An unusually competitive general election race is heating up in Baltimore City’s District 12, where Green Party candidate Franca Muller Paz has outraised incumbent and establishment Democrat Robert Stokes.
Muller Paz, an activist and teacher at Baltimore City College High School, has campaigned on a progressive platform that emphasizes on community-centered crime reduction, combating the digital divide and investing in schools. She says the Democratic incumbent has not been fighting for the district.
She’s been endorsed by more than a dozen local groups and snagged the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions’ first-ever third party endorsement, a backing that Stokes himself called “unheard of.”
If Muller Paz wins the Nov. 3 election, she’d be the first Green Party politician in City Hall, which has been controlled by Democrats for decades.
Blue voters outnumber red ones nearly 10 to one in Baltimore, meaning primary elections usually determine who ends up in City Hall. In other city council races, six Democrats are running unopposed. Republican opponents in the other eight council races each have less than $1,700 each in campaign accounts.
“I think people are tired of how some members of the Democratic Party have been conducting business, they have not been centering the people they're supposed to be fighting for,” Muller Paz said.
Muller Paz immigrated from Peru to Paterson, New Jersey with her family at age one. She graduated from Goucher College and received her masters in education from the University of Pennsylvania. She began teaching at City College in 2013, and has been deeply involved in progressive organizing throughout Baltimore ever since.
The 32-year-old Mount Vernon resident argues that crime reduction requires giving communities real public safety decision-making power versus reform attempts that don’t bring community members to the table, and that robust youth services are essential.
“If we do not invest in our youth, we are not serious about crime,” Muller Paz said.
All in all, her tenets largely overlap with the left wing of the Democratic party. But if she wins in November, Muller Paz would represent a new era of progressivism within City Hall.
Her profile rose over the summer, as she and the activist group Students Organizing a Multicultural Open Society, which she advises, have called for fast, free Internet for city schools students and municipal broadband access amid the coronavirus pandemic. She also represents City College within the Baltimore Teachers Union, where she’s organized rallies and protests.
Muller Paz’s campaign raised just under $50,000 between July 1 and Aug. 18, according to the most recent campaign filing. Stokes reported raising zero dollars during that same time period, though he spent $14,329.
Political experts say that operating a grassroots campaign amid a pandemic is a Sisyphean task, but Muller Paz and her volunteers do what they can under social distancing restrictions. Door knockers wear face shields and cover neighborhoods with flyers; the campaign hosts weekly outdoor concerts in different neighborhoods where they encourage masked attendees to spread out.
At a recent concert in Johnston Heights, rapper Official Arri performed original songs before introducing Muller Paz, who gave residents updates about city recycling before making her pitch.
“The light poles on this block haven’t been working in over a month,” she said. “We’ll make sure we take care of constituent services.”
District 12 spans from Central, East and North Baltimore, and includes Oliver, Broadway East, Johnston Square, Greenmount West, Remington, Barclay, Old Goucher and Mount Vernon.
Stokes is only in his first term as a councilman, but he’s a known entity in City Hall: he previously worked for councilman Carl Stokes (no relation), former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, former City Council President Lawrence Bell and Congressman Kweisi Mfume, among others. He has also served on the Maryland Democratic State Central Committee.
He attended Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School and briefly attended Morgan State University. Stokes is the brother of the late former city councilman Edwin Johnson.
The 62-year-old Oliver resident said he doesn’t feel threatened by Muller Paz thanks to his record of helping to fund projects throughout the district, from the Perkins Homes transformation plan to Henrietta Lacks Park in Johnston Square, as well as legislation that banned natural hair discrimination.
“I’m proud of my record,” Stokes, a lifelong Baltimorean, said.
The Democrat is a close ally of Mayor Jack Young, a frequent point of criticism from progressive groups who also target what they call his absenteeism in both City Hall and constituent services.
In their endorsement of Muller Paz, the transit advocacy group Bikemore said the district’s seat “will no longer be empty” should the Green Party candidate win.
Stokes maintains that his record speaks for itself. “I'm proud of all the stuff I've done,” he said. “I have reached out and looked at my community and knew what the needs were.”
He narrowly won the Democratic primary in June, after a challenge from progressive public interest lawyer Philip Westry that left less than 300 votes between them.
Westry and other progressive challengers ended up splitting about 60% of the vote, leaving Stokes to win with about 40%. Muller Paz’s campaign is hoping general election voters, which will include non-Democrats, behave similarly.
A win would require convincing Democrats, “not just their progressive brethren, but some of these moderate Democrats in the middle that it's OK to vote for a Green Party candidate,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.
“It is an incredibly difficult uphill climb for a third party candidate,” Kromer said, due to the built-in infrastructure and clout that Democratic candidates have in deep-blue Baltimore.
Kromer also emphasized that fundraising, while important, does not predict election outcomes as well as polls do; none have been conducted in this race.
But, Kromer said, the historical endorsements – coupled with the media attention that the only truly competitive city race has received – mean Muller Paz’s third-party candidacy has likely been legitimized in the eyes of some traditional Democratic voters.
Stokes himself is surprised at the tacit, behind-the-scenes support she’s received from some elected Democrats, and said they should be sanctioned by the party.
“For the union, for these Democratic nominees to support a Green Party candidate is very unusual,” he said.
Ultimately, Stokes is confident that his status as an establishment Democrat will carry him across the finish line. “People know my record,” he said.
Muller Paz thinks otherwise – and that she can tap into a moment where voters want change.
“We've been fighting really hard from the outside,” she said. “We need someone that's going to be a champion on the inside.”