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Campaign Beat

His Own Council

GOP's Campbell Takes on Sheila Dixon and the Status Quo

Antonio Campbell

By Michael Anft | Posted 10/13/1999

Antonio Campbell's modus operandi is simple. While playing the David to Sheila Dixon's Goliath, Campbell makes sure his political slingshot is loaded and drawn, theorizing that in order to slay a political giant from the city's overwhelmingly majority party, one must dispense with decorum.

Campbell, the Republican nominee for the City Council presidency, has made no secret of his desire to ascend to the office by deriding Dixon, the Democrats' choice to head the 19-member body on which she has served as a member for 12 years. And Campbell isn't above using a once-venerated GOP figure to make his point.

"Sheila Dixon is like Newt Gingrich," he says, as he stretches out in the living room of his Ednor Gardens rowhouse. "People were fine with him when he was throwing molotovs from the back row. But as he proved, you can't do that and lead a legislative body."

Although Dixon is often remembered—primarily by white voters—as the incendiary force behind "the shoe incident" in 1991 (when she taunted white council members about the effects of redistricting by waving her high heel and yelling, "Now the shoe is on the other foot."), Dixon has spent much of her council tenure quietly pushing the agenda of her political benefactor, Mayor Kurt Schmoke. Campbell has that angle covered too. "[Dixon] has been part of the problem here," he says. "She's been playing politics for 12 years while the city has slid downhill. I don't think there's anybody in her district [the 4th] who can say they're better off now than they were 12 years ago." (Dixon couldn't be reached for comment for this article.)

Not that Campbell, who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-7th) last year, is running a solely negative campaign. He has ideas, he says, and while he remains a staunch defender of archetypal Republican values—lower taxes, self-sufficiency, leaner government—he isn't afraid to veer from the party line espoused in large measure by Republican mayoral candidate David Tufaro. Campbell, a 33-year-old parochial-school music teacher, doesn't back school vouchers, for example, instead favoring the pruning of "the bloated bureaucracy at North Avenue" (site of the city school system's headquarters); an increase in teachers' salaries to between $40,000 and $50,000, (city public-school teachers now make anywhere between $28,000 and $53,000 per year); and an elected school board—ideas that might endear him to the Baltimore Teachers' Union if he weren't a Republican. "[The union] hasn't invited me to speak with them," he says.

Campbell also takes issue with other conservative causes, such as welfare-to-work programs that don't provide ample safety-net support—"We'll always have people who'll need help," he says. While he's a backer of zero-tolerance policing, he also favors a civilian review board to guard against abusive law enforcement.

While calling himself "pro-business," Campbell is careful to make distinctions between enterprises he says would aid the city and those that would open up shop only to take their money out of town, he says. He is firmly against plans by the city, the University of Maryland, and the Weinberg Foundation to pour taxpayer money into the Howard Street corridor, reasoning that the district's many existing small businesses with local ties provide greater benefit than the few national corporations that may opt to open satellites there. Again, he targets Dixon, this time for shepherding much of the west-side revitalization legislation through the council: "How can you push for something that displaces 200 businesses?"

For similar reasons of public utility, Campbell questions the current council's granting of payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) for some downtown projects. "It's a matter of whether the PILOTs serve the public good," he says. "As far as the stadiums or the Wyndham [Hotel at Inner Harbor East] go, it's obvious that we've given away the store." Campbell backs a resolution by council member Nicholas D'Adamo (D-1st District) that would place a $1 surcharge on tickets to major sporting events—hardly a supply-side economic stance.

But then Campbell's background is hardly stereotypically Republican. Born and raised in a working-class home just outside of Pittsburgh, he moved here in 1986, three years after his father, Tom, came to Baltimore after being laid off from a job in the Pittsburgh steel mills. By 1986, Antonio Campbell had served three years in the army "jumping out of airplanes" while earning tuition money. He later ended up veering between Baltimore and his hometown, eventually finishing 12 credits short of a degree in public policy from the University of Pittsburgh. While his father and mother, Winnie, found work as co-pastors of a West Baltimore church and in jobs at a local factory and apartment complex, respectively, Campbell began to explore politics in Baltimore, which he calls "a great, livable community with some problems."

Those politics, dominated by Democrats, didn't strike him as livable. "I couldn't figure out why people who were obviously ineffective were being re-elected," Campbell says. His dissatisfaction with the status quo led him to enter the political fray. That he is an outsider is one of his chief qualifications for the council president's seat, he contends: "If I'm elected, it will be an issues-oriented council, instead of a personality-driven one."

Of course, that outsider status may also be a drag on Campbell's ability to compete for contributions. September campaign reports show that he has raised a little more than $1,500—far less than the $50,000 he would need to run a television-ad campaign. Still, the candidate is hopeful; he says his campaign has raised an additional $5,000 in recent weeks (since the last filing date), and additional fund-raisers are scheduled. (Dixon has collected more than $60,000, according to campaign-finance reports.) "We're asking people to make that leap of faith, to back someone who others think has no chance to win," Campbell says. It's a leap he'll be asking voters to take as well.

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