Neighborhood improvement drew Velazquez into civic arena

Council candidate helped revitalize Pennsylvania Ave.


February 03, 2005|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Rehabilitating her Westminster street wasn't enough for community activist Josephine Velazquez.

With the city election scheduled for May, she decided to get an early start as a candidate for one of two open seats on the five-member Common Council.

As a member of a task force created in the summer of 2002 to find ways to revitalize her Pennsylvania Avenue neighborhood, she drew attention to big-city problems that have seeped into the small-town environment. Now, she said, she is ready to apply the same grassroots approach to city politics.

"I want to be the voice of the people," Velazquez said. "They should be my eyes and my ears."

She said she would like more city-driven activities for children of lower-income parents, more managed growth with the limited public safety resources in the city and more diverse storefronts on Main Street.

Velazquez, 42, is one of two political newcomers running for the council in the May 9 nonpartisan election for mayor and council. The other candidate who has filed for an open council seat is Westminster Fire Chief Kevin R. Utz. The seats are held by council President Damian L. Halstad and Councilman Roy L. Chiavacci.

Incumbent Councilman Thomas K. Ferguson has filed as a candidate for mayor. Mayor Kevin E. Dayhoff is serving his first term.

Velazquez first applied for a council seat two years ago, when Councilman L. Gregory Pecoraro resigned. She also ran for a council seat in the May 2003 election. She was unsuccessful in both bids.

Those defeats have not deterred the native New Yorker, who left the city at age 18, when she joined the Army as a medic.

While stationed in Texas, she met her husband-to-be, also a medic. They led the nomadic life of a military family even though Velazquez left the Army after two years. But when they moved to New Windsor 18 years ago, Velazquez said, she knew Carroll County was where she wanted to raise their young family.

Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Union Mills, where they stayed until Velazquez separated from her husband in 1996. They eventually divorced.

She and her three children - two sons and a daughter - left a five-bedroom house on 1 1/2 acres for a three-bedroom apartment on Pennsylvania Avenue in Westminster.

Velazquez earned an associate's degree from Carroll Community College in nursing and accounting. She is a bookkeeper for a property management company in Baltimore.

Neighbors recruited Velazquez three years ago to join Drug Action, a loosely organized group of Pennsylvania Avenue and West Main Street residents who wanted drugs off their streets.

It wasn't long before Velazquez became a voice for the group. She attended council meetings to ask for more police officers, organized summertime block parties to build neighborhood camaraderie and picked up syringes, garbage and broken glass from the streets on neighborhood cleanup days.

Because of her fluency in Spanish, the city's Police Department hired her as a freelance translator. That led to her participation on the Lower Pennsylvania Avenue Advisory Task Force, a group of government and business representatives that met in 2002 to make recommendations to improve that neighborhood.

"People have taken more pride in the neighborhood," Velazquez said. "When you have more pride in where you live, that's your foundation. We know each other more and keep an eye on each other. People are more aware of their surroundings and their neighbors."

It was her first taste of civic life, and she liked it. She started taking her 13-year-old daughter to Monday night Westminster council meetings.

She said it won't be easy to unseat the incumbents, but she'll have a small army on her side this time around.

Though the council race is nonpartisan, she changed her political affiliation from Democrat to Republican two years ago. Since then, she has participated in a leadership program organized by the Maryland Federation of Republican Women and has risen to the presidency of the Republican Women of Carroll County.

Velazquez said she has learned a lot about politics volunteering for voter-registration drives and the recent presidential campaign.

"When Josie says she's going to do something, she follows through," said Michelle Jefferson, president of the Central Carroll Republican Club, who has known Velazquez for about two years.

"She's a go-getter, and nothing will stand in her way if she wants to get something done. She balances her career and her children and her politics very well, and not everybody can do that. It takes a little bit of finesse."

Jefferson said she admires Velazquez's determination. "Life experience trumps any kind of educational experience," Jefferson said.

Velazquez's eldest son is about to graduate from Carroll Community College, and the other son also attends the school.

"When you're a mom, you have a lot of hands. You know how to balance and do things," she said. "If I can balance my own little measly budget, keep a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on their back - if I could handle my finances, I could bring that experience to the council."

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