It’s Sunday morning mass at Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore. The choir is small but the organ is mighty. The pews hold a scattering of women wearing fancy hats and a few young men in suits. But for a Sunday morning, there are a lot of empty seats in this church.
For years, the black churches in Baltimore were hubs for the city's African American community - and their collective influence on Maryland politics showed results in electing judges and politicians.
African Americas are a majority in the 7th congressional district, according to the American Community Survey 2018. There are more than 30 candidates in the race to replace the late Congressman Elijah Cummings and the special election primary is fast approaching on February 4th. In this home stretch, the candidates will be trying to connect with as many voters as they can.
In the past, that work would often happen at the churches like Union Baptist. Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, Sr., senior pastor for the church, says, the candidates came "out of the expression of the African American church."
He says the churches would build political agendas and meet with candidates until they found the one who would fight on their behalf.
"Those churches said, 'hey, you are going to be our candidate. You are going to represent us."
Rev. Hathaway was raised just a few doors down from Union Baptist, the church he now leads.
Today Union Baptist is a historic landmark but fifty years ago it was one of the Baltimore churches that made a candidate – and he was close to the action. "My first get-out-the-vote campaign - I was nine years old. I was putting door knockers on doors in my neighborhood."
He was canvassing for JFK.
Years later, he’d help a group of ministers, professors and civil rights activists called The Goon Squad get Maryland’s first African American congressman, Parren Mitchell, elected.
Hathaway says today, the black churches aren’t able to push the people’s agenda; the candidates aren't as accountable to them.
"Unfortunately, what has happened is the political class have used the church as a political club where they come to visit."
Hathaway says it's more like a quick stop on the candidate's campaign trail; stopping in to say, "hey, you know me and I know you."
But do they, really?
Kaye Wise Whitehead is the associate professor of communication and African and African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland. She says candidates are not only shifting their campaigns away from churches, but large gatherings in general.
"The old campaigning style doesn't work anymore," she says.
The candidates in this 7th district race are having house parties, meeting with groups like small business owners, and believe it or not – old-fashioned door knocking as well as honk and waves.
Whitehead says there is room for the old ways, but a candidate needs to be looking for the voters.
"You have to go to where the people are and you have to make sure you're actively engaging."
And for that, she say, twitter and facebook have been a hotbed of conversation between candidates and voters.
"[Candidates] have another opportunity to defend [their] record, to introduce new ideas."
Whitehead says candidates are having one on one back-and- forths with voters. And campaigns see those connections as valuable, she says.
But will that activity show up in the polls?
Stella Rouse is an associate professor and Director for the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland. She says candidates shouldn't look to social media for validation.
"Twitter is a place where the most outraged people tend to go but that doesn't really translate into voting."
With this special primary election, in the middle of the winter – when people don’t typically think about voting, the dozens of candidates will likely empty their toolboxes, looking for just the right mix of old and modern campaigning.