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Campaign Beat

First and Only

It's a One-Party Race in the 1st District

By Van Smith | Posted 7/11/2007

The Baltimore City electorate continues to shrink, but the number of voters in the city's first councilmanic district, along the southeast waterfront, is growing by leaps and bounds. The latest voter-registration data show nearly 25,000 voters, a 25 percent increase over 2003, when the last City Council primaries were held. More may register between now and the Aug. 21 deadline, but as it stands, the Democrats have two-thirds of the 1st's voters, and the remainder is split evenly between Republicans and everything else--categories that have grown in the last four years, while the Dems' share of the pie has shrunk.

Nonetheless, only Democrats have filed to run in this particular race, so only Democrats will go to the polls in the 1st District primary, set for Sept. 11. The district's other voters will have to watch by the sidelines to see if a signature-gathering candidate can meet the petition requirements to appear on the Nov. 6 general-election ballot. Otherwise, following tradition, Democrats will decide who fills the council seat.

Up until the July 2 filing deadline, it appeared that the one-term incumbent, lawyer James B. Kraft, might go unchallenged. Then three other Democrats threw their hats in the ring: a newspaper editor, a real-estate investor, and an Elvis Presley impersonator. This year's lineup is less crowded than the seven-way, open-seat race Kraft won in 2003, which featured three lawyers, a teacher, a neighborhood activist, and a couple of bureaucrats. But now there's an incumbent--Kraft--for challengers to beat up on, even if they may find him hard to beat at the polls.

"Good for them for exercising their right to get in the race," Kraft says of his opponents, adding that "I have nothing negative to say about any of these people." When told of his opponents' criticisms--that Kraft's constituent service is spotty, that he's failed to grapple with the big issues while focusing on less important concerns, and that he's not well liked by many in the district--Kraft is philosophical: "Everybody has a right to their opinions."

"Anyone other than Jim Kraft, I'm behind," says Marc E. Warren, the arts and entertainment editor at the Afro-American. Warren complains of the incumbent's "lack of communication and lack of concern" about issues in his neighborhood, just north of Patterson Park, a few blocks northeast of Kraft's home on East Baltimore Street. Over the phone, Warren describes his efforts to contend with several criminal episodes, invariably ending the anecdotes with, "and I got no response." He says he tried to share some ideas with Kraft about "how to make the environment less hospitable to drug dealing, and he completely ignored me several times. This was the fuel that lit my fire to say, `It's time to take a stand.'"

"It takes money" to win in politics, Warren acknowledges, but he says he's going to rely on "friends and neighbors" because "I don't want to be accountable to big developers and things like that. I want to be accountable to the voters who put me in office. I'm going to have to run a grass-roots campaign, go door-to-door, and use my influence as a person who works in the news media."

Warren says his career as a journalist will continue as he runs for office. While he says that "the Afro is behind me 100 percent," he doesn't believe his employer will endorse him because "that would be a conflict of interest." As for taking a leave of absence during the campaign, Warren says he spoke with his publisher about it, and decided that "I deal specifically with arts and entertainment, I don't deal with news, so we already worked that out."

Warren's roots are in Bolton Hill and Ashburton, where he grew up. Now 46, he recently returned to the city after a suburban sabbatical in Baltimore County that he began when Kurt Schmoke was mayor. "I just moved back to the city in June 2006," he explains. "And what I found wasn't a rosy picture," compared to the perceptions he had of a city improving under then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, who became Maryland's governor earlier this year.

He says that many of the 1st District's new residents may share similar disappointments, and that as an elected official he would do better than Kraft to reduce them. "I believe there is going to be a lot of changes coming in the neighborhoods, but it's not going to change well without leadership," Warren says. "And that's my worry--that it won't under Kraft." While conceding that Kraft has been active in pushing bills through the legislative process, he contends that the incumbent has failed to provide adequate constituent services, especially in his neighborhood.

Real-estate investor Donald John Dewar III echoes Warren's underwhelming sentiments about Kraft, and also welcomes the other candidates' bids. "I think anything that takes away votes from Kraft is a good thing, so I wish them the best of luck," Dewar says of the other challengers. "I haven't really met a lot of people who like Kraft. In my experience, people learn that you're running against Kraft, and they say, `I'm going to contribute to your campaign.' I actually want to search out and find some of these people who are behind Kraft and ask them why, because I don't understand it. The incumbent thinks he and the rest of the current administration are doing a good job, and I don't know how he arrived at that conclusion."

The way Dewar sees it, Kraft has been good only at pushing "feel-good things" for the city and the district, such as a bill that he's currently championing that would ban plastic grocery bags. "But he's not going to focus in on the important stuff--the squandering of public funds, the fiscal crisis in the schools, the tax rate that's double everywhere else, and the murders," Dewar continues. "I find that alarming, and so do many others who I talk to, but nobody's going to talk about how they're squandering public funds--they wouldn't look so good. The way I see it, Kraft is like most politicians: They are more adept at getting elected than they are at governing. I'm just a businessman, and a reluctant candidate, and it was time to step up and get things going in the right direction."

Dewar, 58, says he grew up in O'Donnell Heights, signed up for active military duty during the Vietnam War, became a city police officer for one year before starting in on his higher education, and has been a city real-estate investor for 35 years. He has a home in Middle River in Baltimore County, but he says he's been living in Canton for the past 10 years. Asked how much he's willing to spend to unseat Kraft, Dewar says, "I have a message to get out, and I'll spend enough to get that message out."

Terry Jay McCready is a 64-year-old Elvis Presley impersonator who lives in Graceland Park, the far northeastern corner of the 1st District. He says he retired as a procurement supervisor for the Baltimore City Department of Public Works two years ago, after 22 years on the job, and now has enough free time to mount a campaign to unseat Kraft. He's a familiar face at the annual Night of 100 Elvises at West Baltimore's Lithuanian Hall, where his act, which he calls "The Treasured Memories of Elvis," has been on the bill for 11 years. "I'm the one who introduces Santa Claus," he explains.

McCready first conceived of the idea of challenging Kraft last year, he says, but "I waited to make sure I could devote a lot of time to it, and now I know I can." Asked if someone put him up to filing for office, as a way to make life difficult for Kraft, McCready insists that "it was entirely my decision to run, I didn't discuss it with anyone but my wife"--Alice McCready, who serves as the campaign's treasurer. He hints that he has some heavy-hitting fundraisers prepared, but "I'd rather not say at this time" who they are, other than to assert that they "are active in politics throughout the state of Maryland, locally and statewide."

McCready, like the other challengers, says the people he talks to in the 1st District aren't impressed with Kraft. "I don't know Mr. Kraft too well," he explains. "But I know a number of people in the district who are not pleased with him, and a lot of people actually said, `We don't even know who he is.'"

Kraft grew up in Waverly, but much of his professional life was spent practicing law in Howard County, where in the 1990s he ran twice unsuccessfully for public office. He moved to Fells Point in 1997, and since then he's been an active Democratic Party stalwart, helping the statewide organization and briefly serving as the 46th District's state senator after Perry Sfikas stepped down in 2002. Since his election to the City Council, Kraft has proven to be an active legislator, especially in shepherding bills to aid economic development in the 1st District and to promote environmental issues.

"Probably the number-one thing that I did was to get the flier bill passed" in 2005, Kraft says of his legislative record, explaining that the measure "limits the way commercial fliers can be distributed." He also is proud of his work on environmental issues generally, and says he has " a good record of working to have responsible growth" in a way that balances the interests of residents and developers. He promises more of the same if voters give him a second term, saying that "I've done a good job, I deserve to get re-elected, and I'm just going to continue to do what I've been doing."

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