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Campaign Beat

7th Up

Though Five Dems and Two Republicans are Vying for the 7th District City Council Seat, Two Emerge as Front-Runners

The City Paper Digi-Camô
Propaganda Machine: The Conawaymobile 2003 has a not-so-subtle message for voters.

By Waris Banks | Posted 8/20/2003

Quality of life is an important theme for Democratic candidates vying for the 7th District City Council seat. But "quality of life" is an abstract term that means many things to the residents of this economically and racially diverse area of the city, which is about 75 percent African-American and includes the neighborhoods of Ashburton, Coppin Heights, and Hanlon, and parts of Hampden, Remington, Sandtown-Winchester, and Walbrook.

For some residents of the district, improved city services are badly needed. According to the Baltimore Neighborhoods Indicators Alliance (BNIA), residents of Mondawmin can expect to wait 36 days for the city to respond to complaints about dirty streets and alleys; in Sandtown-Winchester, the wait time is 75.38 days. In comparison to other areas of the city, these response times are dismal: In Canton, for instance, BNIA reports that the city usually responds to complaints of dirty streets and alleys within 23.56 days. In Belair-Edison, the wait, on average, is 28.51 days.

In addition, the district has hundreds of vacant houses, numerous housing violations, elevated levels of burglaries and robberies, and, with the exception of Hampden, most of the district is considered a high lead-risk area.

"When you speak about improving the quality of life, you're dealing with a variety of issues," acknowledges Belinda K. Conaway, a 35-year-old school counselor who ran for a House of Delegates seat in 2002. "Fundamentally, we know [people] want good schools, clean neighborhoods, and safe streets."

Likewise, Shawn Z. Tarrant, who has lived in Baltimore for 10 years and is making his first bid for city office, knows that it's important to find out what aspects of their lives community members want to improve. Tarrant held a meeting on July 16 at Hampden's Café Hon and invited 30 members of various community groups to attend a lunch and air their concerns. The candidate says he got a good turnout, and that he addressed specific issues such as abandoned housing, bringing more businesses to the area, curbing drug activity, and introducing community-centered policing.

"I'm looking forward to being a City Council person to a very diverse district," the 37-year-old pharmaceutical sales representative and Long Island, N.Y., native says confidently. "It's really across the board. My campaign theme is better neighborhoods . . . and better quality of life."

Conaway and Tarrant, both residents of the relatively affluent Ashburton neighborhood, will run in the primary against three other Democratic candidates for the seat: City firefighter John Burke, exterminator and former city Rat Rubout worker John Holmes, and 48-year-old Park Circle resident Timothy Mercer.

Burke, a 43-year-old Hampden resident, says he "would like to reduce crime before anything, or else people won't invest in the neighborhood."

Holmes, 41 and a resident of Hanlon, says his chief priorities are cleaning up the streets, providing more recreational outlets for children, and ending the privatization of city jobs.

Mercer did not return calls for comment on the race.

There are also two Republicans who will face off in the September primary: Owen Hanratty, a Medfield resident whose focus is on public-safety issues, such as upgrading equipment for the police and fire departments, using police force to confront open-air drug trading, and funding continuing-education opportunities for police officers. The 27-year-old will face fellow Republican Almaajid Muhammed El, 48, on the ballot in September. Muhammed El, a resident of Walbrook, did not return calls for comment on the race.

As in districts 1 and 14, there is no incumbent running for the 7th District seat, so voters will have to decide on a candidate based on what appears to be commitment to the community and an ability to be a strong leader.

Sonja Merchant-Jones, treasurer of the political action committee for the local branch of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), says her organization asked all the Democratic candidates to respond to a written questionnaire on a number of issues. After reviewing the responses, Merchant-Jones says, the two candidates with the most substantial responses were Tarrant and Conaway. After interviewing the two, ACORN endorsed Tarrant over Conaway, particularly because of his stance on housing.

"Shawn Tarrant was the person that interviewed the best," Merchant-Jones says. "His answers were the ones that best represented the issues that are important to ACORN, such as predatory lending, [and] library and school closings. He really seemed like a person who had been working in the community long before he was running for City Council."

Though Conaway comes from a politically pedigreed family--her father, Frank Conaway, is the city's Clerk of the Circuit Court and is running as an independent candidate for mayor; and her stepmother, Mary Conaway, is the city's Register of Wills--ACORN wasn't satisfied with the answers she gave during her interview. On the issue of vacant housing, Merchant-Jones says, Conaway's solution was to simply let houses linger rather then turning them over to nonprofit organizations who could put them to use.

Conaway, however, dismisses Merchant-Jones' assertions. The candidate also says she's making it her business to respond to the needs of the district's electorate, not to those of a special-interest group such as ACORN. She says she has been working with community groups, just as Tarrant has, and believes her record of service proves that she can address the area's concerns.

"I would love to work with ACORN," Conaway says. "They may not have agreed with what I said. . . . As far as vacant housing is concerned, I'd like to expedite the process for taking over vacant homes to have renovations done and get people in their homes."

Conaway also says she's been invited to several community forums across the district and has attended many of them. She adds that she's gotten the support of a number of city leaders. However, when asked by City Paper to provide more detail on who is supporting her, her father Frank Conaway--who also serves as her campaign manager--was reluctant to name specific individuals and groups. When pressed, Conaway says his daughter is receiving support from private attorney A. Dwight Petit and public defender Warren Brown.

"She is not one of the front-runners," Frank Conaway says of his daughter. "She is the front-runner," adding that his daughter "has many supporters. There's no question about that."

However, Janine Bradley, executive director of Hampden Village Main Street, who cites crime as one of the biggest concerns for businesses in her area, indicates that Conaway may not have the visibility she needs in certain neighborhoods. Although she's spoken with Tarrant on a number of occasions, Bradley says, she has yet to speak with Conaway about the issues important to her organization.

"We haven't, to this day, [even] had contact with Ms. Conaway," she says.

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