Against All Odds
Five Challengers Take On Slate Backed By Powerful Political Machine in 45th District
"They say it's `Politics 101' out here in Baltimore, it's the first rule: You don't run against the EDO," laughs Kevin Slayton, candidate for House of Delegates in the city's 45th legislative district. The first-time candidate may be a new name on the campaign trail, but he's no stranger to state politics. Slayton has served as a lobbyist in Annapolis for the past five years. "I talked it over with my advisers, and they didn't think I should do it either," he says. "Finally, my dad and I had a talk, and that was all I needed."
Slayton, father of three, has long been an outspoken critic of the Baltimore City School System and has readily made himself available, as head of the Parent and Community Advisory Board, to help parents in need who have kids in city schools. You got a problem with your kid's school? You call Slayton and he'll help you out. He's now ready to take on a bigger role in the city, particularly in the 45th District, where the EDO (short for Eastside Democratic Organization) has been an entrenched political machine for more than a decade.
"I don't want my children to grow and ask me, `Why didn't you do something?'" he says of his decision to oppose the EDO-backed candidates running in the race. "So, I am doing something. I'm running."
The 45th covers a swath of East Baltimore that includes middle-class communities like Beverly Hills, Belair-Edison, and Hamilton Hills, in addition to some impoverished neighborhoods: think Collington Square, Oliver Street, Preston and Caroline, Aisquith, and a bunch of other backdrops you may recognize from HBO's The Wire.
The district is also known for being dominated by the EDO, headed by incumbent state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, who is running for re-election this year. McFadden co-founded the organization with incumbent Del. Hattie Harrison. Harrison also is seeking re-election, though in 2002 she had a falling out with the EDO, which did not put her on its slate that year. The EDO has been a key player in helping the district obtain money for projects, mostly associated with Johns Hopkins University, that benefit business and development interests perceived as failing to do much for constituents.
McFadden shrugs off the criticisms. And he pretty much dares anyone to try to stop the EDO machine.
"Look, we have a strong team, that's what we have, and shouldn't the best team win?" he says. "We're like the Yankees. You can't be jealous of the Yankees, they're the better team. If you don't like it, do what Boston did, or these other teams: Make your team better."
This year's EDO team includes McFadden, incumbent Del. Talmadge Branch, and newcomer Cheryl Glenn, who ran for the House but lost in 2002. Del. Clarence Davis is stepping down this year. Harrison is also running for re-election.
But is the EDO team really better, as McFadden says? When the district was redrawn during the 2002 legislative redistricting process, it did suck in some more desirable sections of Northeast Baltimore, bringing more wealth to the 45th. But a shift in neighborhood demographics as a result of moving the district's boundaries does not necessarily equate to progress, say the candidates challenging the EDO for control of the 45th District's seats in the General Assembly. Four men have filed to run without the club's backing.
One of them, Robert Stokes, has been an extremely vocal critic of the incumbents seeking re-election. Stokes is a seasoned candidate who has run campaigns for both city and state office. He's also a member of the Democratic State Central Committee. He blasts Branch and Harrison for not being accessible to people in the district.
"Hattie Harrison missed half of her voting sessions in Annapolis, she hasn't even visited the new part of the 45th District over by Cedonia. Neither has Talmadge Branch," he says. "Does that sound like they're accessible? Make sure you put that in the paper: The people of the 45th deserve to have someone who is accessible."
Stokes lashes out at Branch in particular when it comes to the BGE utility-rate hike controversy, in which Marylanders were nearly slapped with a 72 percent rate hike earlier this summer. "He didn't even inform people about the BGE hike," Stokes says. "He knew about that two years before. You know why? Because he's getting money from them. And you can't serve two masters--it's either going to be the citizens or the lobbyist."
City Paper looked up campaign contributions for Branch and turned up a June 6 $500 donation from Constellation Energy, BGE's parent company.
When told of Stokes' criticisms, Branch fires back: "Whether or not I'm in the community is verifiable. And I don't know where he would expect to see me, because he never goes to meetings. I'm there."
Also running for the House is Kevin Parson, who has spent four years working in Baltimore city schools. He is currently administrator of George Kelson Elementary School. Like Slayton and Stokes, Parson says the incumbents have not done enough for their constituents. Parson ran for this seat in 2002 and earned nearly 5 percent of the votes; this year, he says he is optimistic about his chances.
"Some of these people are caught up in the position and the title," Parson says. "We need fresh, young, energetic people who are going to really represent the district. . . . The voices that go to Annapolis need to be very strong. They need to be collaborative and people who are going to have interest in serving the public and not private interest."
Aaron Keith Wilkes, who ran for the seat in 2002, is also a contender in this race. Wilkes is president of the Darley Park Community Association and past chair of Del. Clarence "Tiger" Davis' political club, the Greater East Baltimore Political Organization. Wilkes earned 726 votes when he ran in 2002. He echoes the sentiment that the current delegates are not in touch with the community.
"Harrison is never even around anymore," Wilkes says. "Their representation is terrible. . . . Ask people in that district, `What have you gained in the last 33 years with Harrison and the last 12 years with Branch?' And if they answer honestly, they're going to tell you they've gained nothing."
The final newcomer in the House race is Glenn. Unlike the other nonincumbent candidates, she is embraced by the EDO.
"She's a wonderful person, worked her way up through the ranks, served in community organizations, served in the state central committee, has run for public office before, has distinguished herself well, and it's her time," McFadden raves. Glenn, a longtime community activist, has 15 years of community service under her belt. She was a field representative and lobbyist for the Baltimore Teachers Union, is a member of the Cedonia, Rosemont East, and Cedmont community associations, and is head the Moravia Park Primary PTA.
"I've been a resident of the 45th District for almost 20 years," says Glenn, who is serving second terms on both the Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee and the Maryland State Democratic Party Executive Committee. "I didn't just decide to just run for office and start getting active. I'm running for office because of what I do every day. And I know it's going to take time and we need change. The biggest change is going to be aggressive and in-your-face representation for the constituents. One of my passions is the children: Our school system is in total disarray right now."
Sen. McFadden is also facing a challenger. Greg Truitt, a health counselor and researcher working for the University of Maryland, will appear on the ballot, but his presence--and his campaign--appears to be weak.
"It's not going as well as I expected," Truitt admits during a late-night phone interview from his job. "I don't have the finances to run a successful campaign; I've been doing door-to-door campaigning."
He sounds weary and frustrated, and it's clear that the only reason he ran was because he felt someone had to: "[McFadden] has neglected that district for years, he doesn't appear at any meetings. He doesn't have time to talk to his constituency, that's what I've heard throughout the campaign," Truitt says. "The violence in the district, the drugs, the plight, it needs a lot of help."
He recognizes that his campaign is probably futile.
"It's a real big machine," Truitt sighs, as he contemplates his campaign against McFadden and the EDO. "Will I look for victory on the 12th? No, but I stood up and took a chance. I don't have the finances I need, but no one deserves a free ride. Someone should have run against him."
Should McFadden win the primary against Truitt--and chances are, he will--he will face Republican challenger Leonard Wolff in the general election.
McFadden recently has been tied to possible ethics violations in relation to the Momoh Abu Conteh case. Conteh, campaign treasurer for City Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, was charged with embezzlement and perjury for taking $2,000 out of a campaign checking account in 2002. Though Branch initially told state prosecutors that Conteh had stolen the money, Conteh said he was instructed to hand it over to McFadden's campaign, in violation of state laws that prohibit transfers of cash from one political campaign to another. Branch later changed her testimony, saying that she might indeed have authorized the transfer. Conteh said the money was to be handed out on Election Day as "walking-around money," paid to poll workers and equated with the practice of buying votes. At the time, walking-around money was illegal in Maryland (the state Court of Appeals has since declared the ban unconstitutional). Charges against Conteh were dropped in early August, when Branch changed her testimony, leaving prosecutors without sufficient evidence against Conteh. For now, the case is closed, but prosecutors say they may open a new investigation.
When asked about the case, McFadden says, "I don't even know how my name came up in that."
That's not the only shady business McFadden has been tied to. In 1998, Doris Minor-Terrell, then a 45th District House of Delegates hopeful, filed ethics complaints against McFadden and Harrison for allegedly funneling state subsidies to organizations they were connected with. McFadden shrugged off the complaint, saying, "well, you're going to funnel subsidies to people you know, right?" No official action was taken against McFadden in connection to Minor-Terrell's complaint.
So why do McFadden and company keep getting elected? City Paper found that of the 77,651 eligible voters in the district, only 11,291 voted for state senator in the 2002 Democratic primary; McFadden earned 9,194 of the votes--less than 15 percent voter turnout. McFadden is confident that the EDO machine will continue to roll on.
"We've heard all the criticism," he says. "A lot from the City Paper especially, but you know what? The people always validate us on Election Day."
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