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Baltimore Riots Change Senate Race Conversation

Cummings has been in the spotlight as Maryland moves forward after the Baltimore riots. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The nascent Maryland Senate race will likely take on a new focus, as the state’s largest city works to heal its wounds following the death of a young black man in police custody and the sometimes violent expressions of anger that followed.  

Maryland Democrats say voters are paying attention to how candidates react to the situation in Baltimore, and looking to see if anyone steps up as a leader as the city tries to move forward from the events of the past 10 days.  

Long-simmering tensions boiled over this week in Baltimore when peaceful protests were overshadowed by riots following the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. Amid fires and looting the mayor imposed a curfew, and the governor called in the National Guard.  

In the aftermath, the candidates vying to replace retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski — herself a Baltimore native — will have to engage with residents on the recent incidents and their underlying causes.  

"It’s important they show an understanding of the frustration and powerlessness that many folks in Baltimore feel, and at the appropriate time, meet with people in the community and offer up serious solutions,” Doug Thornell, managing director at SKDKnickerbocker and a former aide to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, told CQ Roll Call Tuesday. Van Hollen is one of the top candidates in the Democratic primary.  

Some Maryland Democrats said politics would need to take a backseat while this situation unfurls, but at the same time, voters will be paying attention to how candidates handle the turmoil.  

“I think people are looking for leadership, and I do think people will notice what the candidates are doing during this time,” said Courtney Watson, a former Howard County Councilwoman.  

So far, the two announced candidates, Van Hollen and Rep. Donna Edwards, have been relatively quiet on the issue. Van Hollen put out a statement on Facebook and Twitter, saying he was praying for the city. He also posted a graphic on Facebook saying "Charm City is Our City #OneMaryland" and noted he had been speaking with local leaders during their time of anguish. He spoke about the situation at the University of Maryland Monday night. Edwards put out a statement from her official office and on Twitter, and sent several tweets on the subject, expressing grief for Gray’s family and solidarity with Baltimore.  

The candidates represent districts in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., not Baltimore, which makes it a tricky balancing act. As non-residents, and with no control over the city government’s machinations, they do not want to be perceived as inserting themselves and taking advantage of the city’s crisis for their own political gain. But as Senate candidates, they have to address the crisis in some way. (Members of Congress are talking about the tragedy, but any legislative action seems unlikely .)  

Maryland Democrats said the issues that precipitated the unrest — including poverty, income inequality and marginalization — would become pivotal issues in the race. In the early stages, the candidates have focused on things like education, the trade bill making its way through Congress and Wall Street money.  

“You may talk about these other issues, but if you also don’t talk about the incident in Baltimore. … You’re not gonna connect,” said former Rep. Albert Wynn, a Democrat that Edwards ousted in 2008.  

Candidates will likely have to stake out positions on topics they hadn’t previously discussed.  

"These events should make anyone running for office in Maryland address police tactics as well as the underlying issues of poverty and hopelessness plaguing inner cities," Thornell said. "If you ignore them then you’re basically turning your back to a huge part of the state."  

The incident also thrusts another potential Senate candidate into the spotlight: Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who has represented most of Baltimore for almost a decade. Cummings has said he is considering a Senate bid, but he has not yet made a decision.  

The events of the past 10 days could potentially push him into the race, Maryland Democrats said, if Baltimore community members start clamoring for one of their own to make sure their issues are heard at a statewide level.  

“I think there really is a drumbeat for a strong Baltimore candidate to get in the race, very much so,” Watson said.  

Cummings attended and spoke eloquently at Gray’s funeral Monday, acknowledging the tragedy of the situation, and asking Baltimore residents to respect the family’s wishes for peaceful protest.  

The popular congressman would be a strong contender. An internal poll from his campaign found him leading both Van Hollen and Edwards in a three-way race. If he were the only Baltimore-area candidate, he would have a natural base of support in one of the state’s two major voting blocs. And these events have elevated his profile with a constant presence on television.  

But even as the spotlight is on Cummings, the other Senate candidates — announced or not — will be under scrutiny.  

Howard County Councilman Calvin Ball, who is considering a bid for Cummings’ seat if the congressman runs for Senate, summed it up: “The world, including those who will vote for the candidates in the upcoming Senate race, is watching, and remembering.”  

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