Bill Henry Unseats Six-Term City Comptroller Joan Pratt
Though ballots are still being counted in the Baltimore primary elections, City Councilman Bill Henry declared victory in the Democratic race for comptroller Monday night, after amassing more votes than longtime incumbent Joan Pratt can catch up to.
The upset marks the first time that someone new will serve as Baltimore’s chief fiscal watchdog since Pratt was first elected to the office in 1995.
“I'm looking for an opportunity to help make Baltimore City better,” Henry said Tuesday morning. “I'm incredibly honored and proud to be given that opportunity by the people.”
Henry’s argument to voters was simple: If the comptroller did a better job of letting residents know how Baltimore spends its money, officials would spend it better. The councilman from North Baltimore’s message spoke to people: Henry got 11,000 more votes than Pratt, per the latest numbers.
Henry said his election is just as straightforward: “Most people in Baltimore would rather see city government move forward than stay where it is.”
In a Tuesday afternoon press release, Pratt said she was blessed to have served the city for a generation.
“All is well,” her statement said. “We look forward to our City reopening and overcoming the challenges posed by the global pandemic. May God continue to bless us all.”
Several thousand ballots from Maryland’s first mail-in election are waiting to be counted this week; the election is expected to be certified by Friday.
Henry's win caps off a grueling two-way race between him and Pratt, who is in the midst of a sixth term.
On the campaign trail, Pratt faced scrutiny from voters and pundits alike for her close business ties to disgraced former Mayor Catherine Pugh. The two owned a luxury consignment shop together that Pratt used as a funnel for illegal campaign contributions. Pratt, a certified public accountant, prepared the store’s tax returns and has vehemently denied having any knowledge of Pugh’s criminal activities. Pratt has never been charged with any crimes.
After Pugh’s downfall, change was in the air, said Roger Hartley, the Dean of the University of Baltimore’s college of public affairs. The mood throughout the city allowed Henry’s push for increased transparency and ethics reforms to break through.
“Henry's victory is that he's had a strong and excellent record as a city council member,” Hartley said. “That resonated with voters who were looking for change and saw Joan Pratt's longtime tenure as not being as transparent or moving in that same direction.”
Pratt argued that her status as a CPA and long tenure as comptroller made her the most equipped candidate to sit in the comptroller’s office.
Hartley said that one reason Pratt was able to hold the office for six terms is because of its relative low profile.
“A lot of people would ask, who cares about the comptroller? Well, the comptroller is a member of the board of estimates, which has heavy duty appropriations and financial power in the city of where money goes,” Hartley said. “This is a really powerful position, but also an important position for transparency, for audits, for financial oversight of a city where people have a lot of distrust of that.”
Henry’s platform of increased audits and transparency spoke to that distrust and brought more attention to the race overall, the dean said.
Henry often raised the issue of the business relationship between Pugh and Pratt over the last year, as well as multiple Baltimore City Office of the Inspector General reports into Pratt’s decisions on city spending. Pratt attacked Henry for a 2010 incident in which Henry incorrectly submitted receipts for meals paid with money from his $5,000 annual council member discretionary fund. Early on in the campaign, her team released a negative mailer attacking Henry for the error.
“She used a big chunk of her monetary advantage in the campaign to share my name and picture with thousands of voters across the city,” Henry said.
Henry faces no Republican opponents in the general election, meaning he has about six months left in the council before he’d transition to the comptroller’s office.
“It’s the question of whether the 17 months of this campaign have taught me some patience to not go crazy waiting out six months to actually start doing some of this,” he said.
Until then, Henry said he’ll continue to introduce legislative ethics and reform bills. And, like Henry, Pratt has about half a year left in office.