Annapolis, Maryland is being treated to a lively, genuinely competitive and so far remarkably civil mayoral race that pits an improbable, 34-year-old incumbent against an unlikely, 54-year-old challenger.
With just two weeks and two days to go, the outcome is hard to predict.
If you’ve been looking the other way, here’s the race in a nutshell:
Mike Pantelides, the 136th Mayor of Annapolis, was just 30 when he squeezed into office by 60 votes out of nearly 8,000 cast four years ago. A political neophyte and a Republican in a city with a two-to-one Democratic registration, he defied all the political odds to become the first GOP mayor in more than a decade.
“Mayor Mikey,” as some of his less-generous critics call him, was boyishly awkward in his first year in office, seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin. But he has gained in confidence and authority as he has battled with the City Council over issues large and small. He has raised more than $250,000 for his re-election and has important segments of the business community behind him. At the outset of the race, he was clearly the frontrunner.
Gavin Buckley, the Democratic nominee, is an Australian-accented restaurateur and businessman often credited with reviving inner West Street (“changing it from a red light district to an arts district,” he says,) who scored a major victory in the primary by decisively defeating the veteran State Senator John Astle.
A total newcomer to politics, Buckley sailed into Annapolis 23 years ago from Bermuda and never left. Married with two children in Annapolis public schools, he has raised some $130,000 in campaign funds and generated serious momentum behind his candidacy with his wit, energy and new ideas.
A long-shot when he first declared, Buckley is now a serious contender who could well take City Hall on election day.
Unlike the name-calling and coarse language of our recent presidential race, the Annapolis mayoral campaign has been remarkably well-mannered, at least so far. The two candidates even lunched together recently at Lemongrass, one of Buckley’s several restaurants.
“I offered, but Gavin picked up the tab,” Pantelides told me last week. “I like Gavin a lot. He has good ideas, but I’m not sure he necessarily knows how to get things done or how to pay for things.”
Last week the campaign tone sharpened a bit as Mayor Pantelides launched a sarcastic online video ad and mailer spoofing Buckley’s idea for a Ferris wheel along the waterfront, a notion Buckley tossed out on a local podcast as a device to lure families downtown and brighten the City Dock area.
“Nothing says historic preservation like an eyesore Ferris wheel,” the ad concludes.
Buckley seemed more amused than annoyed by the needle; he’s not counting on a lot of votes from the historic preservation crowd, whom he described to me in an interview as “a Game of Crones.”
The tone of the race may harden in the remaining two weeks, because it feels so close. Both candidates are pressing hard.
Buckley says he has not conducted any polls, but figures he needs to attract at least 4,500 votes to win. “Mike has the bigger challenge,” Buckley told me, “because he has to bring Democrats to his side to win.”
The Mayor concedes that he has conducted opinion polls, but said in a telephone interview that the results are “confidential.” When I said that sounded bad, he laughed and said, “No, they’re not bad, I can say that.”
Despite their surface harmony, the Mayor and his challenger differ sharply in style and substance. Buckley fairly spouts ideas, while Pantelides is more cautious and measured.
Buckley wants to revive Main Street, get the cars off the City Dock waterfront and make it a people-friendly draw for residents and visitors alike, convert the beleaguered Market House into a vibrant community gathering place, get Annapolitans out of their cars and onto bike lanes, ferries and trolleys and clean up Spa Creek and the harbor. In short, he wants to make Annapolis more fun.
Pantelides wants to build on what he describes as his first term record of economic development, environmental stewardship, financial stability and improved public safety. In short, continue what he has been doing.
For Annapolis voters, then, the 2017 mayoral race offers a choice, not an echo.