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Campaign Beat

Rage Against the Machine

Anger Sets the Tone in the 12th District Race

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By Van Smith | Posted 8/6/2003

"I have to be honest with you," City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young (D-2nd District) confessed as his campaign workers gathered at Monument Street and Central Avenue for some door-knocking on a recent Tuesday evening. "Some of them were very angry."

He was talking about residents of Somerset Homes, an aging, low-rise public-housing community nearby, where he had campaigned a few days earlier. It's home to 107 people, according to Census figures, all but one of them African-American. The community's median age is less than 15 years old, and 46 of its residents are single mothers. Less than half of its population is old enough to vote. It sits in the shadows of the Johns Hopkins' East Baltimore medical campus, one of the region's largest employers and a symbol of progress and prosperity. But per capita income in the Somerset Homes area is $8,000, and about 65 percent of its population lives in poverty, including nearly 78 percent of its juvenile residents.

Life is tough in Somerset Homes, but it's tough all over East Baltimore. In the new 12th District, which Young would like to represent, there are 22 precincts centered around Greenmount Cemetery. Along the western edge of the district is the Charles Street corridor, running from Midtown/ Belvedere to Charles Village, an area generally perceived to be on the upswing. The rest is made up of communities known more for their ongoing struggles against crime and social problems: Oliver, Middle East, East Baltimore Midway, Greenmount West, Broadway East, and numerous public-housing facilities. The 12th's total population is almost 40,000, nearly 90 percent African-American. Poverty, segregation, decaying housing and infrastructure, a breakdown in the basic rules of civil society--these are the all-too-obvious hallmarks of the 12th District's precincts.

And then there is Hopkins' expanding East Baltimore campus, where hundreds of millions of dollars are spent for research and development each year, and where the schools of medicine, public health, and nursing each topped the national list of federal research monies awarded this year. While not actually within the 12th's borders (it's just outside the district, to the east), Hopkins is very much an issue in the district's politics. Perceived by its surrounding communities to be cloistered, elitist, and selfishly motivated, Hopkins' continuing involvement in public-private partnerships ostensibly aimed at raising the fortunes of its neighbors has been viewed with deep skepticism. The latest is the city and Hopkins' move to seize up to 3,000 properties to create room for a new biotechnology park and housing. Relocations of existing renters and homeowners are part of the plan, but the fairness of the whole biotech-park package is viewed differently from the streets, where it is seen as an equity grab from poor homeowners, than it is in the halls of power, where it is seen as instrumental to East Baltimore's--as well as the city's and the state's--economic prospects.

In this atmosphere--widespread poverty, with a world-class, billion-dollar institution smack in the middle of it--Young, 49, has served since 1996. That's when Young, a resident of Oliver, a lifelong East Baltimorean, and a radiology manager for Hopkins, was appointed to replace outgoing City Councilman Anthony Ambridge. In 1999, he was elected in his own right, with the backing of the Eastside Democratic Organization (EDO), a group that was formed more than three decades ago by former Mayor Clarence "Du" Burns, and that has kept a tight grip on East Baltimore's political machinations ever since.

EDO has been headed for the last decade by State Sen. Nathaniel McFadden (D-45th District), and has won widespread scorn in recent years for its "machine" style of operating. Critics say EDO helps win and control fat chunks of public pork--most notably for projects associated with Hopkins--while putting friends and family in government-funded jobs, but without clear benefits for the regular residents of its territory.

Young again is backed by EDO, this time in a highly competitive race. Young's fellow incumbent and longtime friend, Councilwoman Pamela Carter (D-2nd District) of Oliver, who had EDO's support when she was selected in 2001 to replace the late councilwoman Bea Gaddy, is in the offing for the district seat. And four Democratic challengers have tossed their hats into the ring as well.

All five of Young's challengers face a disadvantage in terms of campaign finances. He had $60,000 in the bank before the fund-raising season started this spring, and will reap the benefits of EDO's electoral resources. Young can also expect some helpful turns from his most potent supporter, Mayor Martin O'Malley. But all five of his opponents say they don't need support from EDO or the mayor, that people in the new 12th are tired of the same-old, same-old and are looking for new faces and fresh representation that isn't owned by big-time political players. Political outsiders, they say, have the advantage because the electorate has had enough of the status quo.

"It's been a long time coming," says Carter, 49, of the 12th's discontent. "People have lost interest in the process, lost hope. Like an old friend was telling me the other day, this district looks like a war was fought here. So people ask, how can you let a whole side of town deteriorate like that? It's mind-boggling."

While many see the race as a battle between Young and Carter, if there's a voter revolt underway, Carter, too, is vulnerable. She's an incumbent (albeit a new one), and she used to have ties to EDO and O'Malley, for whom she worked in his pre-mayoral days on the City Council. And although O'Malley and EDO have chosen to back Young over her, Carter still bears the trappings of the political establishment, which could hurt her if the anti-incumbent fever that's said to be taking hold in the 12th blossoms on Election Day in September. That potential doesn't bother her now, though. Carter, director of East Baltimore's Healthy Start program, which works to lessen infant mortality, says "there are going to be a lot of split households, with one side voting for me and the other side for [Young]."

"What the community is trying to say," says candidate Ertha Harris, a 43-year-old analyst for an accounting firm in Virginia that serves mortgage companies, "is they don't like this cliquish thing going on. . . . It doesn't make any difference what machine somebody is a part of--the machine ain't working. It's an uprising, because people don't see anything being done, and right now [EDO's] money cannot buy them out of the dissatisfaction of the people. What you can't buy is trust, and people don't trust the machine."

Harris, who lives in Oliver, tried to win a seat on the council in 1999 but lost. Now she's back, in part because of the voters' overwhelming passage last fall of Question P, a referendum that downsized and restructured the City Council in what was interpreted as a strong anti-incumbent statement from the electorate. She believes that reflects on EDO's waning influence as well.

Question P won, 65 percent to 35 percent, both city-wide and in the 12th District's precincts. But support for the measure was much more pronounced--77 to 23--in the higher voting neighborhoods of Midtown/ Belvedere and Charles Village, which backed O'Malley in the 1999 primary, than in the rest of the district. In lower-voting precincts, where the electorate in 1999 followed EDO's lead in backing former City Councilman Carl Stokes over O'Malley, Question P passed 61 to 39--less robust support, though still strong.

Twelfth District candidate Leon "Cliff" Purnell still sees Question P as proof that EDO is losing traction. The group and O'Malley came out stridently against Question P, but it passed anyhow. And EDO's growing impotence, Purnell believes, was also exposed last fall when it dumped one of its founders, state Del. Hattie Harrison, from its four-member ticket in the 45th District race. Even without EDO's support, Harrison got enough votes to keep her seat. That's when Purnell, a long-time EDO member, left the group. "People are angry," the 50-year-old says. "And they realize that it's time for a change."

Purnell does not reside in the 12th District (he lives in Loch Raven), which is kosher because under this election's odd calendar, candidates in the primary don't have to live in the district where they're running--as long as they move there by a year before next November's general election. He runs the Men's Center, a mentoring, parenting, and counseling center on Jefferson Street, just east of Hopkins' medical campus, and claims longs roots in East Baltimore.

He and Carter have a daughter together, Carter says, though they never married and remain estranged.

Annie Chambers is no wallflower, nor a newcomer to tell-it-as-it-is protesting. "I'm running because we need to make a change in the City Council," she told a packed house at a recent Midtown/Belvedere candidates forum. A scattered-site public-housing resident, the 62-year-old Barclay resident said, "I also represent people who live in public housing and I've been fighting for scattered-site housing in every neighborhood of this city. There are no middle-class people anymore. It's the rich and the poor, and that's it. I'm dealing with class--I'm not dealing with race. Yes, I fight for the homeless. Yes, I fight for the hungry. And yes, I fight for homeownership for everyone."

Chambers, who says she's a mother of 25 ("22 of them living"), has been around Baltimore politics long enough to have attended a fund-raiser for then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer in 1985, where she told a Washington Post reporter that she was a welfare-rights activist who didn't pay for her ticket. "I wouldn't give him $100," she was quoted as saying. "This is a disgrace with people starving in this city."

Originally from West Baltimore, Frank Richardson graduated in 1998 from Towson University, where he was president of the student government. "I know about leadership, I learned it well," he told the crowd at the Midtown/Belvedere forum, using a boastful cadence that calls to mind Muhammad Ali's rhetoric. "I'm the man, and I'm in demand" is another of the Charles Villager's catch phrases. After college, he moved to Japan for a few years, where he met his wife--and picked up the language, which he is fond of using when greeting crowds with his booming voice.

"I've come back home to a nightmare," says Richardson, 31, of the violence in the city. "But I won't be one for complacency." He is currently a pastoral associate and urban youth minister at Immaculate Conception Church in Towson and St. Cecilia Church in Walbrook.

Despite the hot-under-the-collar zeitgeist in the 12th District race, Young adamantly says, "I'm not hearing the anti-incumbent rhetoric" in his travels around the communities he represents. "EDO and its politicians have done a lot for the city of Baltimore and East Baltimore in particular," he says. He points in particular to a variety of EDO-brokered partnerships that he says have helped bring new advantages to his constituents: job training, computers and computer training, drug-treatment facilities, new housing, increased homeownership, renovated playgrounds. "I could just go on and on," Young says. "We take comfort in the fact that we have helped people."

As for Somerset Homes and the anger he encountered there, Young says, "everyone there knows, if there's a problem, call Jack." The question is, with the district's longstanding and deep-seated problems, will they vote for him, too?

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