In cities like Baltimore, municipal elections are a show that must go on, somehow

As some places shift to mail-in voting, it's hard to predict what campaign tactics will be successful in a pandemic. (Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

Carl Stokes is a veteran of municipal politics in Baltimore, Maryland. When he decided – at almost the literal last minute – to run for city council president, he already knew the playbook for his campaign.

After all, Stokes has been running in Baltimore elections, on and off, since the 1980s.

“I'm a retail politician, a campaigner for real, and when I got into this race late I said I’d make it up quickly because I know how to hit every door,” says Stokes. “I know how to go to three, four community meetings a night. I go to churches, synagogues and mosques. That’s what I love.”

But Stokes, like everyone else, hadn't planned on a pandemic. Now local candidates everywhere face an unusual question: How do you run for office when you can’t shake hands or knock on doors?

In local elections across the United States, candidates face a bizarre new world. Canvassing, rallies, and meet-and-greets are out. Direct mail may even be looked upon with suspicion. Hollowed out local media institutions struggle to cover these races in normal times, and now their few reporters are stretched even thinner. For candidates whose names don’t generate the kind of buzz seen in state-wide or national elections, the end of in-person campaigning is a severe blow to their ability to meet voters and raise money.

“Honestly, there's no substitute for person-to-person, face-to-face contact in a small election,” says Mark Nevins, a political consultant with the Dover Group, who specialises in direct mail campaigns. “This has really changed the way campaigns are forced to find ways to communicate with voters – and not for the better.”

Many local candidates don’t have the luxury of waiting to see if the pandemic will wane by the fall. Most large US cities are governed by Democrats, meaning primary elections this spring and early summer are more competitive than November’s general election. American cities also can’t exercise the option pursued by their English counterparts, where this year’s mayoral elections are being postponed until 2021 in the hopes that things settle down by then.

No one knows what strategies will work best for this new kind of campaign, because nothing like this has happened before. Turnout fell following disasters like the Spanish Flu and Hurricane Sandy, but today’s pivot to mail-in voting complicates how predictive those experiences could be. Digital outreach operations could gain newfound significance, but runs the risk of reaching less-engaged younger voters and missing more reliable constituencies in unions and churches.

“This is going to be a whole new routine,” says Matthew Crenson, retired professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, who believes Baltimore’s adoption of mail-in voting will boost participation. “What is that going to do to turnout overall, and to who turns out? It’s one of the big unknowns right now.”

Baltimore is representative of a certain subset of urban America, one of the many large but shrinking municipalities beset by decades of post-industrial woes. Over a fifth of the population lives in poverty, the median income is $11,400 lower than that of the United States overall, and the city has lost population every decade since the 1960s. Housing vacancy is over 19%, scarring many neighbourhoods, while the historic downtown is eerily quiet after 5:00 pm.

Baltimore also suffers from its own, highly specific traumas. The sheer number of annual murders substantially outpace those of New York, a city 13 times larger by population. Its last elected mayor resigned in disgrace after the Baltimore Sun implicated her in one of the most bizarre political scandals in recent memory.

(Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)

Given Baltimore’s recent chain of demoralising governance failures and its long-standing economic issues – which local politicians have limited power to address – it would have been hard to get voters out no matter what. But that isn’t unique to Baltimore. Voter turnout in US municipal elections is often quite low and weighted towards certain demographic groups, usually older people and those with relatively higher incomes. A 2016 Portland State University study found that the median voter age in local US elections was 57.

“That’s always the challenge we have, making sure people actually come out to vote,” says Roxie Herbekian, president of Baltimore’s Unite Here Local 7, a union representing service workers in the hotel, entertainment and airport sectors. “The danger we always have is that working class and poor people aren’t going to vote. That’s why we take very seriously having our folks understand why the people we endorsed are the best candidates for workers.”   

One of the roles of organisations like organised labour, churches, and the political machines of old is to connect those who are not economically powerful to the electoral system and to government institutions. But all of these entities have been in a state of decline for decades: in the private sector, unions like Unite Here represented only 6.2% of American workers in 2019.  

Unlike other old industrial cities like Philadelphia or Chicago, Baltimore doesn’t have even the ghostly remnants of a political machine. It used to be home to a lively culture of “political clubs,” community establishments where residents came together to eat, drink, talk politics and get involved. They also served as neighbourhood-based machine organisations, but now they are largely defunct. Organised labour is still a power here, unlike in many Sunbelt cities, but overall union membership numbers are still substantially lower than they were in the 20th century. 

Under normal circumstances, that could still give little-known candidates and low-cash insurgents an opportunity to fill the void. Candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have won surprise victories without big money or institutional support by running energetic grassroots campaigns. But plague-era municipal politics are poorly suited to such an effort. 

To some degree, that means that only the highest profile, or the wealthiest, candidates have a shot. In the Baltimore mayor’s race, that has allowed newcomers such as former Obama administration Treasury official Mary Miller to emerge as leading contenders. That’s because she can shovel $2 million of her own money into the race. 

In the council president’s race, however, there is no one who can solely rely on self-funding. Still, the leading candidates – Stokes, Councilmember Shannon Sneed, and state representative Nick Mosby – are all well-established figures. All three say that the transition from in-person campaigning to digital and phone outreach has been difficult although, in many cases, they've found a surprisingly receptive audience. (A fourth council president candidate, councilmember Leon Pinkett, has not made a dent in the polls.)

Mosby is leading in the few pre-pandemic polls of the race and he says voters seem more engaged than ever, when he’s able to get in contact with them.  

“That's been a weird thing, because we know it's a real delicate situation, talking to them about politics when they have all these other issues going on,” says Mosby. “But we're not finding that folks are hesitant or disgruntled. They really just want to talk, maybe because they're in the house and have more time.” 

The three major council president candidates all plan to buy television ads, which are considered more essential than ever because viewership is surging during the pandemic. Although some television markets have seen declining costs for advertisements during the pandemic, Baltimore is not one of them. It costs $140,000 for a strong ad buy in the region, which means many candidates simply can’t afford them. So far only Sneed has spent seriously on the medium, with $60,000, while Stokes has spent $20,000 on television ads and Mosby has yet to spend anything (although he has plans to do so). 

National political operatives like Zac McCrary say that the strength of TV ads may hold for most other forms of non-in-person outreach (except radio, because fewer people are commuting). He says his Democratic Party-aligned polling firm’s experiences across the US have mirrored Mosby’s reported successes on the phones in Baltimore. 

“I suspect people are more likely to consume all these communication platforms – television, digital, mail – during this time when there's limited options outside the house,” says McCrary, a partner with ALG Research. “We find that people are more willing to take phone interviews, more willing to take online polling options right now. They are maybe a touch more likely to read mail, as opposed to just throwing it away, because they are captive.”

The last prominent candidate in the council president race, Sneed, is known as a politician who hits the doors, an omnipresent figure at farmer’s markets and block parties. She is heavily backed by the city’s labour movement. 

The question that haunts her is how turnout among her base, and among voters in general, will be affected by the presumed all-mail-in-primary. 

“There may be a population that isn't paying attention to [non-pandemic] news or isn’t in their normal social environment where elections may come up,” Sneed said. “I feel like maybe people won’t know to check their mailboxes because no one is talking about elections.”

Herbekian’s union has been calling members who are supporting their endorsed candidates, then checking to ensure they are registered and that all their information is correct on the Board of Elections website. They are also ensuring voters are clear on the steps needed to successfully vote-by-mail. 

“We usually get together, someone brings food, and then we go knock on doors,” says Herbekian. “This is not quite as fun for everybody. But in some ways, it's extremely efficient. Really, it's much more efficient than us going around and talking to people one-by-one.” 

For Stokes, the whole experience has been surreal. The 70-year-old has been trying to run his shoe leather campaign as best he can. One of the best strategies he’s come up with is giving out free food, which at least gives his campaign time to make a pitch and a good impression as they put groceries in the trunk of a voter's car. 

Stokes has also been giving out dinners and lunches to seniors, 150 to 200 of them a week. But he has to deliver the meals to the front desk of nursing homes for their staff to distribute.

“It’s uncomfortable in terms of campaigning,” says Stokes. “It just feels really weird and bad. I know some of the people who are in the building and I'd like to say hello to them. It feels very unusual [to just drive off]. But it is what it is.”

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.

CORRECTION: The Sneed campaign originally provided an incorrect number for its television ad spending. That number has been corrected.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.