Conaway battles to keep her seat
Dogged by residency questions, councilwoman challenges "political machine"
Baltimore Councilwoman Belinda Conaway goes door-to-door in her district, canvassing for her write-in campaign to win back her seat in the November general election. She was ousted by political newcomer Nick Mosby in the Democratic primary in September. (Gene Sweeney Jr. / The Baltimore Sun / October 26, 2011)
But after losing the Democratic primary to a political newcomer allied with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Conaway has launched a write-in campaign in which she paints herself as an enemy of — and threat to — the political establishment.
"The mayor, governor and other powers-that-be don't want any independent voices on the city council," Conaway told supporters at a campaign kick-off event this month. "There is no room for dissent in occupied Baltimore."
Whether rallying supporters or knocking on doors in the 7th District, Conaway's message is clear: She was targeted by the political establishment after challenging Rawlings-Blake, in particular on budget priorities as the mayor cut funding for youth programs in the face of revenue shortfalls.
Rawlings-Blake endorsed Conaway challenger Nick Mosby, lending her face to his campaign fliers. The mayor's redistricting efforts folded Reservoir Hill — where Mosby lives — into the 7th District.
Yet Conaway's loss to Mosby by 653 votes in the September primary appears to have as much to do with her campaign as the mayor's support of her rival.
A member of one of the city's quirkiest political families — the Conaways call their slate "The Four Bears" and have campaigned in bear costumes — the councilwoman has been dogged by questions about her residency. Documents came to light this year that showed she had received a tax credit on a Baltimore County home that she had certified was her primary residence.
And the Conaway family's campaign efforts were divided this summer as her father, Clerk of Courts Frank M. Conaway Sr., made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination against Rawlings-Blake.
In waging a write-in campaign for the Nov. 8 general election, Conaway faces the daunting task of turning out voters aware they must write in her name as their choice. No one in memory has won a write-in campaign for Baltimore government, City Hall observers say.
As Conaway, 43, knocked on doors along Presstman Street on a recent afternoon, she focused on successes she has had that will benefit her constituents. She noted the extra $50,000 she helped get inserted in the city budget for summer youth jobs, as well as donations she solicited from Mondawmin Mall businesses for Douglass High School and the Gwynns Falls Football Team.
"We're looking for people to come out and vote and make history," Conaway said to Camilla Montgomery, a 62-year-old on disability.
"Yes, yes, I know the whole family," said Montgomery, explaining that she did not vote in the primary because health problems prevented her from getting to the polls. Campaign workers swiftly began to arrange for an absentee ballot.
Moments later, Montgomery was on the phone with her son, Donte Hollie, 36, who lives a few blocks away.
Hollie says he has been a fan of Conaway ever since she stopped transportation officials from mistakenly towing cars from his community's parking spots a couple years ago.
"Someone got in touch with Miss Conaway, and she got it stopped," said Hollie, a city school system groundskeeper. "Ever since then, she has always had my vote."
A few doors up the street, Conaway stops at the home of 27-year-old Cherelle Johnson, who is clutching her four-month-old daughter.
Conaway details her struggles against the current administration: As chair of the Budget and Appropriations committee, she stalled passage of the operating budget this year until Rawlings-Blake promised more funds for the Youth Works summer job program. She has challenged the administration on funding for recreation and parks, and opposed the 2-cent bottle tax that passed last year.
"They don't want someone down there who is going to stand up for our people," Conaway told Johnson. "They want someone who's going to go along with all of their ideas."
In an interview later, Johnson says she voted for Mosby in the primary, but now, she's not sure why.