By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Aug. 22, 2007
Edward Reisinger and his family own a tiny little bar in Morrell Park called Good Times, where amusement devices line the narrow walls. Reisinger, a Democrat, is the 10th District city councilman and chairs the Land Use and Transportation Committee, which in April recommended expanding the presence of such regulated devices in neighborhood businesses like his. The machines are known to be used for illegal gambling, yet the Baltimore Licensed Beverage Association, which represents bars and other liquor establishments, requested the bill, and its supporters have donated heavily to Reisinger’s re-election campaign. The measure still awaits a full City Council vote.
Let’s recap: A bar-owning councilman’s committee touts a law backed by his campaign donors to expand opportunities for illegal gambling at bars.
That is some old-school politics, but Reisinger comes from the old school. His father was a South Baltimore state delegate during the midcentury apex of the Stonewall Democratic Club’s since-waned power, when the late state senators George W. Della Sr. (father of today’s 46th District state senator) and Harry J. “Soft Shoes” McGuirk ran the show south of the Inner Harbor. Reisinger himself showed his Morrell Park colors three summers ago, when he got into a scrap with a convicted drug dealer who assaulted him after Reisinger stepped out of Good Times and confronted the guy for throwing trash in the street.
“The system took a drug dealer off the streets of Morrell Park, and that’s what I wanted,” Reisinger told the judge after his attacker got six months in jail.
Like its politicians, the 10th is traditionally old-school territory, and its boundaries are wide. Morrell Park’s Good Times is a long way from, say, Thumpers in Curtis Bay, but like their respective neighborhoods–and like the amusement devices found at both bars–they share a sense of lowbrow stability. Little seems to have changed in the last half-generation or so, just as little has changed in the neighborhoods between them: Brooklyn, Cherry Hill, Westport, and Lakeland. These are places where incomes are low and working-class traditions are old.
While many good jobs left long ago, the number of voters registered there has grown recently. According to the latest data from July, the Democratic electorate in these communities is nearly two-thirds of the district’s 15,345 registered Democrats, and it has grown by nearly 1,500 voters since July 2003, prior to the last city primary. If Reisinger has a territory, this should be it, since all three of his challengers hail from the district’s northern, more posh quarters on the South Baltimore peninsula.
Donnie Fair, 30, is a community activist and computer-network administrator who grew up on a farm, moved to Baltimore in 1999, and bought a rowhouse on Fort Avenue in South Baltimore in 2005. Terry Hickey lives in Federal Hill and is a 37-year-old community lawyer who started a nonprofit to help kids grow up to be good citizens. Hunter Pruette, a 31-year-old North Carolina native, is a criminal defense attorney who moved to South Baltimore after working in 2003 as traveling chief of staff of U.S. Senator John Edwards’ presidential campaign.
These three challengers live in some of the hottest neighborhoods in the Baltimore real-estate market, where a new breed of residents has been drawn. Long-rooted families have moved on in recent years, getting top dollar for their ancestral rowhouses. Taverns have changed hands, accommodating new tastes. Aging industrial sites have been rezoned and redeveloped. The yuppies took over.
Times have changed since 1990, when Reisinger, as an appointed councilman (he lost re-election in 1991, and regained a seat in 1995), told The Washington Times in an article about Locust Pointers that “I don’t think anybody’s moving out. They’re hanging tough.”
Here’s the twist: Reisinger’s committee chairmanship has involved facilitating the district’s fast-paced redevelopment that has supplanted the old-timers with newcomers–including his challengers in this race. Voters on the South Baltimore peninsula between Middle Branch and the Inner Harbor make up a little more than a third of 10th’s Democrats, and 1,974 more voters are registered there today than in 2003. The downside: Only 625 of them are Democrats. But they vote; average turnout by Democrats voting in these precincts in 2003 was high at 42 percent, compared to 33 percent in the rest of the district.
But if this is the challengers’ political base, and they’re splitting it three ways, they’ll have to look beyond the peninsula for success.
A measure of Reisinger’s support comes from the results of his last election, which he almost lost. It was a similar scenario in 2003, with three challengers. Reisinger won with 39 percent of the vote, but the only precincts where the majority voted for him were in Locust Point, Morrell Park, and South Baltimore. Nicole Pastore-Klein got more than half the votes in Federal Hill and ended up with 36 percent districtwide, while Charlie Metz took 21 percent and a fourth candidate barely made a showing. Thus, the challengers undermined one another by splitting the large anti-incumbent vote and Reisinger kept his council seat by a hair.
Could it happen again?
“Based on Ed’s approach to his campaign,” Hickey responds, “that’s what he thinks is going to happen again. But there is a lot of anti-Ed sentiment, and whoever gets that [voting bloc] wins.”
“I don’t necessarily agree” that a reprise of 2003’s split vote is in the offing, Pruette responds. “People want new ideas and new leadership and they’re tired of the same old promises.”
“Well, sure we’re going to split the vote,” Fair says. “But that’s only because that’s the way math works. I’m going to win because I have a different kind of connection to voters than these other guys.”
Reisinger sees these thirtysomethings as “political opportunists” who are misperceiving a weak incumbent where there is none, and trying vainly to cash in. “I’m not being arrogant,” he explains, “but these are three people who want to run, and they are running from the peninsula. That’s not something I can control. If they want the job, they got to hit the rest of the district.”
All three challengers have some money to spend, but only one has anything like Reisinger’s war chest, which on Aug. 14 carried a balance of $36,600: Pruette, with $29,400, thanks to a national donor base that stretches from Washington to Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Hickey’s balance of $9,800 is next in line, and his top donor, with $4,000, is Leonard Bush of Pasadena in Anne Arundel County, better known as “Len the Plumber,” who grew up in Morrell Park. Fair had about $1,200 on hand, just enough to cover outstanding bills. But one of Fair’s most generous donors–Joyce Bauerle, president of the Locust Point Civic Association, who gave $300, compared to the $50 she gave Reisinger last year–carries some clout on the peninsula.
Raising funds to underwrite even a modest campaign can be a Sisyphean task, especially for neophyte challengers like Reisinger’s opponents. It’s not so hard for most incumbents, but Reisinger, as the chairman of the Land Use and Transportation Committee, has it especially easy. The position draws big-money political donors, since legislation developers need passed must be approved by his committee first. (It also helps to have Good Times in the family; the bar contributed $3,100.)
Reisinger’s political fundraising, as with many politicians’ campaigns, can be directly tied to his legislative record. He was sole sponsor of two enacted bills that came through his committee to permit redevelopment of the old Chesapeake Paperboard property in Locust Point, for instance, and his efforts were rewarded with a total of at least $3,950 in campaign donations from the developer, his lawyer, and his family members. Another enacted bill, sole-sponsored by Reisinger and approved by his committee, was to down-zone a Locust Point property on Beason Street from manufacturing to residential use, prompted donations totaling $1,575 from the owner and his lawyers. There are other examples in Reisinger’s record of the same pattern, though there was one notable example, the Harborview development, in which he sided against the developer.
“Any developer who comes to me, I say, `You got to go to the community first, and if they see it as a win-win, then I’ll introduce the bill and I’ll support it,'” Reisinger says, explaining his protocol for handling land-use bills. As for how the same developers often donate to his campaign, he implies that they’re simply in the list of potential donors whom he calls. “I hired Colleen Martin-Lauer as a consultant to do my fundraising,” Reisinger explains. “And she has a book with a number of businesses and individuals that I call, tell them my spiel, and ask for a contribution. It doesn’t mean I carry water for them.”
Fair’s gloves come off when he talks about how Reisinger raises money: “It’s easy to raise money when everyone knows you’re for sale.” Hickey says he doesn’t want to hire a fundraiser–“I don’t want that book to raise money from.”–but acknowledges that if he becomes an incumbent running for re-election, “you may end up writing an article later that says I’m a hypocrite.”
Pruette says Reisinger’s fundraising strategy is “very common, and that’s the power of incumbency. But you have to be careful to represent your constituents and not those who fund our campaign. People have come to expect better than that, and I think that’s part of this race.”
In this race, the three challengers are all trying to slay a giant–Reisinger, the incumbent, who has all the trappings and advantages of longstanding power. If Reisinger wins, then his vote-splitting opponents, despite their intentions, will actually have served as his friends.