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Campaign Beat

Beverly Hills, 21214

Candidates in the 3rd District Vie for the Heart of O'Malley Country

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 8/6/2003

Sliced up by redistricting, Northeast Baltimore's new 3rd District is a shadow of its former self. Gone are a number of York Road corridor communities--Lake Walker, Mid Govans, Pen Lucy, and Waverly among them--which where handed off to either the 4th or 14th districts.

But downsized as it may be, much of what was true for the old 3rd is still true for the new: The district is still largely comprised of leafy bedroom communities, the bisecting Harford Road is still tantamount to its main street, and--judging by the thickets of bright green yard signs along many of it streets--much of the environs is still Mayor Martin O'Malley country. Before rising to the city's top chair in 1999, O'Malley was a two-term 3rd District councilman and his Beverly Hills home remains in the district.

Also still in the 3rd is two-term Councilman Robert Curran (D), who's the sole incumbent. (Councilmanic colleague Kenneth Harris is now running for re-election in the 4th District, while Councilwoman Lisa Joi Stancil--coming off her failed State's Attorney's run last year--is not seeking re-election.)

Son of the late Councilman J. Joseph Curran Sr., brother of Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., and uncle-in-law to O'Malley, it's no stretch to call Robert "Uncle Bob" Curran an entrenched and connected pol. But judging by the number of Curran signs strung along Harford Road, the Original Northwood resident is taking nothing for granted in taking on the trio of opponents seeking Democratic nomination. Whichever of the four Democrats gets the primary nod this September will face one of two Republicans in 2004.

"My re-election really hinges, not on what I do over the next eight weeks of campaigning, but what I've done over the last eight years," says Curran, 53. "I've been the lead sponsor of over 70 bills since I've been [on the council]."

The incumbent touts some $60 million of community and commercial revitalization projects he's brought to the district (including helping to bring an $11 million YMCA to the Memorial Stadium site). He also says he brought $22 million in new revenue or cost-savings initiatives to the city, including a bill that raised parking citation fines. (Some 80 percent of tickets, Curran says, are handed out to non-city residents).

If sent back to City Hall, Curran says the commercial revitalization of Harford Road, home to an increasing amount of closed shops and decay, will be a "top issue."

"If we lose the Harford Road corridor like we've lost so many others, the city is going to hell in a handbasket," he says. One "novelty idea" he is looking into developing is a mechanism to limit storefront churches along the stretch. While stressing that he's a "man of faith" and a "good Catholic boy," he says the proliferating storefront worship centers take valuable commercial real estate both off the market and off the tax rolls. "They also inhibit businesses around them," Curran says, largely by hogging parking.

Challenger James Butler knows all too well that he's up against an entrenched political figure. The 40-year-old bachelor literally lives across the street from Mayor O'Malley (who's married to Robert Curran's niece) and, though he doesn't work directly for Joseph Curran, Butler is a lawyer in the state Attorney General's office. Nevertheless, Butler--who earned a master's degree in public administration along with a law degree from the University of Baltimore--says he's wanted go into politics "since I was 6 years old, and now the time is right."

Butler returned to Baltimore in 2000 after six years of being in the military. "Nothing had changed," he says. "I didn't see the positive growth I thought I'd see, especially in Northeast Baltimore."

Butler, now a major in the Army Reserves, is concerned about crumbling schools and lack of recreational facilities. While stationed in other states he saw recycling programs that not only worked better than Baltimore's but also helped raise money for community projects. He'd like to bring such systems here. "Everyone is encouraged to recycle," he says, "the motivation being that the kids will have activities and rec centers." Butler also decries the current lack of communication between councilperson and constituents, saying, "since I moved here I've heard nothing from Curran."

As head of the Baltimore City PTA, a special-education teacher (employed by a private firm servicing the city schools), and a father of two children attending city high schools, it's easy to see why candidate Michael Hamilton says, "Education is the cornerstone of my platform, and it's the reason I jumped into the race." The 52-year-old Baltimore native and Stonewood-Pentwood-Winston resident acknowledges that "City Council doesn't have direct oversight" over the school system and its budget, but he feels a council seat could be a powerful platform to lobby for school issues--especially at the state level.

"We need more voices added to the process of protecting our youth," Hamilton says.

He is also concerned with timely delivery of city services and developing new strategies--and strengthening existing ones--aimed at encouraging homeownership. He calls Harford Road "a jewel that needs to be polished" and says he would look for ways to bring major developers "above North Avenue." The political neophyte (this is his first run for public office) also advocates for community policing and ending "the warehousing of our seniors."

Perring Loch resident Beatrice Brown, 60, is a longtime community activist (she's mentored youths among other volunteer activities) and a past president of Northeast Community Organization. She ran unsuccessfully for a 43rd District House of Delegates seat last year, but is a two-term member of Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee. Her concerns include increasing access to affordable health care and improving city services.

She feels that in the wake of redistricting, the electorate "demands change" and feels she fits comfortably into this desire. "I'm a doer," she says. "I know I can get things accomplished."

Brown, an avid walker, is very aware of the decline of Harford Road. "We have a lot of programs in place in Baltimore City to help small businesses, but they are not connected together to create a positive outcome," she says.

The only other woman in the race is Republican hopeful Lorraine Pontillo, 34, who owns her own financial-planning firm and is vice president of the Baltimore Area Young Republicans. She says, "the current city [administration] has not been as fiscally responsible as they could be," and advocates running the city "like a business." She calls for cutting fat and increasing city employee accountability. While Pontillo supports privatizing some city functions, she acknowledges that privatization "is not a blanket solution."

In the education arena, she supports "parental choice in schools" and would call for tax breaks for parents who send their children to private school. However, she also calls herself "a huge fan of fixing area public schools," which might mean adding more magnet schools to the system.

Harford Road, she says, "has been totally neglected," and she would look into ways to have the city and/or state provide matching funds for facade-improvement projects.

Her Republican rival, 38-year-old Carlos Torres, is new to the GOP. Four years ago he ran unsuccessfully for a 1st District City Council seat as a Democrat.

Central to his campaign is bringing Project Exile to Baltimore. Pioneered in Richmond, Va., Project Exile is a program wherein local firearm crimes are tried in federal courts (and subject to federal mandatory sentencing). While widely credited with helping achieve a 40 percent reduction in firearm homicides in Richmond, the program is not without controversy.

"It should at least be looked at," Torres says. "Too many youths are dying in the street, and I don't see our current City Council bringing up any legislation to try and resolve the homicide rate."

Torres, a Hamilton resident and construction project manager and estimator, also calls for bidding some city services out to the private sector and reducing property taxes by $200 a year for five years. The resulting drop in revenue would be made up, he figures, by the influx of new residents.

"There is definitely a window of opportunity for Republicans in this race, given the way the election is set up," Torres says. "Constituents in the 3rd District will have a chance to look closely at the person, and not just look the party."

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