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Campaign Beat

Is This Seat Taken?

Handful Of Challengers Face Slate Of Strong Incumbents In 43rd

Tom Chalkley

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 9/6/2006

The 43rd District covers most of the Northeast corner of the city, running from North Avenue at its southernmost tip up Charles Street along the city line and back down Harford Road. Like most state legislative districts in Baltimore, it includes both pockets of wealth and long stretches of blight. Driving through the district on any of its main arteries, you are likely to pass giant lawn signs naming the four incumbents, all Democrats, who are running together as a slate: Sen. Joan Carter Conway and delegates Curt Anderson, Ann Marie Doory, and Maggie McIntosh. With several big names and the ability to pool their resources, the incumbents are a formidable team, but several challengers have come forward to oppose the stagnation they see in Maryland's General Assembly and the Democratic Party.

The only person running against Conway in the Democratic primary for the Senate seat is 30-year-old park ranger David Vane, and he's not the likeliest of candidates. Vane is a rock guitarist who cut his hair to run for office because he feels that people wouldn't elect a "long-haired dude." He admits that "a lot of my friends were shocked when I told them I was going to run for office."

But Vane is serious about winning the seat because he is unsatisfied with the Democratic establishment both locally and nationally. He is especially disillusioned with Conway, who he says lacks initiative.

"I just see this lack of enthusiasm to really want to go out and get things done," he notes. "I called her numerous times and never once had a returned call. I've talked to other people who said the same thing."

Conway did not return calls for this article.

But Conway is a daunting foe. She has been in the state Senate for 10 years, chairs numerous committees and subcommittees. She sponsored 25 bills in 2006 and co-sponsored 81 more. But despite her clout, questions have arisen over Conway's ethics, particularly in reference to her husband, Vernon "Tim" Conway, and his job as a city liquor board inspector. In 2004 Conway sponsored a bill to stop law enforcement from "conducting investigations of the type normally conducted by liquor board inspectors." The bill was seen by some as tying the police's hands in order to keep more authority for liquor inspectors. According to a March 2004 article in The Sun, Conway didn't disclose the possible conflict of interest until six weeks after she introduced the bill. She later sent the bill back to committee. And in 2005 chief city liquor inspector Sam Daniels alleged in a suit against the Board of Liquor License Commissioners that Conway tried to get him fired so her husband could have his job. Conway denied the allegations, and the lawsuit was eventually dropped.

On the House side, three Democratic contenders have come forward to challenge the three incumbents. Mary Washington, a community activist and Abell resident who has never run for political office before, is running because she wants to bridge the gap between the city's rich and poor. Washington, former president of the Abell Community Association, helped build the playground at Stadium Place, served as interim director for the Baltimore Neighborhoods Indicators Alliance, and ran HousingStat at Baltimore Housing. Washington has the earthy feel of an activist, but after talking to her for a few minutes, it's clear that she has the knowledge to back up her good intentions.

"I like to call myself a pragmatic optimist," she says. "Because of my background in sociology and statistics, I'm very grounded in data and information."

Living between the upscale construction in Charles Village and hardscrabble Greenmount Avenue, Washington is passionate about addressing the disparities she sees in the city.

"I turned 44 this year and I thought my city is really at a crossroads. We're really doing well in some areas but we still have two Baltimores," she says. "My life expectancy, because I live on the other side of Greenmount Avenue and I have higher education, is higher than someone my same age that lives less than half a mile away. That should not exist in the United States. It should not exist in the third-wealthiest state." Washington vows that if elected she will try to bridge that gap using an approach she calls H.O.M.E.--health, opportunities, mobilization, and education.

Former delegate Michael Dobson has entered the race, in an attempt to win back the seat he lost in the 2002 election. Since then, Dobson has held a variety of jobs but nothing long-term, and he says his decision to re-enter the political fray was difficult for him. As he sits at a table in front of Belvedere Square Market, shifting in his seat, his hesitancy is palpable.

"I hate campaigning," he says. "I don't like it. I hate raising money. The only part I like about it is developing ideas for governing."

Dobson feels that things have gotten worse since he left Annapolis and that these four years out of office have prepared him to better serve the district.

"I'm older, wiser, I see the need more keenly because I'm sitting on the sidelines watching," he says, noting that his experience gives him a leg up on the novice challengers. "When I hear these speeches, all these chicken-in-every-pot speeches, I understand you're not going to get a chicken in every pot. You're lucky if you get a leg or a thigh up in that pot. When I hear that, I mean that's nice to think that way, but the real life of getting laws passed, it's not that simple."

A third candidate, named Mike Miller, also filed to run for the race but did not return phone calls or e-mails for this story.

The incumbents and challengers all share many of the same campaign priorities: They all say they want clean air, a cleaner bay, more focus on renewable resources. They all want to improve the city's schools, and not just by throwing more money at the system. And they all want comprehensive health care for all constituents. But what they don't agree on is how well the incumbents have handled these and other issues.

The BGE rate increase, that nearly slapped Marylanders with a 72 percent utility-rate increase this summer, is a particularly sore spot for all of the challengers, who feel that the incumbents let them down in dealing with the problem this past session.

Former TV newsman Curt Anderson was a member of the House of Delegates from 1983 to 1995, when he gave up his seat to run for state Senate. Anderson lost that bid but was re-elected to the House in 2002. He says he's proud of the way he responded to the BGE situation.

"When the BGE rate increase came up and the governor came up with a plan, pretty much our leaders in Annapolis kind of thought they didn't have any further to go, but I pushed the envelope," he says. "I went down to the Public Service Commission meetings. I arranged demonstrations against the rate increase. I got my fellow legislators to sign petitions to put us back into legislative session. I studied to make sure I understood what alternatives were available so we could have a reasonable plan."

But Dobson accuses the incumbents of not taking action on the utility-rate issue years ago. "The horse is out of the barn, the toothpaste is out of the tube, however you want to put it, it's too late," he says. "Where were you four years ago when this issue should have been opened up to a task force?"

With almost 20 years in the House of Delegates, Ann Marie Doory, has served the 43rd longer than anyone else in the race. She points to her work on the environment, particularly the passage of the Healthy Air Act, for which she was named the 2006 Legislator of the Year by Maryland's Healthy Air Coalition. But when it comes to the BGE rate hike, she puts the blame firmly on the governor's shoulders. "He should have been an advocate for the consumers in Maryland," Doory says.

For her part, McIntosh says the utility-rate crisis is not the fault of one particular party. Rather, she says, the escalating cost of energy is an issue that legislators all across the country should be looking at.

"We are not weaning our way off of the dependency of gas and oil," she says. "And until this country does that, which will take a national movement, we locally and at the state level are going to be continuing to be put in positions where we're pointing fingers at one another."

McIntosh is perhaps the district's most well-known representative. She was the first woman to be appointed Maryland House majority leader, and when she came out of the closet in 2002, she became the state's first openly gay legislator.

Meanwhile, Armand Girard, the lone Republican running in the House race, has taken a decidedly unconservative position on BGE issue, calling for the reregulation of the utility industry in Maryland.

"For me, when something has worked for 80 years and worked very well, why in the world would you want to change it?" he asks. "There are so many things that are broken, they're the things that you fix. In your car, if your carburetor is working perfectly but your exhaust system is giving you trouble, you don't try to fix the carburetor."

Girard, a teacher and perennial candidate says it's not so much about Republicans and Democrats or liberals and conservatives but the two-party system: "I guess if the Republicans were dominant, I might register as a Democrat."

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