Nominees making most of yearlong wait

Sept. primary winners won't know fate until '04

November 08, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A yellow school bus riding through the newly carved 14th District in North Baltimore recently illustrated the strange state of political affairs -- since the 14th District officially does not exist yet. Still, Mary Pat Clarke, the Democratic nominee to represent that district on the City Council, was leading a group of potential constituents on a tour to help build community spirit.

The new district map for Baltimore's City Council, which doesn't go into effect for a year, has placed three new Democratic nominees in an unusual limbo -- a yearlong waiting period -- as they figure out how to spend the time between now and the general election in November next year.

Clarke, James B. Kraft and Belinda K. Conaway, all primary winners in open seats, are presumptive overwhelming favorites in next year's contests for the new 1st, 7th and 14th districts, given Baltimore's heavily Democratic electorate.

Under a new, smaller structure approved by referendum, each of the council districts will be represented by one council member. Current council members, all Democrats, were primary winners in the 11 other new districts.

Even as they anticipate election, Kraft, Conaway and Clarke have to tread carefully in the public eye. They often remind constituents that they are not -- yet -- elected officials. They do not have City Hall offices, paid staff or the authority that can move the municipal bureaucracy on constituents' behalf. And they must be mindful that the old system -- of six districts represented by three members each -- remains in City Hall for now.

"We're ministers without portfolio," said Kraft, a lawyer who hopes to represent the 1st District in Southeast Baltimore.

Portfolio or not, Clarke, a former City Council president, is acting the part of a political veteran. Her likely future colleagues, both political rookies, are still feeling their way.

"The incumbents are still serving, so it's a delicate balance," Kraft said. "If I get an e-mail addressed to `Dear Councilman,' I have to change that" perception.

Kraft said his main job so far has been to lend an ear. "My main role is to make myself available to everyone," he said.

Conaway, the favorite to win the 7th District in West Baltimore, is a guidance counselor in the Baltimore school system.

"I make my rounds and go to as many community meetings as possible," Conaway said.

Noting that her job as a guidance counselor fully occupies her time, she sees a bright side to the yearlong gap between elections: "It gives me time to get acclimated."

Clarke, however, needs no warm-up. The bus tour she organized took 40 community leaders and business owners on a four-hour ride that started in Waverly over morning coffee and doughnuts and ended in Remington, where they saw the Angelfall Studios contemporary art gallery and ate lunch at Dizzy Issie's.

Clarke, who is an English professor, said she wanted to use the trip -- paid for with her campaign funds -- to make introductions among community members and create camaraderie in the new district.

To build cohesion, Clarke said she is encouraging each neighborhood in the district to come up a strategic plan, which would be folded into a larger strategic plan for the district. As the tour criss-crossed between the Stadium Place project site on East 33rd Street, Guilford, Pen Lucy, Northwood, Charles Village, Harwood, Tuscany-Canterbury, Keswick and Hampden, Clarke said she asked each community association president to give a brief overview.

"Each representative had a chance to speak through the bullhorn," Clarke said. "And there were all kinds of connections made in the context of seeing each other's neighborhood."

Some aboard said the ride through the eclectic patchwork of neighborhoods was an eye-opening experience.

"I've lived in Baltimore for 32 years, and we went to parts I had never been in," said Beth Bullamore, president of the Charles Village Civic Association. "And yet it's all very close. It makes you realize that what happens in one area affects everyone else."

Bullamore gave the group an overview of the Johns Hopkins University bookstore and "college town" development project in the works in Charles Village.

Robert Nowlin, chairman of the crime deterrent committee in Pen Lucy, told the group that his neighborhood had made strides in reducing drug-related violent crimes by working closely with police.

Nowlin, who recently was honored by the Police Department for his community activism, said the bus tour changed his perception of other communities, especially the new face of Hampden on the bustling West 36th Street "Avenue."

"I was most impressed with Hampden. It has come a long, long way," Nowlin said. "This is going to bring the 14th District together."

As the ride ended, Dennis Byrne, board member of the Wyman Park Community Association, invited the group to a holiday cocktail party.

"It was so nice and informative," Byrne said of the tour, "since everybody's stuck in their own neighborhood."

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