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Campaign Beat

7th District Celebrities

Familiar Names Challenge Incumbent Conaway in Council Race

Tony Asa
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Belinda Conaway
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Marshall "Toby" Goodwin
Jefferson Jackson Steele
John Holmes

By Van Smith | Posted 8/15/2007

A reporter driving east on West Pratt Street spies a Baltimore City Rat Rub-Out van, driven by one of the crews paid by taxpayers to kill rats and educate people about their part in the war, turning north onto Fulton Avenue. Rat Rub-Out used to have on its crews John Holmes, a 7th District City Council candidate who unsuccessfully ran for the same office in the 2003 Democratic primary. The reporter gathers that Holmes goes by the nickname "Johnny B," which appears in the e-mail address he supplied to the Maryland State Board of Elections when he filed. Holmes hasn't responded to e-mails, so talking to a Rat Rub-Out crew seems a rare chance to learn more about him.

The van heads north on Fulton and comes to a halt at the stoplight at Hollins Street. Its windows are rolled down, and two men sit inside. "You know John Holmes?" the reporter asks.

The driver grins, "Yeah, I know him."

"Johnny B. Holmes?" the reporter repeats.

The guy in the passenger seat grins, too, as the driver repeats the name in a long drawl: "Jooohnnny Beee Hooolmes. Ha! Ha! He's running for City Council, you know."

Celebrity, no matter how minor, is paramount in local politics. Holmes couldn't be tracked down for this article, but his fellow rat killers clearly know who he is, and that's a start.

The same goes for Tony Asa, another 7th District candidate who has made previous stabs for legislative office in Baltimore. In 2006 he ran as a Republican, losing to the incumbent 41st District state delegates. At the time, while explaining to City Paper that he had previously run as a Democrat, Asa used a metaphor that Holmes would appreciate: He became a Republican to "get out of the rat race" in the Democratic primary. Now he's back in it. A perennial, party-switching candidate such as Asa gains celebrity simply because voters repeatedly see his name on the ballot over the years. If they don't vote for him this time, they eventually just might.

When City Paper tried to contact Asa for this article, he e-mailed back saying he was out of town, but to look at two fliers he attached. One file, named "Asa Highway sign," opened to identify him as a Democrat who is "Un-bought, Un-afraid, Un-compromised." The other, named "New Press release," contained the following ground rules: "These statements are my quotes, no further comments, are made or permitted to be printed about me, except these statements and my resume." Thus, here's Asa, describing point four of his five-point plan to improve Baltimore, with no filters or copyediting: "Promote Baltimore Based small contract companies to ensure each has a chance to do working business with in the city provided city residents are hired."

Holmes' name is known among his professional colleagues, Asa's among attentive voters with a remarkable ability to recall past names on the ballot, but the names of the two remaining Democratic primary candidates--incumbent Belinda K. Conaway and former 40th District state delegate Marshall "Toby" Goodwin--are known by large segments of the 7th District's West Baltimore voting population, many of whom have cast ballots for them before.

The Conaway name is the best branded in the race, since few ballots since the 1970s have passed before city voters' eyes without a Conaway on the list. Belinda Conaway was elected to the City Council in 2004, after winning the 2003 Democratic primary. Last fall she ran unsuccessfully for 40th District state senator. Her first outing, also unsuccessful, was in 2002's 40th District delegate race, and before that the public-school guidance counselor made a failed stab for president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. Mayoral candidate Frank M. Conaway Sr., the elected clerk of the Baltimore City Circuit Court since 1998, is her father. He was also a state delegate in the 1970s and early 1980s, when he captured headlines for regulators' probes into his questionable practices in the insurance business. Her stepmother is Mary Conaway, who has been the city's elected register of wills since 1982, when she won a controversial election in which she gave away bags of free chicken, bread, butter, and smoke detectors to voters, encouraging them to vote for her. Belinda's brother Frank M. Conaway Jr. was elected as a 40th District state delegate last fall ("Star Power," Campaign Beat, Oct. 25, 2006). Thus, the whole family relies on name recognition so that voters will keep their careers in gear.

As a one-term city legislator, Belinda Conaway was the sole sponsor of four enacted city ordinances, and the lead sponsor of two. One was to allow New Mount Hebron Baptist Church on West North Avenue to use part of its property as parking. Another put in place a new development plan for Mondawmin Mall. The third was to allow an assisted-living facility on a property on Gwynns Falls Parkway. The last of her sole-sponsored bills that passed permitted a homeless shelter on West North Avenue to expand. As for her lead-sponsor legislation, one renamed the entrance of the Maryland Zoo to One Safari Place and the other cut off water service to vacant structures.

It was by passing resolutions, not laws, that Belinda Conaway shone legislatively during her first term. She was lead sponsor of eight of them, expressing support for:

  • proclaiming 2005 to be Rosa Parks Year;
  • an informational council hearing on problems at the Mitchell Courthouse;
  • publicizing the sex-offender registry;
  • increasing penalties for unattended children left in vehicles;
  • a pilot program to allow recreation centers to stay open after curfew;
  • a pilot program to keep school buildings open on weekends in summer;
  • allow the city Department of Social Services to accept prepayment of electricity services; and
  • a special Annapolis legislative session to address BGE energy rates.

Conaway is proud of her record as a councilwoman, especially of her role in the Mondawmin redevelopment plans. She distributes a newsletter to keep her constituents apprised of her efforts. "When you accomplish things," she explains, "you need to let people know."

It doesn't hurt her political career that the effect of introducing council resolutions is largely to draw attention to issues, rather than to implement solutions. Thus, even if they haven't passed--like her proposed resolutions in support of reopening the investigation into the controversial death of businessman Robert L. Clay Jr., and of erecting a statue near Pimlico Race Course in honor of the late racehorse Barbaro--they draw news coverage, which boosts her name recognition.

In essence, Belinda Conaway has learned how to gain celebrity by using her position as a pulpit. That's good politics, if not always effective policy-making. And it's a family trait. Her father's penchant for filing lawsuits against the city government--a recent one over city police department affairs, for instance, and an earlier one over agency heads not living in the city--has helped keep his name in the news, and that benefits the whole Conaway family. Getting elected is the Conaways' business, best reflected in the fact that all four run together on a slate, the Three Bears, which works to keep them all in office (The Count, Aug. 1), though Belinda Conaway has her own campaign committee, too.

Goodwin became a state delegate by appointment in December 2003. That's when then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich made official what had already been decided by the 40th District Democratic State Central Committee, of which Goodwin was an elected member: that Goodwin would take over the late Howard "Pete" Rawlings' seat in the House. By that time, his name was already familiar in political circles. Back in the 1980s he ran for Baltimore City sheriff, and since then he served for years as a high-ranking member of elected Sheriff John Anderson's staff. More recently, he's been helping to run security at Baltimore City Community College.

Goodwin's performance in three General Assembly sessions before losing in last fall's primary was uneventful, though it was not for lack of trying. He introduced 19 bills as lead or sole sponsor, and all but three failed. Two of those enacted helped Anderson's office, and the third did a favor for I Can't We Can, a drug-abuse recovery center in Park Heights, by buying the outfit some time to make right a state loan it had mucked up.

Goodwin says he plans to overcome the vote-getting Conaway name by "talking about my record in public service, to talk about the good Marshall Goodwin has done, compared to what Belinda Conaway has done. I just say my record against hers stands alone."

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