I just wish we had more time.”