Reshaping their strategies

A new political map forces candidates for the City Council to adapt

Election 2004

October 19, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Jacquiline "Jackie" Johnson has a mini-political revolution on her side in her bid to become a City Council member. What she really needs is shoe leather.

Johnson is challenging Councilwoman Helen L. Holton in the first general election since council districts were shrunk and reshaped to help political upstarts just like her.

But the revamped 8th District still seems pretty big to Johnson as she tries to cover an area large enough to span the affluent mill village of Dickeyville to Edmondson Village, a poor neighborhood where she has been active in community and school groups for years. "They say it's smaller," Johnson, 58, said recently after knocking on doors for a few hours in one corner of the district. "Walk it."

Since the last city election in 1999, council districts have been reshaped -- from six three-member districts to 14 single-member ones. Advocates of the change believed that shrinking the territory and breaking up political slates would help less-established candidates win office.

But running for council remains hard work for challengers and incumbents alike. While underfunded newcomers find the size of the districts daunting, incumbents who were accustomed to running on three-person slates are having to adjust to more expensive solo campaigning. Some council veterans even find themselves in foreign territory.

Holton, 44, has spent nine years representing the old 5th District, which included affluent Roland Park, Ashburton and Mount Washington, as well as struggling areas such as lower Park Heights Avenue. She says she is no stranger in those communities. However, she's a new kid on the block as she runs for re-election this year.

Eighty percent of the revamped 8th is new to Holton, a Democrat. When she campaigns, some voters ask why they've never seen her before, why she hasn't taken care of this or that neighborhood problem. Holton has to explain that she is in new territory.

"Too often, people want to look at me and blame me for the things that are not right in their community when I did not represent them," Holton said. "You can't hold me accountable for things that were not my responsibility. I had my own district to represent."

City residents voted to shrink and reshape the council by passing Question P in November 2002. Fiercely opposed by incumbents, the measure was backed by community and labor groups, led by the activist group, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Johnson, who is running as an independent, is a member of ACORN.

Backers said the change -- the first to council structure since 1967 -- would make it easier for grass-roots candidates to oust entrenched politicians on the all-Democratic council.

That prediction was not borne out in the primary in September of last year. Only three newcomers won in the Democratic primary. In all three cases, there was no incumbent in the newly drawn district being contested. The only incumbents who lost were those forced by redistricting to run against fellow council members.

Political observers do note that there are more Republican and third-party challengers in the general election. In 1999, 14 Republicans ran in 18 council district races. This year, there are 21 Republicans, Greens, Libertarians or independents in the 14 districts. (The council president continues to be elected citywide.)

If nothing else, the change made it easier for candidates like Johnson to get on the ballot. She had to gather only 223 signatures instead of the 600 to 800 she would have needed before the districts were broken up.

"This does give a bigger opportunity for small but well-organized groups to get on the council," said Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist who served on a commission that studied council reorganization.

As Holton's case illustrates, the new districts have made some aspects of running tougher for incumbents. Councilman Robert W. Curran, for instance, expects to spend about $20,000 this year running for re-election in the new 3rd District. That's about the amount that his slate spent -- split three ways -- in 1999.

"It's definitely different," said Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., whose costs are higher because he has to introduce himself to many constituents in the revamped 11th District, which stretches from the Inner Harbor to Druid Heights. Sixty percent of that territory is outside his former district.

Even so, Crenson does not expect to see many challengers pull off surprises, given how handily incumbents won in the primary. But he doesn't rule out a real revolution. It might just take more than one election cycle, he said, for less-established candidates to get organized and win.

"People have to get geared up to operate in the system. It may come," he said. "But certainly this experience doesn't seem to betoken any big change in the composition of the council."

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