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The Battle For Baltimore's 8th District City Council Seat
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Tuesday, September 6, 2011
In Baltimore, four political neophytes are competing to unseat 8th district City Councilwoman Helen Holton. They cite the area’s widespread vacant houses, poverty and meager incentives for business owners as key reasons why Holton should be ousted. WYPR’s Shernay Williams spoke with each candidate and filed this report.
David Smallwood is driving around some of the most distressed neighborhoods in Baltimore City’s 8th district.
“This right here is one of the worst corners in Edmondson Village. Because the police are here, they’re gone. See what I’m saying? That’s what I’m talking about community policing. You got to make it hot. You got to make it uncomfortable for these guys to want to sell drugs on these corners.”
On the corner of North Woodington and Colborne Roads in Edmondson Village, he’s happy to see two police officers. Their presence in the area, he says, will help reduce crime in the community, which has been the site of over 13 murders since last November.
The predominately African-American West Baltimore district includes Ten Hills, Hunting Ridge, Edmondson Village, Hillsdale, and portions of Beechfield and Yale Heights. It’s also home to the contentious, long-planned Uplands re-development project, which will generate 1,000 mixed-income homes over the next eight years. But the district also struggles with blight and dilapidated housing.
Smallwood likens the area’s growing abandoned housing stock to a cancerous tumor.
“We may have to even look at being creative, like a statue of limitations on abandoned houses. How long can an abandoned house sit in a community before the city is able to do something to it or do something with it? That’s what we got to do. We got to get creative. The longer we wait, the worst it’s going to get.”
Smallwood, who works for the Department of Juvenile Services, is making his third bid to represent the 8th district and oust incumbent Helen Holton. So far, he’s raised more than 16-thousand dollars, more than Holton’s four other challengers. Councilwoman Holton, a certified public accountant, who was first elected to the seat in 1995, told WYPR she has more to do in City Hall. If re-elected, she said she plans to push a new bill that proposes talks about a purchasing preference program for small, local or disadvantaged businesses.
“It would mean that contracts awarded by the Board of Estimates would be awarded only to those businesses that are local businesses with a local physical presence in Baltimore city.”
But Holton’s reign has been plagued by legal troubles. She lost her seat as chair of the Council’s taxation and finance committee and was ordered to a year of unsupervised probation after pleading “no contest” to misdemeanor campaign finance violations. The charge stemmed from Holton accepting more than 12-thousand dollars for a campaign poll by developers John Paterakis and Ronald Lipscomb, in exchange for her vote for tax breaks for a Harbor East development. Last month, the state Court of Appeals dismissed felony bribery and perjury charges against her.
“I have continued to perform my job as a council representative of the 8th district serving the people in my district, and in that timeframe we have made great strides at improving the quality of life and providing service and attention to the needs of the constituents that have been in contact with my office.”
She’s raised 22-thousand dollars for her re-election campaign – more than any of her challengers. Neither Smallwood, nor Holton’s other three competitors, have held elected office before, but each is confident in their abilities to lead. Dayvon Love co-founded the social justice and education reform think tank, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. The Towson University senior – he’s one course shy of receiving his bachelor’s degree -- is also an award-winning intercollegiate debater. Only 24, Young is one of the youngest candidates running for city office. The district’s next representative, Love says, should improve mobility services for the elderly, incorporate more vocational training in the school’s education system and demand local hiring. He argues that the Uplands redevelopment project should include a community benefits agreement.
“And what needs to happen, the community needs to be educated on their rights as citizens and their relationship with development. So, one of the things that is not often used in Baltimore are community benefits agreements. CBAs that are designed as a contract between the developer and the individuals in the community to make sure they provide vital services.”
Love raised more than 24-hundred dollars for his run. Challenger Haki Shakur Ammi, a six-year veteran Baltimore City firefighter, points to a culture of poor eating habits and limited healthy food options as major concerns in the 8th. The self-proclaimed “holistic advocate” says the excessive number of liquor stores drives the area’s spiraling crime rate.
“We’re not going to continue to push liquor stores disproportionally in the African-American community. So, I will continue to work on that. That will be certainly the first thing that I would look at because the violence tends to happen around 50 to 100 feet close to these liquor store establishments.”
Ammi has also formulated what he calls a “powernomics” agenda —a national plan to empower black Americans.
“I believe accumulating our wealth, equity in our wealth, to create businesses is the best solution, as well as partnering with various private sectors that are interested in partnering with urban environments instead of sending jobs overseas and everywhere else.”
He says his supporters have donated roughly 200 dollars to his campaign. The surviving Democrat will face the only Republican candidate, Dennis Betzel, in November’s general election. Betzel is a project manager for a software company and points to vacant housing as the district’s primary blockade. With 220 dollars in hand for his campaign, he proposes to create “Bmore points”—a concept similar to retail points— that would allow residents, who are heavily involved in their communities to use their activism towards purchase of a vacant property.
“If you’re a resident in Baltimore City and you’ve earned these community service points, then you can come in and use a mixture of cash and points. If you only have $10,000 in cash, then you show up with $10,000 in cash and $90,000 in points because you’ve been working for the last ten years in your community.”
Whoever is elected to lead the 8th district, will face enormous challenges. Again, David Smallwood.
"There’s a lot of work we got to do. And I’m not naïve and I know it’s not going to happen overnight, but at least we’ve got to start taking some steps to make it happen. We haven’t done that.”
I’m Shernay Williams, reporting in West Baltimore for 88-1, WYPR.
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