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Campaign Beat

Super 8

In the New 8th District, The Race Focuses on a Face-Off

Frank Klein
Frank Klein
Do it Yourself: Patrick Burns (pictured with his son) thinks neighborhoods should get property-tax rebates for taking care of small problems without relying on the city.
Frank Klein

Photo courtesy

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 8/20/2003

No fewer than three current councilmanic districts were cut up to create Southwest Baltimore's new 8th District: There's a sizable chunk of the old 6th District (including Violetville, Allendale, and Irvington), a slice of the 5th District (Westgate to Dickeyville along the city-county line), and a little bite of the 4th (primarily Edmondson Village and Rognel Heights). The undulating lines of the Gwynns Falls form the bulk of the 8th's eastern boarder, and Edmondson and Frederick avenues are its main roadways.

Though the parentage of this largely leafy and suburbanesque enclave means nine current council members have had a hand in the new 8th, only two are going head-to-head here: Helen Holton (D-5th) and Melvin Stukes (D-6th). Stukes, whose longtime Cherry Hill home wound up in the new 10th District, recently moved to Irvington so he could run in the 8th.

The two-term 45-year-old black councilman makes no bones about having made the move for racial reasons. The 10th district, where white incumbent Councilman Edward Reisinger is running for re-election, is one of only two majority-white council districts (59 percent white, 36 percent black), while the 8th District is 78 percent black to 19 percent white.

"The two of us couldn't see running against each other," Stukes says of his 6th District colleague Reisinger. "We might split the vote and someone else would win. We've grown a whole lot along racial lines [in Baltimore], but when it comes down to [voting] we still haven't done that well."

The relocation pits Stukes against two-term Councilwoman Holton, but Stukes, a traditionally outspoken legislator, has little to say on this match-up. "I don't run against anybody," Stukes remarks. "I'm running for everybody."

Stukes, who completed his move in late July, says he's still "living out of boxes," and that the move "took up a lot time I would have loved to have spent in the streets" of his new district. He prides himself on his constituent service and efforts to improve mass transit (he chairs the council's Land Use and Planning's Transportation Subcommittee and works for the Maryland Transportation Administration as a special assistant to the director of customer information). His recently introduced Officer on Board legislation aims to increase the police presence on bus lines.

He also plans to find ways to "put more teeth in vicious-dog legislation," probably by levying substantial fines against the owners of dogs that attack people.

Perhaps Stukes' most high-profile moment occurred when his Pledge of Respect bill was passed last year. Also known as the "N-Word Bill," it called on all elected officials to "implore their constituency to refrain from using 'nigger' and all other derogatory terms." The measure was reported on across the country, garnering attention from sources as diverse as Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly and Jet magazine.

"I'm not a grandstander," Stukes says, in defending the initiative that some critics charged stretched the boundaries of the council's duties. "This was an effort to deal with hatred and low self-esteem."

Councilwoman Holton, 43, whose West Hills neighborhood is one of the handful of 5th District communities now in the 8th, doesn't question Stukes' legislative decisions. But she does question his recent relocation. "Why not move into a district where there was no incumbent running?" she asks.

Holton says it's "a challenge but not an insurmountable" one to take on an incumbent while introducing herself to many new potential constituents. She's already working with the Edmondson Village community over an absentee landlord's rowdy tenants. Discussions with the principal of Edmondson High School--across the street from Edmondson Village Shopping Center--led to her propose moving the curfew hours forward for city minors from 9 a.m. to 8 a.m. ("Then you don't have kids late for school because they chose to go to the stores," she says.)

"I've never been one to put forth legislation for the sake of putting forth legislation," she says of her work on the Council. "I think we have enough laws on the books that are not being enforced. I focus on substantive legislation."

A handful of challengers aim to unseat the incumbents, including Westgate resident Patrick Burns, 39, who ran unsuccessfully for a 5th District seat in 1999.

"The things I was able to achieve for my neighborhood I know we can do citywide," says Burns, a real-estate investor and property manager. He says he and his neighbors converted a city-owned vacant lot into a park and "decreased crime 93 percent" by forming a citizen's patrol and rerouting some traffic.

Burns prides himself on "thinking outside the box," and says he would launch a Community Empowerment Initiative that would provide neighborhoods with property-tax rebates to help themselves "efficiently take care of little problems that can make big differences" in a community's quality of life.

"Just to clean up a little bit of trash in the street you have call the city 60 times, and then they send out a truck, four guys, and a Bobcat," Burns says, noting that communities empowered to take care of their own needs could cost the city less and do a better job.

This is also David Maurice Smallwood's second attempt at elected office. He ran unsuccessfully for a 41st District House of Delegates seat in 1999. The 41-year-old city recreation center director also served as a legislative aide to former state Del. Wendell Phillips (D-41st) and counts current Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks (D-41st) among his supporters.

"Looking at field of candidates--especially the incumbents--I just did not feel we had great representation," Smallwood says of his decision to run. The lifelong Edmondson Village resident lists "abandoned housing and sanitation" as the major problems in the district.

"The city needs to be more diligent in responding to people's needs," he says. "People tell me they call the 311 number and they [end up with] a bunch of confirmation numbers and nothing being done."

Smallwood advocates for the creation of a "statute of limitation on abandoned houses," allowing the community and/or the city to take possession of vacant properties after they become a nuisance.

Political campaign first-timer Keith Matthews, 36, was born and raised in the 8th District and returned to Baltimore in 1999 following a 12-year stint in the Air Force. He says a "disconnect between City Hall and the community" led him to enter the race.

Trained as a systems analyst and working as a mobile signing agent (performing mortgage closures and refinancing for out-of-state mortgage firms), Matthews would like to see more community policing. "When I was younger, I pretty much knew the names of police officers in my area," he says. "Now they kind of ride through, and the guys [selling drugs] don't even leave the corner." Matthews tempers his calls for a greater police presence by acknowledging that drugs must also be treated as public-health issue.

Beatrice "Bizzy Bea" Hawkins, 51, owns and operates the Hawkins Christian Care Home senior day-care and assisted-living facility in Rognel Heights, the community where she's lived for 20 years. "It's time for change," she says of her decision to enter the race. "People know me very well in the community. I'm always busy trying to solve some issue." Hawkins, an active member of Rognel Heights' community association, adds: "I think I've kind of earned this position."

Hawkins calls for tighter penalties on repeat offenders, better enforcement of nuisance laws, and efforts to make the district's seniors feel safe. While supporting developments downtown, she would like to see more money flow out to the neighborhoods. "'Believe' is a great word, but I would use the word 'Restore,'" she says. "A lot of people need to be restored back to believing in their city government."

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