By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun
October 31, 2011
Belinda Conaway, a two-term city councilwoman, chair of the powerful budget committee and daughter of a prominent West Baltimore political family, does not fit most definitions of a political outsider.
But after losing the Democratic primary to a political newcomer allied with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Conaway has launched a write-in campaign in which she paints herself as an enemy of — and threat to — the political establishment.
"The mayor, governor and other powers-that-be don't want any independent voices on the city council," Conaway told supporters at a campaign kick-off event this month. "There is no room for dissent in occupied Baltimore."
Whether rallying supporters or knocking on doors in the 7th District, Conaway's message is clear: She was targeted by the political establishment after challenging Rawlings-Blake, in particular on budget priorities as the mayor cut funding for youth programs in the face of revenue shortfalls.
Rawlings-Blake endorsed Conaway challenger Nick Mosby, lending her face to his campaign fliers. The mayor's redistricting efforts folded Reservoir Hill — where Mosby lives — into the 7th District.
Yet Conaway's loss to Mosby by 653 votes in the September primary appears to have as much to do with her campaign as the mayor's support of her rival.
A member of one of the city's quirkiest political families — the Conaways call their slate "The Four Bears" and have campaigned in bear costumes — the councilwoman has been dogged by questions about her residency. Documents came to light this year that showed she had received a tax credit on a Baltimore County home that she had certified was her primary residence.
And the Conaway family's campaign efforts were divided this summer as her father, Clerk of Courts Frank M. Conaway Sr., made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination against Rawlings-Blake.
In waging a write-in campaign for the Nov. 8 general election, Conaway faces the daunting task of turning out voters aware they must write in her name as their choice. No one in memory has won a write-in campaign for Baltimore government, City Hall observers say.
As Conaway, 43, knocked on doors along Presstman Street on a recent afternoon, she focused on successes she has had that will benefit her constituents. She noted the extra $50,000 she helped get inserted in the city budget for summer youth jobs, as well as donations she solicited from Mondawmin Mall businesses for Douglass High School and the Gwynns Falls Football Team.
"We're looking for people to come out and vote and make history," Conaway said to Camilla Montgomery, a 62-year-old on disability.
"Yes, yes, I know the whole family," said Montgomery, explaining that she did not vote in the primary because health problems prevented her from getting to the polls. Campaign workers swiftly began to arrange for an absentee ballot.
Moments later, Montgomery was on the phone with her son, Donte Hollie, 36, who lives a few blocks away.
Hollie says he has been a fan of Conaway ever since she stopped transportation officials from mistakenly towing cars from his community's parking spots a couple years ago.
"Someone got in touch with Miss Conaway, and she got it stopped," said Hollie, a city school system groundskeeper. "Ever since then, she has always had my vote."
A few doors up the street, Conaway stops at the home of 27-year-old Cherelle Johnson, who is clutching her four-month-old daughter.
Conaway details her struggles against the current administration: As chair of the Budget and Appropriations committee, she stalled passage of the operating budget this year until Rawlings-Blake promised more funds for the Youth Works summer job program. She has challenged the administration on funding for recreation and parks, and opposed the 2-cent bottle tax that passed last year.
"They don't want someone down there who is going to stand up for our people," Conaway told Johnson. "They want someone who's going to go along with all of their ideas."
In an interview later, Johnson says she voted for Mosby in the primary, but now, she's not sure why.
"I had seen his name, but I didn't know about her history," she said. She said Conaway will get her vote on Nov. 8.
Mosby, a Verizon engineer, denied that his campaign was propelled by Rawlings-Blake's political operation.
"My campaign started in my living room with a decision my wife and I made," he said.
Mosby said he scored prominent endorsements after he demonstrated he could win.
"We campaigned our butts off," he said. "We went right to the voter, but [Conaway] decided not to."
Rawlings-Blake's campaign manager said the mayor supported Mosby because they shared similar ideals.
"The truth is the mayor and Nick Mosby, like many others on the council, share a vision to grow Baltimore by improving public safety and schools," campaign manager Travis Tazelaar said in a statement.
The 7th District includes neighborhoods that ring Druid Hill Park and stretches across central West Baltimore, areas that are economically mixed.
Johnson and Montgomery's neighborhood, near the intersection of Fulton and Presstman Streets, is emblematic of the district. Both women reside in tidy, well-maintained rowhomes, although nearby houses are vacant and badly dilapidated.
Young men linger on a street corner, their hands shoved into their pockets. Two gray-haired men play chess under a makeshift white tent.
Conaway, who is a Baltimore City Public Schools administrator and mother of two, says she is particularly attuned to the needs of the most vulnerable.
In her first term, she passed legislation requiring the city to turn off the water in vacant houses to prevent pipes from bursting and leaking into neighboring homes. In chairing marathon budget hearings, Conaway frequently pushed for more information on programs that benefit children and the elderly.
She has been closely allied with Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and often sides with the council's more liberal members, including Mary Pat Clarke, Bill Henry and Carl Stokes.
One of the projects on which Conaway worked most assiduously in the past year, the 25th Street Station in Remington, was excised from the newly drawn district. The project, which is to include a Walmart shopping center, came under fire from residents who opposed the retail behemoth.
Conaway helped to facilitate discussions between the developers and community groups and persuaded the developer to hold a job fair to seek workers from the district.
But Conaway captured the most media attention in recent months over the controversy surrounding her home. On city records, she says she shares a spacious brick home on Liberty Heights Avenue with her father, stepmother and brother — all elected officials.
However, Conaway and her husband signed tax documents on which they attested that their primary residence was in Randallstown.
Conaway has said she signed the papers by accident and that she purchased the home for her ailing mother. Conaway declined to say in a recent interview whether she would repay the Homestead Tax Credit on the Baltimore County property.
"There's a difference between primary residence and domicile," said Conaway, referring to a Court of Appeals ruling that elected officials need only have a place to call home in their districts. She declined to comment further.
Mosby tried to capitalize on the controversy in his campaign literature.
His fliers showed a pair of hands clutching prison bars and said, "Belinda Conaway lied to get out of paying her fair share of taxes."
Conaway described Mosby's campaign as the "dirtiest … we have seen in Baltimore in years."
Mosby declined to comment specifically on Conaway's allegations.
"I don't get caught up in the negativity," he said, adding that he was focused on "making life better for the residents of the 7th District."
As she campaigned last week, Conaway acknowledged the challenge she faces. Not only is it a struggle to wage a write-in campaign, but few voters in heavily-Democratic Baltimore cast ballots in the general election.
But, Conaway told a constituent recently, a successful write-in campaign could send a powerful message to City Hall.
"If you can write in a candidate, you can make a difference in the city as a whole," she said.
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