In 1987, the 4th District council race was one of the hottest in the city, with 17 candidates promising to deliver swift constituent service and to stand strong for policies that would help alleviate West Baltimore's disproportionate burden of urban problems.
But this year, the political climate in the 4th District has barely reached lukewarm with fewer candidates running for office than in any other district.
Only three challengers are seeking to unseat incumbents Sheila Dixon, Lawrence A. Bell and Agnes B. Welch.
But don't blame it on apathy, says Daniel Powell, a resident of Coppin Heights since the 1950s. "It's not that. It's just that people are satisfied with representatives we have," he said. "If they're doing a good job, why change?"
The 4th District is a collection of predominantly black neighbor
hoods in the heart of West Baltimore including Panway, Rosemont, Edmondson Village, Sandtown-Winchester and George B. Murphy Homes public housing complex.
While many of its boulevards, churches and neighborhoods have rich histories, the district suffers from the city's highest teen pregnancy rates, a low amount of safe, affordable housing, deteriorated business corridors and some of Baltimore's most shocking crimes.
After the passage of a new redistricting plan last March, several new neighborhoods were added to the district, including Rognel Heights near the city's western border, and Hampden, a predominantly white neighborhood that sits on the 4th District's eastern border.
Despite voter registration drives by churches, fraternities and sororities and community associations, 4th District residents have long felt that City Hall has ignored the crime and deterioration of their poorer neighborhoods. Therefore, voter turnout has tended to be low in the past and is expected to be again this year.
"Our next newsletter is going to tell people why it's important to vote and to learn about the candidates they vote for," said Patricia Taylor, executive director of the Penn-North Neighborhood Association. "We want them to know that the agendas are not set by politicians, that people set the agendas and that the politicians must listen to our demands."
Ms. Taylor's neighborhood, located near the beleaguered intersection of North and Pennsylvania avenues, is the site for 75 new Nehemiah houses, built for low-in come homeowners. She says that her neighbors have struggled to improve their quality of life. And she says they have gotten little more than lip service from their city representatives.
"If we have an event, they show up and I guess they consider that supportive," she said. "But if we need something, they have not been instrumental in helping us."
However, as they canvass the district the incumbents maintain they are the "hardest-working delegation" at City Hall.
At a candidates' forum in Rognel Heights, Ms. Dixon, a 37-year-old trade specialist at the Maryland Office of International Trade, said she authored legislation giving sanitation supervisors and public works employees the authority to cite negligent property owners.
If re-elected, she says she plans to be "tougher" on issues to provide greater economic advancement for her constituents and to seek funds to fight lead-paint poisoning.
Mr. Bell, 29, says he has focused on tough penalties for people convicted of drug-related crimes and will continue to do so if re-elected. He also says he will actively work for the development of a public insurance company run by the city.
And Mrs. Welch, 69, seeking her third term, noted her record for constituent service and regular meetings with community leaders.
Meanwhile their opponents remain largely unseen and unheard.
Michael Tyrone Pearson, a resident of Coppin Heights, says he's conducting his campaign by telephone. Jeffrey A. Hubbard, a bank teller who also lives in Coppin Heights, says he has very little money and optimism. And George Wiles, a Hampden resident, has little support outside his neighborhood.
"But it's about more than winning or losing," said Mr. Hubbard, 28. "It's a good experience. We just want to get out and meet as many people as we can and bring up issues. We want more economic development, better schools and more community involvement. And if we don't win this time, maybe next time people will listen," he said.
Mr. Wiles said he wants to send a message to the incumbents that his district expects prompt service from its council representatives. After the redistricting plan moved his neighborhood from the 5th District to the 4th, Mr. Wiles said, he was asked by his neighbors to run for office because they were concerned that they would not be recognized by the incumbents.
"See, we're used to being in the 5th District when all we had to do was pick up the phone and we could get some action," said Mr. Wiles. "Since we moved into the 4th District, the council people have come out to our meetings, but they haven't done anything."
John White, president of the Panway Neighborhood Association, disagrees. He says he is proud of the incumbents' stand on important issues over the last four years -- particularly redistricting, which gave the city five majority black districts and left only Southeast Baltimore's 1st District with a white majority.
"I was particularly impressed when Councilwoman Dixon took her shoe off and waved it at the other council members," said Mr. White, referring to a debate at City Hall in March when Mrs. Dixon used her shoe as a prop to remind her white colleagues the shoe of exclusion was now on the other foot. "Since then people really know she's courageous and takes strong stands on issues."
Norman Carter, president of the Edmondson Village Community Association, says the council incumbents have gotten funds for signs marking the border of their community.
The significance of the signs?
"It's a matter of pride in where we live," he said. "That's all."