Thirty-five-year-old Cory McCray checked his list of registered Democratic voters before climbing each set of porch steps and knocking on each door in a Northeast Baltimore neighborhood on a recent afternoon.
“I’m Cory McCray, your state delegate,” he told a resident who answered her door. “I’m in a very contentious race, so when you go to the ballot in June, I’ll be trying to elevate from delegate to senator, and I’m just hoping and praying to get your consideration.”
McCray said it was his third time knocking on doors in the neighborhood, so he hoped most people there knew who he is.
He is wrapping up his first four-year term representing East Baltimore in Annapolis, and he’s challenging state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden in next month’s Democratic primary election.
McFadden, who turns 72 in August, is going on 24 years in the Senate. Unseating him will be tough. He won 80 percent of the vote in the 2014 primary and was unopposed four years before that.
But McCray is optimistic.
“When we talk about the 20,000 doors that we knocked, I think that people see that we have the energy. I think that when we talk about solving the problems at the doors, whether there is a stop sign that's missing, whether it's a BGE light that's out, whether it's grass that hasn't been cut, they know that our office moves with a sense of urgency,” he said. “And I think that energy and urgency does matter.
McCray is one of three Baltimore delegates who have opted not to seek re-election to fairly safe House seats this year and instead are taking on sitting senators, two of whom have held been in the Senate for more than two decades.
The others are fellow first-term Del. Antonio Hayes, challenging Sen. Barbara Robinson in West Baltimore, and Del. Mary Washington, challenging Sen. Joan Carter-Conway in a district that stretches north from Midtown.
In each district, the winner of the Democratic primary will be unopposed on November’s ballot.
“This is just not something you see often in Maryland at all,” said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “It’s a fascinating year in Maryland politics … because you see these people with otherwise safe seats willing to challenge rather entrenched powers in the Senate in an effort to advance their own careers.”
Like McFadden, Conway has occupied her Senate seat for more than 20 years and won each of her last two primary contests handily. Washington, her opponent, is wrapping up her second term in the House.
Robinson has only been in the Senate for half a term — she replaced Catherine Pugh after Pugh was elected Baltimore mayor — but she has 14 years in the House to Hayes’ four.
But each of the three challengers has a shot, said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.
“You don’t give up a safe seat for a seat that’s not winnable, right? So clearly they’ve done their own internal calculations or they’ve talked to experts on those districts, and they see a path to victory,” she said.
Kromer, who runs the Goucher Poll, said the challengers could be tapping into public sentiment favoring term limits.
Earlier this year, Gov. Larry Hogan unsuccessfully introduced legislation limiting General Assembly members to two four-year terms in each chamber. Kromer asked about the idea on the February Goucher Poll and found it very popular.
“If you are one of those individuals who have only served one term in the House of Delegates and you see an incumbent, a long-term incumbent in the Senate, that is a message you can certainly use on the community — that it’s time for new leadership, this individual has been here for 30 years, I can bring fresh ideas to the Maryland Senate,” Kromer said.
A generational divide is likely also a factor, said Eberly, especially in the races between Hayes, who’s 40, and Robinson, who will be 80 before the primary; and between McCray and McFadden.
“McFadden is twice his age,” Eberly said. “I think there’s a sense that all those decades in the Assembly — perhaps he’s lost connection to the needs of the people in the city, is a little too beholden to entrenched leadership in the city and in the Senate, and there’s this desire to sort of change that.”
Whether it’s a result of age or something else, McCray said McFadden isn’t paying attention.
“If … your elected leaders aren’t paying attention, what happens is somebody comes and takes their slice of the pie, and that’s what’s been happening to the 45th district,” McCray said. “Whether we’re having a conversation about education, whether we’re having a conversation about abandoned houses, whether we’re talking about employment opportunities for young people, the reality is, is that either it’s a negligence of duties or it’s an inability to pay attention and follow what’s going on.”
McFadden’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
“I'm not sure if it's as much as age as our differences in policy and our priorities for our district,” Hayes said of the differences between him and Robinson.
Hayes was also quick to point out that Robinson was appointed to the seat by Maryland’s Democratic Central Committee and has never won an election to the Senate.
He said it’s time for new leadership and fresh ideas in his district. But Robinson, the incumbent, said new leadership would cost the district her experience.
“I bring seniority, and seniority comes with experience. I bring know-how,” she said. “You can’t lead somebody where you’ve never been. And the mark of a great leader, or the mark of a leader, is not to tell me what you’re going to do, but to show me what you did.”
Conway is head of the Senate’s Education, Health and Environment Committee. While appearing on Midday on WYPR last month, she said that if she loses the race, her district loses the key relationships she has built as a result of that chairmanship, not to mention the power of a leadership position.
“As the new kid on the block, when you sit in the back seat of the chamber, … you have to maintain, broker, those types of relationships,” she said. “As chair, you have a wide discretion in terms of the bills that pass or won’t pass.”
Washington countered that the district has not actually benefited from Conway’s chairmanship.
“What has happened in the last 20 years, or the last 12 years?” she said. “I often say it’s not the chair you sit in. It’s where you stand.”
She emphasized the policies she has pushed in two terms in the House of Delegates.
“I've stood beside advocates calling for greater funding. I've offered legislation that has actually passed that is allowing more funding to go to community schools. I've drafted legislation that has supported our senior centers,” she said. “And I don't see that same record.”
Conway’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Each of the challengers has the same advantage — they aren’t new to the General Assembly, and they have records to run on. And many of their constituents already know them, especially in “Small-timore.”
That was evident when Hayes campaigned recently on Woodbrook Avenue in Penn North.
“I know you,” a woman said when Hayes introduced himself on her doorstep.
“Yes, ma’am,” Hayes said, laughing. “I’ve run up and down these streets on many a day, so most people around here saw me since I was a little one.”
Hayes grew up around the corner. Some residents in the neighborhood know who he is. Others don’t know him, but they knew his mom. They called her “Pinky.”
But he can’t always campaign in his old neighborhood. He’s going to need more voters than that.