An odd feature of Councilman Robert Stokes Sr.’s re-election campaign has been the fact that he has raised no money at all – zero since May – and that he hasn’t been campaigning all that hard.
Stokes has been in the only competitive general election race in the city, but he and his supporters are confident he has enough deep roots and political ties in the Black neighborhoods of East Baltimore to beat back Green Party challenger Franca Muller Paz.
“I been knowin’ Robert Stokes for years,” said Catherine Benton-Jones, a community leader who went to Dunbar High School with him.
Stokes doesn’t have to campaign, she explains, because of his history of constituent service. “Robert has never failed to come into the community no matter what the hour. All them [politicians] you can’t touch. He’s touchable.”
But as the 12th District contest heated up and Muller Paz’ campaign picked up momentum, the incumbent’s rhetoric got rawer, with Stokes calling her a “fly-by-night socialist” – and some of his allies talking about the campaign in stark racial terms.
Developer Pless B. Jones Jr., son of “Demolition King” Pless B. Jones Sr., said Muller Paz’ online ad campaign has made him nervous.
“I think I’m more worried than Rob is,” Jones told The Brew. Jones paid for a targeted Facebook ad that features Stokes talking about systemic racism, saying he wants to bring economic development without displacement.
It’s no mystery how systemic racism developed, Stokes observes, in the two-minute video.
“The money that was supposed to be for these communities went somewhere else, to the most influential neighborhoods,” he says. “I want the east side of the [12th] district to look like the west side of the district, but I want [to make sure] the people that live here, can live here.”
Slamming His Opponent
The ad runs on Pless Jones’ “We Are One” Facebook page, which includes a recent post alleging, without evidence, that Muller Paz “wants to prop up systemic racism.”
Muller Paz supporters denounce the attack as preposterous and a smear, but Jones defends it, describing Stokes’ opponent as naive and a pawn of labor unions.
“If she was running for school board, I’d probably be for her,” Jones said.
Stokes calls his rival “some fly-by-night socialist who has no track record.”
Stokes almost never initiates legislation in the City Council, but prides himself on providing constituent services to his neighborhoods.
While some say his status as a lifelong East Baltimorean has won him the trust of the community, others say he has been a non-responsive “absentee” councilman.
He did not respond to requests for comment. His campaign chair, Emmett Guyton, also declined an interview.
But he did speak to DMV Daily News, which his campaign paid $1,935 for an ad buy.
“My folks want to see real tangible solutions to the systemic issues that continue to plague our communities,” he told the publication. “Not some fly-by-night socialist who has no track record of doing anything of substance in the district.”
“The new lady is very popular”
Retired Councilman Carl Stokes, Robert Stokes’ former boss (they’re not related), expressed doubts that Muller Paz can chip away enough of the incumbent’s base, especially the older voters, despite her robust online presence.
“The new lady obviously is getting social media, is very popular, is a [Baltimore Teachers Union] representative,” Carl Stokes told The Brew. “So she has that name recognition out there among another constituency. But I don’t think it’s overwhelming at all inside of his core constituency in East Baltimore.”
But Carl Stokes went much further for a different audience, the listeners of the Morgan State University-owned WEAA-FM, openly declaring, “I do want to invoke race.”
“His challenger, I guess by some, could be called brown, but in truth is white,” he said of Muller Paz, who was born in Peru and is Latina.
“And it is the white portion of the 12th District that is supportive of this candidate,” the former 12th District councilman continued, on David Brown’s Real Questions show.
“I do want to invoke race” – Former Councilman Carl Stokes.
Stressing age rather than race, Maria Spence, a community advocate and former public school principal, said Robert Stokes is trustworthy and effective in reaching out to seniors.
“His word is his bond,” said Spence, who did some work for his campaign in July. “He don’t sugarcoat.”
Jones also stressed Stokes’ age, saying he prefers the 62-year-old’s outlook to those of the 32-year-old Muller Paz or the younger members of the City Council.
“Robert understands that the unions are just a facade, that they’re detrimental to the black business contractor,” he said.
Robert “knows who to talk to and who not to waste time with,” says an Oliver community leader.
Jones cited Stokes’ opposition to legislation introduced earlier this year requiring union agreements for major contracts. His father, president of the Maryland Minority Contractors’ Association, led the opposition to Councilwoman Shannon Sneed’s bill that would mandate these “project labor agreements.”
Earl Johnson, meanwhile, had a simpler explanation for Stokes’ popularity in the district.
“He knows the churches,” said Johnson, who leads the Oliver Community Association and has a working relationship (but not necessarily a warm one) with Stokes. “He knows who to talk to and who not to waste time with.”
In a year when President Donald Trump is up for reelection, many observers say they expect most in Baltimore to vote blue no matter who, especially if the incumbent is someone with a name they recognize.
Johnson said some voters may not even know they’re allowed to vote for someone other than a Democrat.
That means Muller Paz, of the Green Party, has faced an uphill battle in convincing and educating voters.
She has raised money at a rapid pace since beginning her run in July. She reported $53,695 on hand after spending $54,027 between August 19 and October 18.
The challenger has garnered a lot of support on the internet and on the west side of the district – in the neighborhoods along Charles Street – but the number of east side votes she can find is unclear.
“They feel like, who is this young lady they’ve never heard of,” Hassan Giordano, founder of DMV Daily News, told The Brew. “I don’t think Franca’s going to be able to overcome all those obstacles in her way.”
A Spanish teacher at Baltimore City College, Muller Paz has been a prominent advocate for digital equity and has held events and done service in many neighborhoods on the east side of the district.
After the Save A Lot closed in the Church Square Shopping Center, she was part of a team that organized food aid for the local seniors.
Carl Stokes, like Pless Jones, has suggested that the incumbent may have been caught off-guard by her momentum.
“I don’t think that people thought, including Robert, that he was going to have much of an aggressive competition, frankly,” Carl Stokes said, adding that when she won the endorsement of the Metro Baltimore AFL-CIO – a first for a Green – Robert Stokes must have thought:
“Oh golly, I gotta make sure that I’m tight everywhere.”
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