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Campaign Beat

Al for One

Sharpton Allies Challenge 40th District Incumbents

Former state senator and current radio personality Larry Young heads the Baltimore chapter of Sharpton's National Action Network.
Michelle Gienow
Chapter vice president Eric Easton (left) is running for a 40th District house seat.

By Van Smith | Posted 8/7/2002

New York activist Al Sharpton's National Action Network, headed locally by ousted state Sen. Larry Young, is the source of two challengers to the Democratic incumbent ticket in Baltimore City's new 40th District. The Baltimore chapter's vice president, Eric Easton, is running for delegate, while Desiree Dodson, until recently National Action Network's secretary, is taking on longtime incumbent Ralph Hughes for the west-side district's Senate seat.

This year's election is the first opportunity for local National Action Network leaders to seek office, as the group was formed just last year, months after Young lost a bid to head the Baltimore City NAACP. On the National Action Network's 13-member board sits Del. Nathaniel Oaks (D-41st) and city Board of Elections President Marvin "Doc" Cheatham. At the group's May 2001 founding meeting, Young said that NAN-Baltimore would address such problems as drug addiction, economic empowerment, housing, and unequal treatment of black police officers as civil-rights issues.

On the Senate side, Dodson is the only challenger to Hughes, a 54-year-old three-term incumbent who sits on the Judiciary Committee. Hughes ran unopposed in 1998, but in 1994 he got two-thirds of the vote in a three-way contest. About 70 percent of the 40th District's precincts survived redistricting, so Hughes doesn't have much new territory to learn. Dodson could not be reached for comment. According to Larry Young, Dodson was NAN-Baltimore's secretary at its 2001 inception, but has since left that position.

Democratic Dels. Tony Fulton, Salima Marriott, and Howard "Pete" Rawlings won the last two elections, running as a team with Hughes. The slate remains intact this year, with lots of money in its war chest--thanks mostly to Rawlings, the House Appropriations Committee chairperson, who draws donations like pollen draws bees. But the trio is running with one new bit of baggage: Fulton bears the stigma of a legislative ethics scandal that ended in 2000 with his acquittal on federal fraud charges.

The legislator was accused of engineering a "bell-ringing" scheme; prosecutors alleged he made hollow threats of anti-business legislation in order to drum up business for lobbyists. Lobbyist Gerard Evans was found guilty in the case.

Asked after a July 30 campaign date about the 2-year-old scandal, Fulton says the not-guilty verdict should erase any impact on his re-election hopes. A more pertinent question for voters, he maintains, is whether the time is right for Baltimore, weakened politically by redistricting, to send rookie legislators to Annapolis. "If you want to see [the city's political clout] implode," he says, "send some untested, unproven people down there. This is not the time."

At least four people in the 40th disagree. Democrats Easton, Wyman Park organizer Dennis Byrne, school counselor Belinda Conaway, and Charles M. Smith are all challenging the incumbent delegates. Of them, only Easton has sought elective office before, running in 1999 for a City Council seat.

Easton and Dodson were both featured in the Aug. 25, 2001, issue of the NAN Newsletter, which announced the formation of Sharpton's 2004 presidential exploratory committee. Easton, the newsletter reports, is working with Young to form new National Action Network committees in Maryland. A commentary in the newsletter, written by Dodson, quotes gospel-music lyrics before launching into a passionate, class-conscious call for "an uprising against the system. . . . We will not back down!"

Sharpton's in-your-face populism has earned him renown and influence, and since its formation in 1991, the National Action Network has been his megaphone. Sharpton has been working hard to overcome an early reputation for anti-Semitism. In January 2000, for instance, he roundly condemned an ally, the Rev. Charles Norris, for making anti-Semitic comments during a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration. "I am simply not going to tolerate Jews or Muslims being offended on my platform," Sharpton proclaimed.

Easton too has had his moments on the race-relations front. In 1997, he was among the leaders of demonstrations against a Korean grocer suspected of selling bad food. Easton was accused of harboring anti-Asian sentiments; he countered that he was opposed to bad merchants, not Koreans, and buttressed his point by taking The Sun's Gregory Kane to Cross Street Market, where, Easton told the columnist, he patronizes Korean-run stalls.

In addition to Easton, the incumbent delegates are facing the product of a political pairing: Belinda Conaway, the daughter of Frank and Mary Conaway, both of whom hold elected offices in the city courts. This is her first outing for public office, but Belinda Conaway did run unsuccessfully for president of the Baltimore City Teachers Union, in 200, when, as a guidance counseler at Western Middle School, she entered the contentious five-way race. Recently, The Daily Record took her to task for making unfounded criticisms of Howard County's new housing-lottery program, which aims to increase middle-income households in the wealthy county.

Byrne, of Wyman Park, has made a name for himself in a newly added part of the 40th--the neighborhoods around Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus--as a community-association president who chaired the task force overseeing redevelopment of Hampden's old Northern District police station. Like Byrne, 29-year-old Smith, a fatherhood advocate (he's policy director for the Center for Fathers Families and Workforce Development, a Druid Hill-based group that promotes responsible fatherhood) with a master's degree in city planning, is making his first stab at public office.

Easton, meanwhile, is bringing aggressive rhetoric to the campaign. At the July 30 debate, sponsored by WOLB (1010 AM) and held at the Bread of Life Center downtown, he orated with Sharptonesque flourish. "You want a fighter down there in Annapolis?" Easton asked the packed house. "I fight the power," he barked, like a boxer in prefight hype mode. "I fight against the machine. I'm unbought and unbossed!"

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