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Campaign Beat

Head of the Class

Strong Experience, Stronger Personalities In Candidates Vying For Council Presidency
Kenneth Harris
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
Michael Sarbanes
Frank Klein
Charles Ulysses Smith

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 9/5/2007

The race for City Council president appears to be the most competitive this election, with incumbent Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is endorsed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Sheila Dixon, running neck and neck with Michael Sarbanes, son of former U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who has been endorsed by the city's police union and lots of people with money.

Sarbanes has the superstar political pedigree, along with a reputation for slogging it out in the trenches of politics and policy. Rawlings-Blake has a sterling political pedigree, too; her father, the late Howard "Pete" Rawlings, served for 24 years as state delegate for the 40th district, chairing the powerful Appropriations Committee.

But there are two other Democrats in the race as well. Charles Ulysses Smith, a perennial candidate with a knack for reminding voters of his service in Vietnam ("Campaign Constant," Campaign Beat, July 4), and Councilman Kenneth Harris Sr., the outspoken city councilman from the 4th District who has fashioned a credible campaign mostly in the shadow of his two more widely known rivals.

"We have lots of momentum going our way with the commitments we're getting," says Harris over soup at Atwater's in Belvedere Square. "We have a lot of visibility on the street." On Friday, Aug. 31, he announced that the Afro-American newspaper had endorsed him.

Harris touts his strong showings in recent candidate forums, including the Aug. 21 League of Women Voters-sponsored debate, to claim that "message, organization, and momentum" are all going his way.

Harris, 44, certainly has beaten the odds so far in his life. According to his campaign biography, he was born to a single teenage mom and grew up on the tough streets of Park Heights. He went to Dunbar High School, where he was MVP of the varsity baseball team, then on to Morgan State, earning a bachelor degree in business administration.

Harris, who has represented northeast/central Baltimore's 4th District since 1999, boasts independence and substantive accomplishments--a $3 million scholarship program, corralling $9 million for recreation centers, and creating a truancy-assessment center, for example. "There were 16,000 Baltimore students who missed 20 or more days of school last year," Harris says. "My program is single-handedly addressing that."

He also developed an "eviction chattels" ordinance to both clean Baltimore's sidewalks of ex-renters' belongings and help evicted tenants keep their stuff. Harris has made a point to hold open meetings once a month when anyone can meet with him. "That's how I stay in touch with the people," he says.

His independent streak has led Harris to question the police department's perennially low-ball overtime budget, to call for the firing of Fire Chief William Goodwin in the wake of a training accident this spring that killed a firefighter recruit, and to demand an audit of the school board's budget, which The Sun discovered was shot through with errors.

Harris says he has paid a political price for his independence. "One Tuesday night I went to the school board meeting," he says. "I told them I was going to hold them accountable" at the next meeting of his council committee, then called the Education, Housing, Health, and Human Services Committee. "On Friday I got a call from [Rawlings-Blake] saying I was removed."

Rawlings-Blake touts this move as one of her proudest. While Harris remains chair of the new Housing, Health, and Human Services Committee, she split off education into its own committee and put Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, former council president and a retired schoolteacher, in charge of it. Rawlings-Blake says education is too important to be buried in a committee with other duties. Harris nonetheless contends "it was a political move."

Harris is director of business services for Comcast, and his wife, Annette, is a public school teacher. In 2003 they traded up to a $500,000 house on Mossway in the Bellona-Gittings Community neighborhood.

With about $80,000 in campaign cash, Harris trails Sarbanes in fundraising by nearly $170,000; Rawlings-Blake's campaign raised $60,000 and somehow spent $90,000, according to the candidate's Aug. 14 financial filings. But Harris says the media has missed the real story with its focus on polls and campaign funds: "We have an excellent ground campaign and we are touching the voters," he says, though he declines to disclose how many volunteer door-knockers he has.

Running under the slogan "Leadership and Experience, not Legacy or Entitlement," Harris is trying to turn the presumed front-runners' stronger name recognition into a liability. "Their record," he says, "cannot compare to mine."

Michael Sarbanes disagrees.

Sarbanes, 42, served as former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's deputy chief of staff before heading up the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, the long-lived nonprofit advocating affordable, safe housing. While there he helped bring funding for the Red Line transit system and helped develop the city's inclusionary zoning law. "It's one of the few positions in the city where your perspective is citywide and beyond the city," he says of his old job (he's currently on leave).

Given that experience, Sarbanes has developed a comprehensive theory about Baltimore. To start with, he says, city leaders have to raise expectations. No one should expect or accept 300 murders, Sarbanes says, or even 200.

The office of City Council president, he says, is the place from which to observe the "big picture" and plan improvement. "The council president has a hand in every decision the city makes," Sarbanes says. "It's the best place in all of city government to organize new possibilities." He thinks of the council president as a sort of navigator to the mayor's pilot.

It's a well-practiced spiel, which he deploys with little deviation at candidate forums and interviews. But beneath it are sharp details. Like many candidates, Sarbanes says the city should prioritize neighborhood patrols. But he adds a why: Most police departments deploy about 65 percent of their officers on neighborhood beats, while Baltimore currently does so at about 55 percent, he says. "I'd much rather have police officers who know the neighborhood," he says.

Sarbanes says a frankly geographical focus on crime suppression will carry the day, asserting that 3 percent of the city's addresses account for about 50 percent of the crimes.

Sarbanes also thinks the city can put thousands of people to work insulating houses and increasing their energy efficiency. "People say their BGE bill is up by $100 a month," he notes. "People could get their leaks fixed and save $75 a month."

After four years of political organization on the issue, Sarbanes may be the only person in town who can explain what the so-called inclusionary zoning law actually says. The ordinance, which is similar to one in Montgomery County, is extremely complex. Boiled down, it will require builders to include housing affordable to regular people in the projects that they build.

With a name like Sarbanes it's unsurprising that critics think he's led a bit too charmed a political life. His $80,000-a-year CPHA job was bestowed upon him without a search ("Boardroom Blitz," Mobtown Beat, Jan. 22, 2003), and he's been able to draw on the deep well of political sustenance his father developed over 30 years in the U.S. Senate. On July 13 the elder Sarbanes hosted a fundraiser for his son in his Suffolk Road home. The invitation went to alumni of the exclusive Gilman School which, as a nonprofit institution, is prohibited from helping political candidates. Michael Sarbanes says about 30 people came to the event--tickets ranged from $250 for "friends" to $4,000 for the "leadership circle"--but denies the invitations were sent exclusively to Gilman grads or was generated from a list supplied by the school. He says he's not sure how the fundraising list was generated: "I'll have to go back and look at that."

But Sarbanes denies he's a candidate of privilege. He lives in a modest rowhouse on the 500 block of Collins Avenue in Southwest Baltimore's Irvington neighborhood, and says there is a vacant house on his block and graffiti around the corner. The Princeton and Oxford graduate dismisses questions of race and class differences by citing his work ethic. "People want to know if you're for real," he says. "Do you do what you say? Do you care? Do you respect them as human beings? That's what people really care about."

But there's more to leadership than that, says Stephanie Rawlings-Blake; there's the ability to quietly get along and get things done. "I believe in collaboration," she says. "I will never, ever take credit for a collaborative process."

Rawlings-Blake, 37, has presided over City Council meetings since January with a no-nonsense attitude and a deadpan sense of humor. She arrives one August morning at Donna's in Mount Vernon a little late and almost eager to tell a bad story on herself. "I hate to lose," Rawlings-Blake begins, but at a bingo game at the Hippo last night Rawlings-Blake was losing. "For me every sheet that was called was, like, another loss." Finally she won--or thought she did. "And I'm jumping up and saying check this out," she recounts in her trademark droll delivery. "I swear I thought I saw N-40."

She hadn't.

The Hippo's bingo emcee has a penalty ready for any who declare "bingo" out of turn. "It's this elaborate dunce cap, with fringe," Rawlings-Blake says. "So I had to sit by myself at this little table with the dunce cap on, and no less than 10 people came up with their cell phone" cameras.

Rawlings-Blake acknowledges that sometimes people don't "get" her sense of humor. "I have a very dry sense of humor," she says. "Sometimes people think I'm being mean."

But while she doesn't take herself very seriously, Rawlings-Blake is serious and professional about her job. She's proud that the city has improved its bond rating to AAA, the highest status, and credits herself and Mayor Sheila Dixon with making the tough choices, years ago, to close fire stations and recreation centers.

As an insider with a handle on the ins and outs of council politics and policy, Rawlings-Blake also touts her decision to take responsibility for educational issues from Harris. It was not a political punishment, she says. To the contrary, she's a consensus builder: "Nothing I've done on the council would show you that I can't see both sides of the issue, and that I'm willing to get to `yes.'"

As a chair of the five-person city Board of Estimates, Rawlings-Blake also has a say on how hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are spent. She says she is a competent and trustworthy steward of the public purse strings, but she has faced financial difficulties in her private life.

In mid-2004 her condominium association sued her for $5,000 in back maintenance fees. In 2006, the association placed a lien on her unit and sued again, demanding $6,000. She faced a foreclosure proceeding last year, though she appears to have cleared that up by refinancing the condominium where she lives with her daughter, Sophia, and Kent Blake, her husband of seven years.

"My husband opened his business," Rawlings-Blake explains. "We did the best we can to make it on our own. We have our ups and we have our downs."

Kent Blake is listed as the owner of Juice Phoria in the Cross Street Market, though state tax records indicate the company's charter was forfeited last fall. Mr. Blake is also licensed as a lead-paint inspector with a company called Budget Property Inspection Services, though that company is not registered with state taxing authorities either.

The couple's condo on Foxbane Square, in Northwest Baltimore's Cold Spring neighborhood, is modest. Real-estate records show Rawlings-Blake purchased it in 1997 for $76,000, including a $5,000 city-backed loan for her settlement expenses, which was due to be paid in full as of February. There is no record indicating the loan was paid.

"It's been paid," Rawlings-Blake says, promising to "look into" why the loan release has not been filed.

Rawlings-Blake says her college and law school loans amount to "more than some people's mortgage." She says her personal financial problems have no bearing on her ability to oversee the city's expenditures. To the contrary--her focus on those matters made her lose track of her personal finances.

"Did I pay more attention to my work life than my personal life? Of course I did," Rawlings-Blake says. "I don't think it excuses anything. I work to satisfy my financial obligations."

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