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Campaign Beat

Regime Change

Candidates Challenge Incumbents On Their Records in the 44th

Illustrations by Tom Chalkley

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 8/9/2006

In the land of the haves and have-nots that makes up the 44th District, challengers running for state Senate and House of Delegates are united in one belief. Evidence of economic development is easier to find in places like the Charles Street corridor and along the waterfront than in the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor or the areas surrounding Hollins Market.

The majority of the residents in the 44th District live in abject poverty, according to challengers running in both races. Unemployment and the lack of opportunities continue to plague the district; its schools are in desperate need of increased performance, repairs, and technological updates. Many challengers in the race are pointing fingers at the incumbents, saying that although the four of them are nice people, they don't possess the skill set required to legislate on behalf of a district that is largely in dire straits.

"I drove though this [district] just seeing what exists," says Sameerah Muhammad, owner of the Bistro restaurant on South Arlington Avenue and a Republican candidate for state Senate. "Every fourth house was boarded up. Children were running in doors where you could see from front to back. . . . It's an enormous district, and there is enormous poverty."

Muhammad says that though the incumbents claim they brought millions of dollars into the district, she has not seen proof of this in her neighborhood. She pulls out a piece of incumbent Sen. Verna Jones' campaign literature that references the $24 million she brought home for six aging school buildings.

"And why would you put $24 million to fix up aging school buildings when you could build brand-new state of the art schools for that, with computers in them for every child?" Muhammad asks, underestimating the cost of new schools, a single one of which costs tens of millions of dollars.

Democrat Kevin A. Brooks says he's running for Senate in the 44th because he also is not satisfied with the quality of leadership. Jones was running uncontested in this election when he announced his candidacy, Brooks says, and "based on the conditions of the 44th, I didn't believe that anyone should be uncontested."

"Where are the schools that she put this money into, and how is she ensuring that procurement opportunities exist for minority-owned businesses in regards to development by the biotech centers that exist with the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins?" Brooks asks. "How is she ensuring that working families are able to have affordable and a quality education for their children?"

Brooks is a former assistant principal at North Bend Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore. He created a nonprofit in 2001 called the Freedom Community Development Corp., a faith-based initiative that focuses on youth and community development. He moved his family to the Madison Park neighborhood six years ago, when community development meant getting a crackhouse two doors away shut down ("Street Wise," Jan. 9, 2002).

"Jones lives around the corner from me on one of the most rampant open-air drug markets, and she lives between two or three vacant homes," he says. "I figure that if you're a state senator, at least you should be able to take care of your own neighborhood."

Jones, who lives around the corner from where she grew up, is visibly upset when she hears about Brooks' allegation that she hasn't been able to take care of crime in her neighborhood. "He did not do that alone," she quips when she hears about what Brooks says about closing down the crackhouse on his block. "There was a community effort, and it took several years.

"I have an infiltration of drugs in that block, and I was the only homeowner on my side of the block. And the community association was right across the street, and they worked on it full time. If they couldn't do it, how was I supposed to do it?"

She says proof of her commitment to the 44th District can be found in her track record. She has fought for and secured millions of dollars through legislation for the district, which is going through the largest development surge in the city. She cites the Hopkins biotech project, which will bring hundreds of homes and jobs to East Baltimore, the redevelopment of downtown's west side, the Uplands development project in West Baltimore, and the Upton redevelopment master plan to name a few she's had some hand in. She says she also has been putting forth legislation that would bring economic development and more funding for small and minority-owned businesses to the district, and to improve the plight of ex-offenders in the 44th. She notes that she has seáved on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, as well as the Public Safety, Transportation, and Environment Subcommittee. She was elected and sworn in as the chair of the state Legislative Black Caucus earlier this year.

Jones says there is a root cause of the challenges legislators and citizens face in the district. "[In] the 44th legislative District . . . our [past] leadership failed to do what needed to be done," she says. "I believe that's why we're in the conditions that we're in. And I look at my record, and more resources have come into this district in the eight years that I've been [here] than in the last several decades.

"And no, not everything is going to be turned around in that amount of time, however there have been great strides here."

There may be another root cause behind the opposition to Jones and the other incumbents. Jones contends that Democratic challenger Brooks was running for House of Delegates until just before the July 3 filing date, but switched over to the Senate race at the behest of radio talk-show host and former state senator Larry Young.

Young, who was expelled from the General Assembly in 1998 due to ethics violations, was rumored to be considering a run for his old seat but did not file before the deadline. A source close to 44th District politics who wishes to remain anonymous says Young is backing Brooks and two challengers in the House race--former city councilman Melvin Stukes and Lafayette Square Association President Arlene Fisher--against the incumbents.

Fisher would not confirm any connection with Young, saying only, "I'll take support from wherever I can get it." Stukes acknowledges that he met with Young but says he hasn't heard from Young whether or not he has won his endorsement.

"I'm going to do what I can to help Kevin [Brooks]," Young says during a brief telephone interview with City Paper. As for Stukes and Fisher, Young says, "I have not cast any decisions [about endorsements]." Beyond that, he refers a reporter to the Aug. 22 broadcast of his show, during which he said he will talk about the 44th in detail. Meanwhile, Young critics in the district wonder if Brooks or some of the other candidates will receive any of the $40,000 Young raised in campaign contributions before he decided not to run.

Regardless of political affiliation, six of the seven Democratic challengers running for House seats against Democratic incumbents Keith Haynes, Ruth Kirk, and Jeffrey Paige are dissatisfied with the poverty they see in certain neighborhoods in the district.

Former WYPR and WEAA talk-show host and journalist Anthony McCarthy ran for House of Delegates in the 44th in 1998 and lost. But, he says, "when I look at the needs and listen to the voices of the people in this district, there is a failure of advocacy and leadership across the board. The three incumbent delegates are wonderful people. I know them, I've observed them, but speaking frankly, it's time for a real change in leadership."

That change couldn't come soon enough for constituents, McCarthy says. "The people I'm talking to in the district don't have the luxury of time anymore," he says, referencing the men standing on corners in the district who need jobs and housing, or those infected with HIV/AIDS.

Melvin Stukes says his top issue is education, the same as during his 13 years on the City Council representing the old 6th District. "If I had my way, I would tear down every single school building in Baltimore and have them rebuilt," Stukes says, citing a city survey that shows 30 percent of city schools are in fair condition, while 70 percent are listed in poor condition.

He contests Muhammad's earlier comment about $24 million put toward schools in the district. "I believe that is the amount of money that has been allocated to do some renovation work at Carver High School," he says. "But rebuilding a new state of the art school from the ground would cost more than $24 million, depending on its size. . . . When people are talking about this kind of stuff, they really need to know how much it costs to build a school."

"We've got a lot of older schools in this area, and a lot of them need to be replaced," agrees challenger Fisher, who ran for the House in 1998 and 2002; she lost both races. "We need newer, more high-tech schools. We're going into a computer age, and a lot of the schools are not wired for computers."

But Fisher says there are some positive things going on in the 44th, too. "You have some really strong neighborhoods and community associations, but they need some help so that they can advance," she says. "My challenge to many of the other candidates that are running for House of Delegates is, What have you done to help the neighborhood and the community? What boards have you participated in, what committees have you worked on, what grants have you written to help get money for the neighborhood?"

Her major gripe with the incumbents? "We're not seeing [enough of their] participation."

Businessman Steven E. Gilliard, a Democrat running for the House, agrees with Fisher on that point. He says he remembers going to the War Memorial building during the hearings for the state's new transit initiative at the beginning of this year. "Verna Jones and Jeffrey Paige showed up, but the other two didn't," he laments.

"Being a delegate means that you stand up to bring the bacon home," Gilliard says. "That means jobs in your district."

Gilliard says he's been bringing home results for 25 years. He cites fighting for funding with Clarence Mitchell Jr. back in 1983 while serving as student body president at UMBC, and starting the first minority controlled investment-banking firm, although he declines to give its name.

Gilliard says elected officials aren't solving problems in the 44th and in the city because they're not going out into the community. "A lot of [elected officials] are afraid of the people," he says. "But how can you represent the people if you're afraid of them?"

But incumbent Del. Ruth Kirk, a 23-year veteran of the House, says she's not afraid of the people. She gives residents in her district her home number. "When [constituents] have a problem, they know they can call on me," she says. "I'll come to their meetings or I'll get someone on the phone from downtown to help solve that problem.

"If there's a vacant house next door to them and it's drugs, I get the guys off the streets and make sure I get the police to monitor them and remove them," she continues. When asked how many crackhouses she has closed down, she says, "They weren't really drug houses, [people just] stashed their stuff."

But there are things Kirk doesn't do. "I don't deal with business," she says. "Verna Jones and them deal with business. I deal direct with my community. I'm more of a grass-roots delegate."

When asked her record over the last two decades, she points to bond bills securing money for a new Head Start building on Druid Hill Avenue, various churches and schools, the late Bea Gaddy's organization, the House of Ruth, and the YMCA. When pressed for names of pieces of legislation and the years they passed, she falters. "I was the first one that started with the homeless bill--when Parren [Mitchell] was in," she says. "That passed about 13 years ago."

Incumbent Del. Keith Haynes, who is seeking re-election after his first term, says he has actively been addressing issues that affect constituents' day to day lives--sponsoring and supporting legislation addressing crime, economic security, health care, and alternatives to crime. Haynes, an attorney for Peter Angelos, says he introduced legislation that called for automatic expungements of illegal arrests, but the legislation did not pass.

"In this country it is still not a crime to stand outside in public--or to stand outside and talk," he says. "What we're trying to do is correct a fundamental wrong when it does occur, and provide justice when the civil liberties of the individual is encroached upon."

Haynes also points to a bill that informs customers when they are purchasing a prescription that generic options are available and legislation to increase dental care to Medicaid-eligible children that passed in 2003. Last year, and the year before, he says, a statewide bill was introduced for repairs to aging schools. Although the bill did not pass, he worked with fellow members of the Appropriations Committee to allocate $400 million for school renovations and construction last year in the budget.

Lesser-known Democratic candidates running for the House in the 44th include Wesley Wood, who ran McCarthy's campaign in 2002, and National Guardsman Richard Parker. Both say they're in the race because the incumbents aren't showing enough results.

Incumbent Del. Jeffrey Paige and Democratic challenger Tavon Nathaniel Pope could not be reached for comment. Democratic challenger Jeremy Skinner has withdrawn from the race.

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