Candidates flock to council races

A third of seats turning over as city feels impact of single-member districts

April 02, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Baltimore's City Council, a body known more for tedium than turnover, is attracting an unusually large field of candidates in the months leading up to the election, suggesting that some of the most interesting local political contests this year might take place in the shadow of the mayor's race.

And no matter how city residents vote in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary - the election that generally decides who wins in Baltimore - almost a third of the 15-member council will change this year. That's because at least two seats are being left open by members running for higher office and another two will be held by interim replacements on Election Day.

Nearly a dozen City Council candidates have filed for a place on the ballot, months before the July deadline, and at least another dozen are openly flirting with a run. The changes come more than five years after Baltimoreans voted to revamp the council into single-member districts, an effort - led by the community group ACORN - that was intended to encourage turnover.

Most candidates are lining up for two open seats: the 4th District in North Baltimore, held by City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who is running for council president, and the 11th District, occupied by Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who is running for mayor. The 6th, in the city's northwest quadrant, and the 13th, on the eastside, left vacant earlier this year, are also drawing candidates.

"I think these single-member districts, we're going to see the magic behind them finally," said Adam S. Meister, who is running to replace Mitchell in the 11th District and who was the first to file for a council seat. "The ACORN people envisioned that there was going to be these new types of voices, these new types of politicians, like me. I think [they] wanted people to have a voice again."

William H. Cole IV, a former state delegate and president of the Otterbein Community Association, has announced that he also will seek Mitchell's seat. Rita Collins, meanwhile, filed for the office in February.

The deadline to file with the city Board of Elections is July 2. Candidates who are already filed may also withdraw their applications in July.

Far from a glamorous job, members of the City Council have had less and less influence in recent decades over citywide problems such as crime and education. Like the Maryland General Assembly, the council has virtually no power over the budget, and many members spend significant effort on nonbinding resolutions.

But the council has mustered political relevance at times, such as in 2005 when then-Mayor Martin O'Malley proposed a convention hotel for downtown and, more recently, when it approved a smoking ban for city bars. Individual members, meanwhile, are extremely influential in their districts, acting as a link between city government and neighborhoods.

Next year, council members, who are technically part time - though many of them treat the position as a full-time job - will receive a pay increase from $48,000 a year to $57,000 a year.

"I've always felt a civic pride in this community," said Ryan M. Coleman, who is running in the 4th District in the seat occupied by Harris. "Definitely when the seat opened up, I wanted to get in there."

Bill Henry, a neighborhood advocate and director of commercial development for the Patterson Park Community Development Corp., has also announced he will run in that district, and Monica L. Gaines, who came in fourth in the 2003 Democratic primary, has also filed.

Smaller districts make it easier for incumbents to establish a connection with neighborhoods, take care of constituent work - from potholes to permits - and shore up votes, said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson. That might bode well for incumbents, most of whom have sat on the council for more than a decade. "I think they're pretty safe," Crenson said. "You don't see a lot of people being turned out of office by challengers."

But that isn't going to stop challengers from trying. A potentially tumultuous mayor's race, with Mayor Sheila Dixon facing off against a wide field of candidates, could drive higher-than-usual turnout and unpredictable results for other races, some suggest. Others believe residents are just fed up with those who are in power.

"It just got to the point where you sit back and say, `If not now, when?'" said Michael Eugene Johnson, who ran for council in 1995 and who will try again this year against City Councilwoman Agnes Welch in the 9th District on the city's west side. "I just figured this is a great time."

Encouraging challengers to take a run at the council was a main reason why community groups pushed the initiative to overhaul the council in 2002. Over the objections of council members at the time, Baltimoreans voted overwhelmingly to support the resulting ballot question, which shrunk the council from six three-member districts to 14 single-member districts.

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