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All for One

Incumbents In 41st Form Unity Ticket, But Challengers Say There’s No Unity In District

Tom Chalkley
BIRDS OF A FEATHER: Leonard Kerpelman and Lisa Gladden (top) will both appear on the ballot for 41st district senator, although Kerpelman has dropped out of the race; (bottom, left to right) Dels. Nathaniel Oaks, Jill Carter, and Sandy "S.I." Rosenberg, and former Del. Wendell F. Phillips, are among the candidates for House of Delegates in the 41st.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 7/26/2006

In Baltimore’s 41st legislative district, which is an inverted L-shaped area that covers an area from where Charles Street meets Northern Parkway to the western edge of the city, four Democratic incumbents stand united, hoping they will win the race to fill the three seats in the House of Delegates and one seat in the state Senate up for grabs this election.

The three House incumbents—Jill Carter, Nathaniel Oaks, and Sandy “S.I.” Rosenberg—have banded together on a ticket led by the district’s state senator, Lisa Gladden. They are calling themselves the Unity Ticket. They say their diversity (Carter and Gladden are African-American women, Oaks is an African-American man, and Rosenberg is a Jewish man) makes them a good fit for this district, which, although 70 percent African-American, is home to about one third of the city’s Jewish population. And they note that they have worked closely together over the past four years to improve the quality of life for 41st District residents, and they believe their hard work will lead them to victory in the Sept. 12 primary. But a review of the history of the district and its politics calls into question whether there really is a unified front in the 41st or whether bad feelings still fester.

When the city’s political districts were redrawn in 2002, the 41st District was formed from a portion of the old 42nd, which had been represented by former state senator Barbara Hoffman. Longtime Sen. Clarence Blount was stepping down from his 41st seat, and Hoffman ran to replace him, assembling a ticket that included Rosenberg and two political newcomers. But her longtime political ally, the late Del. Howard “Pete” Rawlings, handpicked then-Del. Gladden, who is black, to run for state Senate against Hoffman, who is white, on a slate that included two incumbent delegates, Oaks and Wendell F. Phillips, as well as David Smallwood. The Gladden-led ticket also called itself the Unity Ticket. At the time, Rawlings told City Paper, “We were not willing to concede the loss of a black state senator in the 41st District after 32 years of Clarence Blount.” The election was divisive, and Gladden edged Hoffman out for the Senate seat; Carter, Oaks, and Rosenberg were elected to the open House seats.

Though that race was divisive and pitted longtime political allies against one another, the incumbents say the past four years spent working together on districtwide issues have helped heal those wounds. Carter, a lawyer, former lobbyist, social justice advocate, and daughter of civil rights leader Walter Carter, says she and Gladden bring a sense of “freshness” to the district, while old hands Rosenberg and Oaks bring statehouse experience to the table.

Gladden says the four work well together, and they are proud of the projects they have worked on collectively, like bringing a much-needed grocery store to the corner of Liberty Heights and Hillsdale avenues in the Forest Park neighborhood and pushing the proposal for the Red Line, an east-west subway line that would connect Woodlawn in western Baltimore County to downtown and Fells Point. The goal of their joint efforts, Gladden says, is to make the district a better place to live for all of its residents.

But a Democratic challenger in the House race says the 2006 Unity Ticket is not all it’s cracked up to be. Wendell F. Phillips, son of the late delegate and civil rights activist Wendell Phillips, lost his seat in the House in the 2002 race. Phillips says the Unity candidates, some of whom he ran with in ’02, have banded together to keep him and other nonincumbents out.

“They are unified because I am running,” Phillips says. “And if I get in, one of them doesn’t. I’m sure [Gladden] made them seem unified, but they are anything but.”

Even in 2002, Phillips says, there were problems among the members of the first Unity Ticket, stemming from the fact that Oaks, who had already served a decade in the House, had his eye on the Senate seat. However, Rawlings, at the time perhaps the House’s most powerful member, supported Gladden, and “there were folks out there who didn’t like Nat Oaks for Senate,” Phillips says. “So the whole beginning of the ‘Unity Ticket’ at that point, was mired in disdain from [Oaks], who eventually conceded not to run for Senate.”

Oaks confirms that he was hoping to run for the Senate seat in 2002 but says he withdrew because polls showed that if he and Gladden both ran, they would have split the black vote, throwing the race to Hoffman.

Phillips points out that the redrawing of the district created a racial divide that did not exist before. The 41st District represented by Blount was 80-90 percent African-American, but when it was redrawn it pulled in a significant portion of the city’s Jewish community, and the percentage of black voters was reduced to 70 percent. Phillips says the ’02 Unity Ticket represented an effort by African-American politicians to put the 41st District seats in their hands. Oaks confirms that this did play a role in his decision not to run for Senate in 2002.

“I had to make a political decision of whether I wanted to be in or out—whether the district would be represented by a black or nonblack, with the district being 70 percent black,” Oaks says. However, he insists, once he joined the Unity Ticket, he was “a dedicated Unity team member straight through.”

Phillips also embraced the Unity Ticket but he says he didn’t embrace the racial elements that were part of it.

“I didn’t have a problem with that, but the political idea was we were going to run on the ticket,” he says. “I was feeling a blacks against the Jews mentality, and I had a hard time [with] that, because that wasn’t how I grew up.”

Rosenberg discounts Phillips’ notion that there is tension—racial or otherwise—between the members of the 2006 Unity Ticket.

“One of the reasons why [we felt] it so important that we run together and work together was to heal whatever rifts there were from the election four years ago,” says the 24-year veteran of the House of Delegates. “There is a very genuine need for the kind of diversity our ticket and our delegation have brought to the district for the last four years. [We] have worked as diligently in Howard Park as we have in Roland Park.”

Carter says her father and Phillips’ father fought together during the civil rights era, and she says she thinks highly of Phillips. Although she was not part of the Unity Ticket last election, she and the other incumbents in the district decided to run together “well in advance of knowing that Wendell was going to run,” she says.

“And I don’t buy into the fact that the formation of the team guarantees a win,” says Carter, who won her seat in ’02 even though she was not part of the ticket. Since then she has championed such causes as investigating alleged illegal arrests in the city and fighting for adequate funding for the city’s school system.

Oaks says the issues that existed within the Unity team back in 2002 had more to do with Gladden’s focus on beating Barbara Hoffman, which he describes as “single-minded.”

“[Gladden] was more concerned about winning against Barbara, and we were more concerned about the Unity Ticket,” he says. This year Gladden will not have an opponent because Democrat Leonard Kerpelman, who had filed with the Maryland State Board of Elections to run against her, has withdrawn from the race and is running instead for Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee. (Kerpelman’s name will still appear on the ballot, however, because he withdrew from the race too late.)

“The 2002 race was different,” Gladden says. “There were a lot of moving parts in that race, so I understand [Phillips’] issue,” she says. “But I also think that because me, Jill, Nat, and Sandy have been working together for four years, we really understand the need for unity in a race like this.”

There are two other Democrats not on the Unity Ticket also running for House seats: Kevin Hargrave, a captain at the Baltimore City Detention Center, and Karen Ferguson, who did not file an e-mail address or phone number with the State Board of Elections. Hargrave says he is running because he reached out to Carter, Oaks, and Rosenberg about his concerns, and “they’ve been unresponsive to the concerns of state correctional officers.” He says people in the 41st who are correctional officers at the city jail are concerned about safety there. The center has been in the spotlight frequently for its reputation as a violent place.

Hargrave complains that correctional institutions like the city jail often hire very young officers who he says are not fully trained to do the job. The inexperienced officers are not equipped to tell “an average of 100 people what to do.”

When asked about Hargrave’s concerns, Gladden says she “would love for Hargrave to call me so that we can talk about issues that are important to him.”

Republican challenger Tony Asa is the only Republican running for delegate in the 41st. Asa, a community advocate, ran for City Council in 1999 and lost. He says he learned something from that race: Change your party affiliation from Democrat to Republican and you will “get out of the rat race.” He likewise says he thinks the Unity Ticket is a sham.

“It’s like a packet of batteries,” he says. “You need one battery, but you have to buy three to get that one.”

Asa says that the Unity Ticket’s focus should be on more pressing issues, such as joblessness and crime, rather than quality of life problems.

“When people go to bed at night, they’re not going to think about the Red Line or the grocery store,” Asa says. “They’re going to think about what’s happening to them and their families tomorrow.”

But Gladden says Asa misses the point.

“Good transportation systems transform the character of communities,” she says. “The more you bifurcate a community into the haves and the have nots, you create opportunities for crime. When you have a community where everyone feels a part of it, people are less likely to commit crimes.”

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