When Baltimore City Council members convene Tuesday to consider applicants for the seat left open by a long-time councilwoman's retirement last month, at least one will be very familiar to them: the councilwoman's son, who served as her aide for nearly three decades.
William A. "Pete" Welch Jr., 57, is running to succeed his mother, Agnes Welch. He says his experience working with the residents and businesses of West Baltimore qualifies him for the job.
But Welch's three challengers — who include a political science professor, a teacher who helped found a charter school and the director of a nonprofit — say it's time for a change in the 9th District, which includes many of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
They point to Welch's past brushes with the law, which stem from his work on his mother's campaigns. He pleaded guilty in 2000 to second-degree assault and gun violations for firing a pistol to disperse a group of angry poll workers demanding promised payments, and pleaded guilty in 2004 to three misdemeanor charges for failing to file campaign finance reports.
Welch also was found guilty of paying poll workers in 1999, a practice that has since been legalized.
"If we're going to be serious about improving our city and our neighborhoods, we need to get people in office who are qualified to do those jobs," said John T. Bullock, a political scientist at Towson University who is running for the council seat. "Other than being her son, what qualifications does he bring?"
Welch describes the gun incident as a "life-changing event" that prompted him to learn anger management techniques and obtain a certificate in mediation. He says the failure to update campaign finance reports was a mistake.
A certified public accountant, he says that his tenure as a legislative aide can ensure a smooth transition for the district.
"I know the agencies. I know the policy and procedure," he said. "It makes it that much easier to move forward from day one."
The council will selected a successor to complete the term of Agnes Welch — and reap the benefits of incumbency in the regular election this fall.
Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young says the council will make a decision based on each candidate's merits. But privately, council members say that Welch's selection is all but guaranteed. The council is not expected to vote Tuesday.
Michael E. Johnson, 55, who garnered about a quarter of the vote when he ran against Agnes Welch in 2007, says that he is running to make a statement to the 9th District's residents.
"The council is not going to make a change. They're going to elect Agnes' son," said Johnson, director of the Paul Robeson Institute, which advocates for progressive causes.
A former employee of the city housing department and the Baltimore Development Corporation, the city's quasi-public development arm, Johnson aims to draw more busineses and grocery stores to the district and increase job opportunities.
"We need a comprehensive plan of how to get jobs and how to get people off the corners," he said.
A spokesman for Young said that Johnson's application could be disqualified because he has not yet submitted a copy of his voter registration card.
Abigail Breiseth, another candidate, helped found the Southwest Baltimore Charter School in the district and now teaches special-needs students at the Baltimore Lab School.
"Being a teacher is very much like being in government," said Breiseth, 42, who lives in Hollins Market. "Both tell stories that move people to action and inspire them to look at their lives in new ways."
According to her website, she hopes to foster the creation of new jobs, increase tourism in the district and boost development that makes the area an easier place to walk and live.
Bullock, the Towson University professor, earned a doctorate in political science with an emphasis on local government from the University of Maryland College Park last year. He worked in the District of Columbia's transportation department and completed several fellowships with both Baltimore and district government agencies.
A native of Philadelphia, Bullock, 32, and his wife settled in the Evergreen neighborhood five years ago. He is vice president of the Evergreen Protective Association and serves on an umbrella community group, the Alliance of Rosemont Community Organizations.
"When you look around the 9th District, you see abandoned houses, people out of work, trash, debris, litter," he said. "We need someone who has the energy to make the relationships with the agencies to get problems fixed."
Bullock believes that his expertise in transportation in particular will aid the district, because the proposed Red Line light rail service will run through the district — prompting hopes for development near rail stops.
"I think there's really something to be said for returning to neighborhoods like this and being an agent of change," he said. "I could write about it, but I'd rather be on the ground living it and doing it."