One in a series of profiles of candidates for mayor
Carl Stokes, the man who two decades ago might have become mayor, is in an east-side barbershop talking east-side problems. Customers pepper him with questions.
Why are there so many vacant homes here? Why hasn't the Old Town Mall been redeveloped? What can be done to get crime under control?
Stokes, a Democratic mayoral candidate once again, rattles off answers in his typical blunt style: "Black people left." "People, not the city, need to invest." "Some of our friends have to go to jail."
His responses aren't always what the men want to hear. But for decades, Stokes has been telling people things they don't want to hear. This is the year he hopes they listen.
As Stokes, 65, walks around the Flair Hair Salon and Barber Shop, he passes out fliers that stress many of the same points he has been making since he first ran for mayor in 1999. We need to fund education more and police less. We need to curb corporate welfare. We need to audit anything that moves.
Each of these issues was a losing battle when Stokes first proposed it. Now, all are mainstream positions held by nearly every mayoral candidate.
"I'm the first guy who really pushed these issues home," Stokes says. "Now everybody says they're the audits king."
In conversations about the campaign, Stokes, a city councilman, often invokes the 1999 race — a loss that stings him to this day. Future Gov. Martin O'Malley ran for mayor on a platform stressing "zero tolerance" policing, which Stokes condemned as discriminatory against blacks. Voters wound up siding with O'Malley, but now many view that era of policing as a mistake.
"For four years, we locked up over 100,000 young black men per year," Stokes says. "Now people say, 'Why the hell did we do that?'"
It was the first of several citywide elections that didn't work out for Stokes. In 2003, he ran for City Council president against future Mayor Sheila Dixon and future state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, finishing third. In 2011, he briefly ran for mayor in a crowded race later won by Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Stokes couldn't gain traction, eventually running for council instead.
The citywide losses raise a question: If Stokes is so right on the issues, why don't more people want to vote for him?
"He has a good message, but at times Carl isn't the right messenger," says former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, now a WBAL radio talk-show host. "He's been out front on many issues. He can win in East Baltimore. But the problem Carl faces, again and again, is tragically he can't win citywide."
Stokes is hoping to dispel that view. He was in third place— behind Dixon and Pugh — with 11 percent in a November mayoral poll for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore. But he fell to sixth place in a follow-up poll this month, getting just 3 percent support among likely voters in the April 26 Democratic primary.
"I don't believe the poll," Stokes says. "I don't believe I lost 10 points."
Stokes poses for photos in the popular salon, crowded with more than 50 customers. He's generally well-received. Several have heard of Stokes' work in education, including the two charter schools he founded and his tenure on the city school board.
One man praises what he views as Stokes' "straight talk." Another says he's been reading up on the candidates and likes what he's heard about Stokes' latest school, the Banneker Blake Academy for Arts & Sciences.
"You're big on education," the man says. "That's what we need."
'We lost a generation'
Stokes, who grew up in East Baltimore's Latrobe Homes, got involved in politics in the 1980s after running a small chain of clothing stores called Everyman's Son that sold formal clothes for boys.
After terms on the City Council and school board, Stokes led in the 1999 mayoral race before his campaign was derailed by false statements in his literature, which said Stokes had graduated from college when he had not.
"What burns me is that I screwed up," Stokes says. "By losing, we lost a generation. I would have stood in the gap for schoolkids and poor neighborhoods."
After the defeat, Stokes turned his attention to education. He founded two public charter schools: the Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy, which closed amid financial difficulties, and Banneker Blake, which continues to operate. There, students wear uniforms and work into the night and during the summer, focusing on science, mathematics and art.
When Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, a longtime political ally, became council president in 2010, he recommended Stokes for his seat — and Stokes quickly emerged as a leader on financial issues as chair of the taxation and finance committee.
Upon learning that many city agencies hadn't been audited in decades, Stokes fought to force every department to undergo an audit. Eventually, he won passage of a watered-down bill requiring performance and financial audits of 13 key agencies every four years.
Stokes also fought against subsidies for large developments, opposing tax breaks for the upscale Harbor Point project and objecting to $107 million in bonds for the development's infrastructure. He argued that the deal did little to benefit nearby communities.
"I did lose, but I think the city is going to win," Stokes says. "I don't think they'll ever bring a TIF like that to us again."
An even bigger tax-increment financing deal is potentially headed for his committee. A $535 million bond proposal for Sagamore Development's Port Covington project — which would be one of the largest TIF deals in the country — has already caused Stokes to raise questions.
"It can build its own [infrastructure]. It doesn't need us," Stokes says.
The 'n' word
At mayoral forums throughout the city, Stokes often says he is trying to get the public to wake up.
He's run a TV ad in which he holds a gun — condemning the city's greater funding of police than schools. He sometimes uses the "n" word for emphasis when describing how he contends some politicians view people who are arrested. He's endorsed "reparations" for those who lost jobs during zero tolerance policing.
He frequently calls the public school system "the most racist institution in the city of Baltimore."
"I'm not intentionally saying something to be shocking," Stokes says. "But sometimes I can't help but blurt it out. What else could I say to let people know it is failing poor black people?"
That brash style has attracted both criticism and support.
"Carl has the vision," says Lynn Ross, 53, a Stokes supporter who lives in East Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood. "I'd rather him shock us awake than continue to let us sleep."
Stokes has proposed a 50 percent cut in property taxes, $1 sales of vacant homes and requiring developers to create "community benefit agreements" if they seek city subsidies.
Plans like those attract Ross, who wants to see a mayor like Stokes, with roots in East Baltimore. Baltimore hasn't had a mayor from the east side since Clarence H. Du Burns — Stokes' old basketball coach — in the 1980s, she notes.
"We need an East Baltimore mayor for a change," Ross says.
The Stokes campaign got a boost last week when a PAC funded by Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos began buying TV ads. The Citizens for a Better Baltimore PAC has received $125,000 in contributions, all from Angelos, and has so far bought $85,000 in ads.
Stokes says he has lunch with Angelos every few months but that the prominent lawyer has never asked him to vote a specific way on any bill.
He says his advocacy against special tax deals for favored developments has gone beyond clashes in the council chambers.
Years ago, Stokes recalls, he was having lunch with a businessman who had received some large tax breaks. Over salad and sandwiches, Stokes broached the topic of the developer paying some money back.
"'Look, you're doing really well. Would you consider voluntarily starting to pay property tax?'" Stokes recalls saying. "He looked at me and said, 'How's your turkey sandwich, Carl?'"
Job: City councilman
Experience: City councilman, 1987-1995 and 2010-present. Former owner Everyman's Son clothing store. Former school board member. Founder Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy and Banneker Blake Academy of Arts & Sciences
Education: Loyola Blakefield; attended Loyola University Maryland
Family: Divorced, father of two