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Musical Chair: A Five-Month Incumbent Hopes To Hold Onto 6th District City Council Seat

July 23, 2007
By

Elizabeth Smith
| Image by Jefferson Jackson Steele

Deborah Ramsey | Image by Jefferson Jackson Steele

Ramona Moore Baker | Image by www.ramonamoore.com

Sharon Green Middleton | Image by www.baltimorecitycouncil.com

Looking for 6th District City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton? Check City Hall. Ever since being appointed by unanimous council vote in February to fill former 6th District City Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s position, Middleton has gone into the office nearly every single day. (Rawlings-Blake stepped up to council president after former president Sheila Dixon replaced Gov. Martin O’Malley as mayor.)

Yes, City Council is technically a part-time job (albeit a part-time job with an annual salary of $57,000). And yes, Middleton wasn’t elected to the council by the constituents she represents. But Middleton is taking her position very seriously. “I’ve been out in the community since February,” she says. “That was my main goal, to reach out and be accessible. I’m just so passionate about [the job].”

And that’s why she decided to run. With only five months on the council, it’s hard to see Middleton as the incumbent. She’ll have to do almost as much work as the three other Democratic primary candidates to boost her name recognition on the Sept. 11 ballot. So she’s setting up headquarters at a storefront in Hilltop Shopping Center on the corner of Rogers Avenue and Reisterstown Road. And she’s continuing her work on the council, sitting on several committees and serving as vice chair of the Urban Affairs and Aging Committee. “So you see, I’m very busy,” she says.

A lack of a traditional incumbent might explain why this race is jam-packed with candidates. Three others have filed to challenge Middleton in the Democratic primary–Ramona Moore Baker, Deborah Ramsey, and Elizabeth Smith. Ori Shabazz is collecting signatures that could land him a spot on the November general-election ballot as an independent.

Without the established name recognition that marks most other council races, the 6th District is facing what could be considered a wide-open race. But this doesn’t mean that the candidates are total unknowns. All of them have backgrounds in public service, and all of them were at one time considered for Rawlings-Blake’s vacated seat. In a district that serves both Roland Park and Park Heights–among the richest and poorest areas of the city, respectively–voters have a lot to consider.

Middleton and Elizabeth Smith knew one another before vying for the council position. Sharon Green Middleton’s husband, union organizer Glen Middleton, was Smith’s boss before she resigned her position with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 67, where he is executive director, to run in the 6th District. Smith contends she was also considered for the council appointment in early 2007 and that she had the support of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions. Glen Middleton made a motion to endorse her appointment, but, “in midstream, Mr. Middleton and his wife decided that his wife was going to apply for the appointment,” Smith says. Smith’s now working as the deputy director of CommunityBuilding in Partnership, a West Baltimore economic and community development nonprofit.

“I just question their approach,” Smith says. “It will be interesting to see who gets the endorsement from the labor council.” That announcement should come on July 19. Glen Middleton could not be reached for comment before press time.

But this dramatic wrinkle in the usually staid local election narrative doesn’t phase Smith. A member of the city’s Board of Liquor License Commissioners and the Baltimore City Commission for Women, as well as a former board member of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, she says she’s up for the challenge: “This will be an opportunity to take my involvement to the next level.”

Ramona Moore Baker is no stranger to controversy, either. A perennial candidate, including a run for judge of the Orphans’ Court in 2006, Baker has been accused of misrepresenting herself during campaigns and committing ethical violations (“Death Match,” Campaign Beat, Aug. 23, 2006). In the end, the Maryland Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee determined that her campaign materials in her Orphans’ Court run were misleading, suggesting to voters that she was already a judge on the court. Nonetheless, she won a position on the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee last fall and threw her hat in the ring for Rawlings-Blake’s vacated seat in February.

“I am the only candidate who is running for this office who has a vested interest in the whole city,” she says vehemently. “I have a heart, a real deep heart for this community. There are so many people in the community who are financially hurting.” She also points out that she is the only candidate who is currently serving as an elected–rather than appointed–official.

Former city police detective Debbie Ramsey also competed for the appointed position in February and is hoping to represent another segment of the 6th District–Cross Keys, Roland Park, and North Charles Street. According to her, it’s been 10 years since a resident of one of these wealthier communities has been elected to the council.

Currently living in Cross Keys, Ramsey started out on the police force walking a beat in a uniform. “I have worked every corner of the city,” she says. “I’m just intertwined with the people, the community.”

Affordable housing, crime, economic development, and education are the issues the candidates want to discuss. Middleton notes that she’s bringing the city’s first Boys and Girls Club to Park Heights, “where it is definitely needed.” (David Ross, a Boys and Girls Clubs of America representative, clarifies these details: The club is the first in the city that is associated with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Maryland–the Salvation Army runs a club in Franklin Square. The effort to open a Park Heights club has been in the works “for some time,” he says, and is supported by a variety of council members and other community leaders.)

Middleton says that college alternatives, like vocational and apprenticeship programs, are near and dear to her heart: “I definitely believe in having other options for students who graduate from high schools and are not ready to go on to college.” Her first proposed measure before the council featured a pilot pre-apprenticeship program that partnered the city’s housing and economic development departments and the Baltimore City Joint Apprenticeship Program. Still in the planning phases, the idea is to give young adults city-employee apprenticeships to work on city-owned abandoned housing. The program would serve two purposes: providing apprenticeships to non-college-bound youths and upgrading dilapidated neighborhoods.

For her part, Smith offers a plan to use student interns, expand Head Start programs, and keep schools open later. An additional 30 minutes of instructional time on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday would allow schools to include more physical education, health, and nutrition time; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the 30 minutes would be spent on speech and communication skills. Like Middleton, she’s also interested in promoting apprenticeship programs for high-school students and recent graduates. “We need to have an educated and trained work force,” Smith says.

“I support control [of the schools] being given back to the mayor,” Smith continues, referring to the decade-old situation wherein the city’s school CEO reports to the state legislature. “But that’s not going to solve [issues with the schools]. We have students with real problems.” Increasing per student funding would help, she says, and the funding for that could come from a variety of places, including savings on what has become a revolving door for the CEO of education position and full payment of Thornton funding, which was promised in 2002. “Every four years there’s an emphasis on education, but where does the buck stop?” Smith asks.

The 6th District primary is not without some creative hooks. “It’s my one-third, one-third, one-third plan,” Baker says of her strategy to donate her entire City Council salary, if elected. The funds would be split evenly between a foundation to help parents pay for their children’s funeral expenses (a charity created by her husband and her that she acknowledges is not yet off the ground), a selected “community effort” (she offers vague suggestions about programs in Park Heights), and another city-based foundation. “And I’m sticking to it, regardless of what people may say,” she says, predicting cynicism.

How Baker can be so generous is unclear. She says she owns her own business but is vague on the details. Her day care and senior care programs closed in 2003 and ’04, respectively, she says, but she’s about to start a medical billing business and she manages her jazz musician husband’s gigs and CD sales.

While police presence is an obvious platform plank for Ramsey, infrastructure is another important issue, she says. “I’m concerned about what’s going on under the streets,” she says. She wants to improve water quality and resurface streets in the district. As for the cost of these efforts, Ramsey says the city already has the money. “It’s a matter of how we spend the money,” she says. But when pressed to pinpoint which programs would forfeit funds to pay for infrastructure improvements, Ramsey is soft on details. “In every budget, you can always trim,” she says. “Police, fire, education, infrastructure should always be in the top five [funded programs].” She makes reference to state and federal homeland security funds and to fiscal losses whenever a CEO of public schools or police commissioner suddenly leaves the city.

Of course, crime is on everyone’s minds. “No neighborhood is 100 percent safe,” Ramsey notes, underscoring the stark differences between neighborhoods in the 6th District. “For me it’s very clear. I know what works–you have to have leadership.” When she was a beat officer, Ramsey remembers leading a citizens patrol effort in an area of East Baltimore. “Before, when they were in their homes, they felt alone,” she says about the volunteers who helped. “It’s so basic, but it comes down to how do you motivate a person to take that first step.”

“I’m tough on crime,” Smith reports. “I believe that every crime should have a consequence.” She’s speaking here of mandatory community service for nonviolent drug crimes–cleaning the streets of trash, for example. This would stem the tide of deferrals seen often in the city’s drug court, she says. She’d also like to see more use of federal laws in prosecuting local criminals, efforts that are already in place with programs like Project Exile.

Baker has this to say about crime: “We must work from the inside out,” a phrase she uses often to invoke treating the city’s troubles holistically. “If you have chaos within the [police] department, you have chaos when the officers go out on the street. If you have chaos within the family, you have chaos in the street. You have double chaos.”

Each of the 6th District primary candidates is interested in showing off her leadership skills on the level where it counts most. To Smith, the approach is simple. “We’re not trying to save the world,” she says. “We need to take it one district at a time.”