Originally published in The Intercept on June 20, 2018
Robbyn Lewis’s appointment to the Maryland General Assembly in late 2016 was met with excitement. The first black woman to ever hold office in Maryland’s 46th Legislative District, she said her life’s work in public health and transit advocacy prepared her to meet the needs of those in south and southeast Baltimore.
Her appointment was recommended by the Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee, but now she is running in her first election. Next Tuesday, Maryland voters will head to the polls for the Democratic primary (early voting began on June 14), and Lewis, 54, is facing a formidable challenge from Nate Loewentheil, an alumnus of the Obama administration whose campaign has been fueled largely by donors outside the city. Loewentheil has centered his campaign on Baltimore’s high levels of crime, even though state delegates have little control over implementing crime prevention programs.
Lewis is running to hold her seat on a slate with the two other incumbents from District 46 — Brooke Lierman and Luke Clippinger — as well as the district’s state senator, Bill Ferguson, who is running for re-election unopposed. Lierman and Clippinger are running for their second and third times, respectively, and Lewis — who has served the shortest stint in office — is considered the most vulnerable candidate on “Team46.” (There are six candidates running for House delegate seats, three of whom will be elected to represent the district.) On Tuesday, the Baltimore Sun endorsed the Team46 candidates.
Lewis was born in Gary, Indiana, at the height of the civil rights movement, and she says her experiences since then have shaped her path toward public office. Her parents were among the first beneficiaries of the Fair Housing Act; the landmark 1968 legislation that prohibited discrimination in the sale or rental of property enabled them to buy a house in a completely white Chicago neighborhood. She went on to attend the University of Chicago for college and obtained her master’s degree from Columbia University. She later served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger and moved to Baltimore in the late 1990s, when she got a job coordinating research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Over the last two decades, Lewis has led a movement to plant over 100 new trees in her community and founded a grassroots political PAC to mobilize infrastructure investment in Baltimore. She told The Intercept she’s humbled to be able to bring those experiences with her to the state legislature, one of the most progressive in the country.
Loewentheil, a 32-year-old graduate of Yale University and Yale Law School, has only recently returned to the city. He was born in Baltimore and attended the Park School, a liberal private school in town, but lived in the Baltimore County suburbs for much of his youth. In 1991, Loewentheil’s father told the Baltimore Sun they were moving out of Baltimore due to safety concerns.
After law school, Loewentheil went straight to work for the Obama administration, serving as a policy adviser on the National Economic Council. Later, he took over a federal task force on Baltimore which was formed in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. It sought to coordinate and mobilize over a dozen federal agencies to help Baltimore tap new sources of funding and address systemic challenges, such as lead exposure and unemployment.
Loewentheil “spent the last weeks in the administration working closely with political, business, and civic leadership, and it was a reminder of all the great things I loved about the city,” he said of the task force.
He has leaned heavily on his connections to the Obama administration to run his campaign, both as a selling point for his candidacy and as leveraged power through his Obama alumni network. Jeffrey Zients, Obama’s lead economic policy adviser, held a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., for Loewentheil’s campaign and personally wrote him a $6,000 check. The candidate’s Yale alumni network has also stepped in to help him unseat Lewis. Even Bob Borosage, co-director of the progressive Campaign for America’s Future, kicked him some money.
All told, Loewentheil has amassed a remarkable amount of financial support for his campaign: over $430,000 according to the latest campaign finance reports. He spent $109,738 between May 16 and June 10. Lewis, by contrast, has raised a little over $110,000 throughout her campaign and spent $2,546 in that same period.
“I would say the amount he’s raised and the amount he’s spending in a state delegate race is beyond unprecedented,” Ferguson, the state senator running in the 46th District, told The Intercept. “I can’t imagine there has been anything close to this anywhere else in Maryland history.” Ferguson acknowledged that “fundraising is part of politics” but noted “the breadth of non-Maryland dollars that are being funneled into the campaign is striking.” According to campaign finance reports, a majority of Loewentheil’s funds have come from outside the state. More than $9,000 came from Palantir, the San Francisco-based data surveillance which Peter Thiel co-founded and now chairs.
Loewentheil is part of a wave of former Obama appointees who are flooding into the lower levels of politics and reaping praise for doing so. Earlier this month, USA Today ran a story headlined, “Surge of Obama alumni running for office in wake of President Trump’s election.” The piece reported that more than 65 former Obama officials are currently campaigning, aided by the resources and prowess of the Obama Alumni Association. A picture of Loewentheil knocking doors featured prominently in the article.
“Obama was a community organizer, and I think that’s shaped my approach to the campaign,” Loewentheil told The Intercept. “I just spent literally every day knocking doors, you just go out and talk to folks, that’s what politics means. I’ve been influenced by [Obama’s] experience and story which really permeated the White House.”
His support from the Obama network is overwhelming, but not absolute. Broderick Johnson, a Baltimore native who served as Obama’s Cabinet secretary, assistant to the president, and chair of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, recently endorsed Team46 over Loewentheil. “While serving as President Obama’s Cabinet Secretary, I helped direct much needed attention and resources from across our Administration to Baltimore City,” Johnson said in a statement. “Those efforts were done in collaboration with the city’s great leaders. … Those leaders who are closest to the ground, like the members of Team46, need no introduction to the city or to the State’s leaders in Annapolis. Team46 has created partnerships and leveraged resources necessary to bring equity in Baltimore’s public schools, to support greater job creation, to fund transit to connect citizens to those jobs, and to build a Baltimore where everyone counts.”
Baltimore has indeed struggled to curb crime, which has spiked over the last three years. The city saw 341 homicides in 2017, 318 in 2016, and 344in 2015. The average rate for the prior four years was 214, and the city hadn’t seen 300-plus murders in one year since the 1990s.
Loewentheil has singled out this issue, accusing his opponents of not doing enough to improve public safety and lamenting how crime prevention programs have historically been run. Many of his proposals involve injecting state funds into Baltimore — which state delegates can indeed help do — but it is local officials (like the mayor, state’s attorney, and police commissioner) who ultimately oversee policy and program implementation.
“I think win or lose, I’ve forced our current delegation to take the issue of gun violence more seriously,” he told The Intercept. In reality, the district’s current representatives have worked on a number of public safety initiatives.
“It is incredibly misleading and disingenuous to suggest that state legislators representing the 46th District have been anything but fierce advocates for creating safe communities,” said Ferguson, the state senator.
Throughout the campaign, Team46 has highlighted a series of their ownlegislative accomplishments on improving public safety. For example, Maryland’s governor signed the Maryland Violence Intervention and Prevention Program into law earlier this year. The new law, which Lierman authored and Clippinger and Lewis co-sponsored, sets aside $5 million for the next fiscal year to fund violence reduction strategies through competitive grants to local governments and nonprofit groups. The Huffington Post reported that only five other states have such a program, which is “designed to give a financial injection to evidence-based services that address the root causes of gun violence.”
Lewis, for her part, said her public health background equips her to address those root challenges. “As an African-American, I will never stop telling the truth about the root causes of our challenges in this city,” she told The Intercept. “The root causes of crime in this city are the long-term policies that drove racial segregation, disinvestment in communities, and criminalization of black skin. A single-minded focus on the outcome of those policies is disingenuous. I’m a public health professional; my training is in identifying sources of illness and addressing them.”
On social media, residents have charged Loewentheil with running a fear-based campaign, pandering to white voters in his district. Nearly half of District 46 is white, making it one of the whitest legislative zones in the city.
One video Loewentheils’s campaign released this past spring featured a white man that the candidate identified as his personal friend, his campaign treasurer, and a lifelong Baltimore resident. The man, Guy Tawney, talked about how he’s “not certain” if he’d be comfortable raising a family in Baltimore, given all the crime and violence he’s witnessed and experienced. “And that’s why I support Nate’s campaign,” Tawney concluded. “I know Nate is going to improve public safety in our city.”
On his campaign website, Loewentheil claims that if elected, he “will fight to get the Baltimore Police Department back to basics, like beat policing that gets more cops walking the streets.” His “plan for public safety,” released late last month, outlines a number of other police reform ideas that fall far outside the authority of a House delegate, such as getting the police department to adopt “predictive policing.”
Loewentheil has also penned a number of op-eds emphasizing the image of Baltimore as an unsafe, crime-ridden city. In the Washington Post, he opened with stark imagery of violence: “Baltimore is experiencing the worst wave of violent crime of any city in the United States. One day last month, in only 24 hours, six people were murdered. It’s as if mortal dice are rolled every day across the city’s streets. Stray bullets have injured a girl as young as 3 and a woman as old as 90.”
Lewis told The Intercept that Loewentheil’s campaign affects her personally. “To hear messages that because we don’t have a crime-free city, the people in leadership like it that way, or don’t care, that’s very personal for me,” she said. “It’s really strange to be a black person and have a white person accuse you of being indifferent to crime. It’s a way of saying that you like crime, you tolerate crime. It’s a dog whistle, it’s a way of triggering fear in a certain population of this district, and a way of subliminally suggesting that the first African-American representative won’t keep you safe because she’s African-American.”
Loewentheil has also repeatedly vocalized his support for mandatory minimum sentences, declaring in an op-ed last summer that he supported a newly proposed mandatory minimum in Baltimore that would have imposed jail sentences on first-time offenders caught carrying a gun within 100 yards of places like churches, schools, and parks. The proposed measure, which was vociferously opposed by activists in the community, waseventually weakened after public protest. Loewentheil later lamented that a similar state-level push for a new mandatory minimum “was unfortunately rejected.”
In outlining his support for new minimums, he has broken with a growing bipartisan consensus that has emerged around the idea that such policies are ineffective and expensive crime deterrents, as well as racially discriminatory. He has also praised Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, for his “commitment to addressing crime in Baltimore.” Hogan has sponsored legislation that would lengthen mandatory minimum sentences, limit access to parole, and try more juveniles as adults.
In the spring, the members of Team46 all voted for SB101, an omnibus crime bill that included, among other things, a new mandatory minimum for twice-convicted violent offenders. The bill passed overwhelmingly in both chambers. The delegates maintain they oppose mandatory minimums but say that they voted “yes” because the package included provisions they otherwise support, such as allowing certain offenders to have their records expunged and protecting in-prison drug treatment.
Loewentheil praised one of the incumbent delegates, Lierman — calling her “a very talented politician” — but asserted that the current delegation is just unable to get the job done in Annapolis. He pointed to Dea Thomas, another African-American woman running in the race with whom he has allied himself as another alternative. “My plan is for both of us to win,” he said. Thomas has raised just $68,000 dollars, according to campaign finance records. She ran for a city council seat two years ago and lost by a wide margin. Thomas did not return The Intercept’s request for an interview.
The race could go either way, but Lewis hopes that her record of service in Baltimore will bring her over the top.
“No one else has been a community organizer like I have, no one else has started a political action committee in service of bringing mass transit infrastructure but me — I’ve been here long enough to accomplish those things,” she said. “I stand on my record of service, my demonstrated care, and compassion. If the best you can do is throw mud, go for it, and we’ll let the people decide.”