Three Activists Challenge Longtime Councilwoman Agnes Welch in the 9th District
Welch, 78, is facing off against one of the youngest candidates running this season. At 21 years old, Democrat Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, if elected, would be the youngest African-American man to serve on the council. An assistant pastor at the First Baptist Church in East Baltimore, Witherspoon is steeped in the African-American church tradition. He is articulate and flamboyantly effervescent in his tone and manner ("God bless you, this is Rev. Cortly 'C.D.' Witherspoon, candidate for the 9th District City Council," he announces each time he answers the phone), and he is clearly mature beyond his years. He has worked for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), and he has served as an aide to state Sen. Delores Kelley (D-10th). He has also worked with Del. Jill P. Carter (D-41st) and former state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV (D-44th). Now he's a candidate, who says he's looking to solve the problems that plague communities in the new 9th District, which encompasses neighborhoods in West and Southwest Baltimore.
One major issue on his agenda is the abundance of vacant, abandoned properties scattered throughout the 9th's neighborhoods. According to information from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, there are 1,259 vacant housing units in the Southwest Baltimore area alone; in greater Rosemont there are 681 vacant units, and in the Poppleton/the Terraces/Hollins Market area there are 187.
"As a result [of these vacant properties], businesses don't want to come into the neighborhood, and as a result there are no jobs," Witherspoon says. "We need to increase state taxes for out-of-state landlords. I also support the concept of waiving liens and other fines on these vacant properties so community associations can take over these properties."
For all his energy and ideals, and despite his work with several well-known local pols, Witherspoon is still relatively green in politics. And whether he stands a chance or not, just the fact that he has thrown his hat in the ring has encouraged some community members, like 78-year-old Paul Booth, who volunteers for the community group Operation Outreach Southwest and has lived in his Southwest Baltimore neighborhood for more than 50 years.
"A lot of the incumbent elected officials have gotten stale," Booth says. "When I heard young people were running, it was like a breath of fresh air."
Though Witherspoon claims experience working with ACORN on projects like Question P--the ballot initiative that passed last year, downsizing and reorganizing the City Council--the organization is not endorsing him. Instead, ACORN is endorsing another political newcomer, Wendy Foy, for the 9th District seat.
Foy, 43, is an office manager at the Harlem Park Lafayette Square Village Center, one of five Empowerment Centers around the city that help residents obtain job training, substance-abuse counseling, housing, and literacy training. She says her main concerns are fighting for living-wage jobs, economic development, and an end to predatory lending and real-estate scams. She has worked as a community organizer for years and has lobbied in Annapolis with ACORN to call for harsher laws against predatory lending.
"When I lobbied in Annapolis and at City Hall, it really opened my eyes," says Foy, who lives just a few doors down from Welch in Rosemont. "Because I realized that the current City Council wasn't concerned with issues going on in my community."
Foy was the a victim of predatory lending herself in 2000 when, six months after purchasing a house, she says it started to fall apart. She couldn't keep up with the repairs and was forced to file for bankruptcy. "I intend to monitor the companies who are suspected of predatory lending and inform the public about just what predatory lending is," she says.
Though Foy seems to know her district and its concerns, there is some concern about whether, if elected, she would be an independent voice on the City Council or if she would instead be a mouthpiece for ACORN and the issues it would like to see brought before the council. When she speaks, she has a tendency to reiterate many of the issues on the group's agenda, such as the revival of the city's $1 house program and reopening the district's Hollins-Payson Enoch Pratt Free Library branch. To improve education in the city, she says, she would like to see liquor stores taxed heavily--another ACORN-backed proposal.
"I feel like I am running against Welch and ACORN," Witherspoon observes when asked about his opponents. Though Witherspoon used to work for ACORN, he split with the organization in April of this year because of differences of opinion.
When asked about her affiliation with the group, Foy denies being a mouthpiece for ACORN.
"I will be a mouthpiece for the current district," she says. "Many of my constituents do not belong to ACORN. My constituents know that I will not make a move until I go back to the community and ask them what they want."
Foy's commitment to the community is not in doubt: She was the only candidate who attended a recent Saturday rally to close the Cheltenham youth facility, a boys' detention center in Prince George's County notorious for its poor conditions. She is involved with the Baltimore Education Network, an organization that is pushing for education reform and organizes parents to get involved in their children's educations.
A third candidate and political newcomer, Ernest M. King, has also stepped forward to represent the 9th District. King, 47, is an ordained minister and warehouse clerk at Charles H. Hickey Jr. youth facility in Baltimore County. He serves as executive director of the Baltimore Christian Warriors Sports Program, and the focus of his campaign is on youth outreach.
"I think youth development and empowerment is the main issue," he says. "The youth don't have a lot of hope. They need to be built up and shown positive things."
King says he wants to create a stronger homeownership base because homeowners feel most strongly about stabilizing their communities. But King, so far, has not been running a very strong or visible campaign. He has few signs posted in the district and has very little name recognition.
So the real race and final decision will likely be between Foy, Witherspoon, and Welch. The incumbent certainly has both the experience and connections to make things happen in her district. Welch was the only candidate in the race to know the status of the former Lutheran Hospital, a long-shuttered and neglected facility at Ashburton and Lanvale streets in the Rosemont neighborhoo, when asked.
Currently, the hospital sits on a six-acre parcel, which takes up an entire city block, surrounded by weeds and brush that have grown more than six feet tall. Old, discarded furniture surrounds the dilapidated structure, and residents say it's dangerous to walk near it after dark because potential attackers can hide in the rubble and weeds waiting for victims.
Welch says she has been in touch with Coppin State College's new president, Stanley Battle, about the site. She says the General Assembly gave nearby Coppin $800,000 to purchase it, though the takeover has been delayed. But Welch says there is finally some light at the end of the tunnel for the neighborhood, which has long hoped to see the neglected building put to good use again.
"I just came past there, and they are beginning to clean the outside of the facility," she says. "The neighborhood is happy they are finally working it out."
Welch says she also plans to introduce "pro-community, pro-urban environment legislation" to improve other neighborhoods in the new 9th District. She says that after having served five terms in office and having chaired the council's Urban Affairs Committee, which has emphasized mostly downtown rehabilitation initiatives, she wants to turn her attention to improvements at the neighborhood level.
The question on Sept. 9 will be whether the area's residents will want her to give her that chance.
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