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Campaign Beat

War of Wards

A Tale of Two Cities Defines the 11th District Race

City Paper "Informative Graphic"
Michelle Gienow
Eric Easton

By Van Smith | Posted 7/23/2003

When Eric Easton's turn to speak came during a July 15 City Council candidates forum at the Belvedere Hotel, the first thing he wanted to say--even before telling the audience his name--was how unhappy he was that the city had disqualified one of his Democratic opponents, Michael Seipp, for missing a financial-disclosure filing deadline.

"I hope the Board of Elections does not take Michael Seipp's name off the ballot," an emphatic Easton told the 90 or so people who had gathered for the forum, sponsored by the Midtown/Belvedere Association. Days later the Board of Elections denied Seipp's plea to reinstate his candidacy, but Seipp had already filed a lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court in an attempt to restore his name to the September primary ballot. Despite the setback, Seipp, a housing specialist with decades of involvement in city neighborhoods, says he plans to continue campaigning.

Easton says he hopes Seipp's lawsuit succeeds. His welcoming attitude is reflective of the newly drawn 11th District's electoral geography. There are sharp differences among the 11th's precincts: prosperous neighborhoods with a history of high voter turnout and impoverished, low-voting areas. While incumbent City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell (who represents the old 4th District until after the November 2004 general election) often refers to the newly drawn 11th as "the most diverse in the city," Easton is aware that the district is starkly segregated along racial and class lines--divisions he thinks will work in his favor.

Members of the Mount Vernon/Belvedere Association happily reported to the forum's attendees that the neighborhood's average income and homeownership had more than doubled between 1990 and 2000 and asked the candidates to comment on the community's traffic problems. The good news about rising homeownership and incomes and the traffic issue are a world away from the 11th's many poverty-stricken neighborhoods, where drug trafficking, vacant houses, and trash-strewn streets and alleys define the political debate.

Easton knows that voters on Park Avenue vote differently than those on Druid Hill Avenue. And the 45-year-old chemical-company clerk and community activist, who has run twice, unsuccessfully, for public office--he ran for state delegate last year, and for City Council in '99--says he has a campaign plan that will resonate with the district's poor voters. He compares his plan to the late Bea Gaddy's City Council campaign--she raised and spent hardly any money but organized high-profile events that benefited the underclass. Recently, for example, Easton spearheaded a petition drive that led to the renaming of a stretch of Loch Raven Boulevard as Marcianna Ringo Way, after the child victim of a brutal murder last year. Ultimately, "I'm depending on [votes from] people who actually know me," Easton says, again comparing himself to Gaddy. "And a lot of people in this district do."

All of the Democratic candidates--Easton of Reservoir Hill, Mitchell of Bolton Hill, Bill Marker of Barre Circle, and James Feld and Robert Siewierski of Midtown/Belvedere--say they will campaign throughout the district. But with about 16,500 Democrats choosing among five contenders, Easton figures his opponents will split the vote in their neighborhoods and in the district's other, more prosperous precincts: Mount Vernon, Ridgeley's Delight, Otterbein, Federal Hill, and Washington Village/Pigtown. Easton wants votes from those areas, too, and he's banking on strong support from his neighbors in high-voting Reservoir Hill. But he's also depending on the many poor, low-voting precincts, like Madison Park, Upton, Harlem Park, Sandtown-Winchester, Seton Hill, and Poppleton.

"I'm getting the low-vote precincts to vote for me," Easton predicted during a recent interview next to Lakeview Towers, a public-housing high-rise for seniors in Reservoir Hill. "They are the ones who nobody cares about, who've been left behind, where representation has been sorely lacking."

Among the voters Easton is targeting are those in the district's 11 precincts that did not back Martin O'Malley in the 1999 Democratic primary, voting instead for either then-City Council President Lawrence Bell or former city councilman Carl Stokes. Nearly 36 percent of the 8,160 Democrats in these precincts turned out to vote in the 1999 primary--far fewer than the nearly 45 percent who cast votes in the precincts that favored O'Malley, where 10,416 Democrats were registered. But Easton is hoping a majority in the low-voting precincts will conclude that they are worse off after four years of the O'Malley administration. He hopes they will back Walbrook High School Principal Andrey Bundley in the mayor's race--and himself, rather than Mitchell (an O'Malley ally) or the other three Democrats in the 11th District race.

The 35-year-old Mitchell, who in addition to being a councilman works for A.G. Edwards and Sons investment advisers in Hunt Valley, is aware of Easton's potential on the poor side of the district's divide. "There are many voters who went for Bell [in 1999], or don't like O'Malley, or like Bundley," he observes.

To Mitchell, much of the voting preference in the poor side of the 11th is determined by race. Census data helps make his point: While the 11th's high-voting precincts that backed O'Malley are diverse (47.5 percent white, 45.4 percent black, and 7.1 percent of other races), the poorer, low-voting areas Easton is banking on are overwhelmingly black--91.8 percent, compared to only 5.3 percent white and 2.9 percent other races.

"You have to bridge that gap of race, and this district is the perfect opportunity to do that," says Mitchell, whose last name has reliably drawn votes in many precincts due to his family's long history in politics and civil rights. "I think I can bridge that gap," he says, pointing out that as chair of the council's Taxation Committee he maneuvers bond bills through the council--efforts that entail rubbing shoulders with the city's big-business class--yet he also takes his office to the streets one day a month, signing up the poor for job counseling and health services.

"I have developers and million-dollar bonds that come before my committee," he points out. "And in the same day, I could be standing on the street corner, signing up people for [drug] treatment."

Mitchell understands, however, that the City Council is a somewhat tarnished institution and that anti-incumbency is in the air, manifested last fall by a voter-endorsed referendum, Question P, that downsized and restructured Baltimore's legislative branch.

"City Council is blamed for everything. Even the demise of the Orioles, the City Council had something to do with it," Mitchell jokes. On top of that, he notes that "last year wasn't the greatest year for the Mitchell name"--a reference to his cousin, former state senator Clarence Mitchell IV, who last year suffered from an ethics scandal, backed Republican Robert Ehrlich for governor, and then was not re-elected to his seat. "So I'm out there, kind of letting [voters] know who Keiffer Mitchell is."

While he is reliably supportive of O'Malley, Mitchell boasts a measure of independence. He recalls his vote against the mayor's first budget in 2000, which laid off many low-paid city workers, as one of the proudest moments in the second of his two terms as a councilman.

Bill Marker, an attorney for the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation, who has long lived in Barre Circle, in the district's southwest corner, is also aware of the district's pronounced divisions. So he has grasped an issue, property taxes, that is bound to intrigue homeowners of all races and classes.

According to Census data, only about 17 percent of the 11th's dwelling units are owner-occupied--the citywide rate is 43 percent--so the main plank in Marker's platform has a limited reach. Yet it's the issue he used in his state House campaign last fall, which he lost, and he plugs it--along with the merits of commuting by bicycle--regularly and passionately.

"My proposal on property tax will affect everyone," says Marker, who's 52. "And it's not just about reducing taxes." Pointing out that high property taxes are "one thing that discourages people with choice from moving into the city," Marker wants the state to have one tax rate applied to all property in Maryland, as opposed to the current practice of setting rates locally. That way, he argues, revenue would be raised more equitably across the state, and city coffers would "get a fair share" of the take. "It would have great ramifications for everyone," he says.

New to the electoral game in the Democratic primary are James Feld, 25, a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art and a server at the Cheesecake Factory, and Robert Siewierski, 32, who's a member of the honor guard at the Maryland National Guard's 5th Regiment Armory. If Green Party candidate Mario Nisbett, who could not be reached for this article, and independent Rue Stewart, a recent graduate of University of Baltimore Law School, gather enough signatures to make it onto next fall's ballot, the Democratic victor will face them and Republican James Quigley. Quigley, like Seipp, was disqualified for missing the July 10 financial-disclosure deadline but was reinstated by the local Republican Party as its sole candidate in the 11th District.

Feld, like Marker, has a tax-related proposal, albeit a more moderate one: "Make parking fines tax-deductible," he enthused before the audience at the Belvedere. As for traffic, "I literally sleep 20 feet from where 22,000 cars pass daily," he said, and noted that he believes the Midtown Community Plan--a set of proposals intended to improve traffic, parking, and streetscapes along the corridors of midtown and Mount Vernon--should be fully implemented. Originally from Philadelphia, Feld lived in Bolton Hill for four years during college and has lived in Midtown/Belvedere ever since.

During his six years as a Midtown/Belvedere resident, Siewierski says he has "seen the area improve drastically, and I've seen some things that haven't improved which can be solved simply." So he decided to throw his hat in the ring to focus on solutions--improving police patrols, making sure public schools have enough books for their students, and fixing bad roads. And he, too, has tax ideas--"raising taxes on luxury items like cigarettes and alcohol, or maybe a piggyback tax on renters, or turning I-83 into a toll road." He's not keen on rerouting the traffic through Midtown, though, preferring to "leave the flow of traffic the way it is, the buses the way they are, and invest in the greatest thing in this city--the subway system, and the future of that."

Easton, meanwhile, was impressed with his hosts' Midtown Community Plan. "After reading it, I truly believe you all are dedicated activists, too," he told the diverse crowd at the Belvedere. As for the district's racial and class divide, Easton remarked, "I definitely don't see it here."

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