There are seven Democrats vying for Baltimore's 5th Councilmanic District, tucked in the far northwest of the city running from West Arlington to Mt. Washington and out to the county line.
Rochelle "Rikki" Spector is retiring after 39 years on the Council. (She was appointed in 1977 to replace her late husband, who became a judge and was later convicted of bribery). Spector has infamously not lived in her district for years, preferring the high-rise luxury of a 2-bedroom condo at 100 Harborview Drive in the Inner Harbor. The open seat gives residents a rare opportunity to choose an engaged, ecumenical representative who can tie together its disparate communities of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, white people and African-Americans.
That's what Christopher Ervin says he plans to do. The sanitation worker (he's out on worker's comp, he says, since wrenching his shoulder when a tire on his trash truck blew out in 2013) is committed to grassroots activism on criminal justice reform, youth development, and community building.
"The 5th district is not as diverse as people might think," he says. "When you have diversity you have engagement." He doesn't see much of that. "What we have is delineation," Ervin says. "Very separate and distinct populations that do not engage each other."
Ervin, who had raised about $3,000 for his campaign by Jan. 12, says he's uniquely positioned to build bridges between the district's communities, in part because he was born in the Bronx—not Baltimore—and lived in many places during his 48 years. "Other candidates—they come from this enclave mentality," he says. "The first thing they talk about is 'I was born and raised here; I went to this high school…' What is that? First thing we need to do in Baltimore is get people more into the idea that you talk about what college you went to."
A former U.S. Marine, Ervin went to the University of Maryland. Then he went to prison, charged in different cases during the 1990s with car theft, drugs, and illegal gun possession in Howard County and Baltimore City. On paper, it looks like a substantial criminal career. Ervin says it's not.
"It was a Baltimore City police officer by the name of Mark Lunsford," Ervin says. "I was one of his victims, but for no other reason than because I had a record."
Lunsford was charged in 2009 with stealing from drug dealers and splitting fees with a confidential informant. He ultimately pleaded guilty and went to prison.
Ervin says his initial criminal charges came because he wanted a construction job, and the man he asked to give him that turned out to be a police informant. "I was set up for that, but the fact is, I did it," he says, adding that the undercover cop brought the gun to sell to Ervin, "and I got charged for it!" The gun case was dropped, but Ervin did time on the drug charges.
The conviction (and subsequent ones) turned Ervin into an advocate for criminal justice and police reform. He fought to get ex-offenders the right to vote and has advocated for a bill that would allow expungement of some non-violent felonies.
Among the stronger candidates in the district is Elizabeth "Betsy" Gardner, who has been the City Council president's liaison to the area for 14 years. Gardner is endorsed by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, 6th District Councilmember Sharon Green Middleton, and a raft of other political players—including the outgoing Spector.
"Initially I did think it put me at a disadvantage until I started knocking on doors in Howard Park," Ervin says. "Then I started posting videos of water mains bursting…and [Gardner] chimed in and said 'you should dial 311 and wait for a confirmation number.' I said, are you not in government? What people said to me is [Gardner] has been in government for three administrations. What has she done?"
But Gardner insists she's done a lot. "I am the only candidate that has experience," she says. "I know how to get things done. I am a problem solver."
Public safety is the District's first concern, but that citizen patrol groups make it uniquely safe and stable, she says. She is happy that Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has reinstituted post officers to keep them patrolling smaller areas rather than allowing them to roam the entire Northwest police district.
She says as City Council member she will develop a plan to fund subsidies to help first responders move into the district, "so they're not taking our taxes to the counties and to Pennsylvania." She does not have a specific plan yet. "We're looking at how other cities are currently doing that," she says.
Gardner jumped into the race late enough that she did not have to file a campaign finance report yet. She says she's raised about $40,000 so far, but adds this: "I keep saying, money and signs don't vote. We have to get people to pull the lever."
Derrick Lennon says people should pull the lever for him because he's been in the community, working for its betterment for a decade. He the former President of the Glen Neighborhood Improvement Association and a supervisor for the MARC/commuter buses, "but my degree is actually in health science," he says.
Lennon says he got into the race in part "because I wanted to protect my biggest investment, which is my house." The citywide vacant building problem has lead to disinvestment and stagnant property values, he says, and only a systematic program of property rehabilitation and human rehabilitation will turn it around.
"To some extent we have to retrain people how to live in communities," Lennon says. "Young people often don't have a clue as to how much it takes to maintain a house." The Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative, which makes grants and education available, can serve as a starting point, he says.
Among the donors to his $5,200 campaign war chest are Del. Nathaniel Oaks and Helena Hicks, the civil rights icon. Lennon excuses himself from a phone interview, saying that Hicks is on the other line, "and she's very upset with me." It's a situation familiar to many veteran Baltimore politicians.
If money could buy an election, Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer would be the undisputed front-runner—and he might be anyway. The political newcomer reported $64,000 in his campaign treasury as of Jan. 12, including $6,000 in in-kind contributions from Oakleaf Catering and a $2,000 check from BDMG Corporation, a property management firm.
Schleifer, the Vice President of the Cheswolde Community Association is married with a daughter, and is running on a platform to reduce crime, lower property taxes and attract a Fortune 500 company to Baltimore.
He owns an online fund-raising company that works for non-profits; he has five employees. He links jobs to the crime problem directly. "As an entrepreneur who has created jobs, I've hired returning citizens," Schleifer says. "And they've been some of the best employees I've had."
Schleifer says he pushed for more crime-lab technicians—and got them—after hearing a city cop tell a burglary victim that no one would be along to dust for fingerprints or other evidence. After the city hired 10 new technicians last fall, the crime lab investigated 27 out of 33 break-ins in the district. He says most of the crimes traced to one individual.
"I don't think our agencies have money issues," Schleifer says. "We have efficiency issues…my software company is pretty much automated. We've got it to the point where it really runs itself."
Schleifer is an Orthodox Jew, and has concentrated on that community, even urging many in the community to change their voting registration from Independent or Republican to Democrat so they can vote for him. He says he got more than 700 new voters this way—a tidy number in a race where the winner will likely get about 3,000 votes.
Schieifer says he's feeling good about his campaign. "People are coming by the house to talk about issues, and people are dropping off checks. It's unbelievable."
Elizabeth Ryan Martinez, 35, is a city government lawyer running to give the district "a professionally qualified, forward thinking, progressive member of the City Council." She has also run across the city literally, having competed in the Baltimore Marathon three times.
"We need a City Council that gets ahead of the news" rather than reacting to it, Martinez says. In her job as the assistant City Solicitor, she says she often solves the kind of small problems—say, a cracked sidewalk—that City Council members are called on to fix. She also sees the larger patterns and has a front-row seat on the bureaucratic and technical hurdles that hold the city back, she says. "Through my job I get exposed to how the city works, and sometimes how the city could work better."
She wants to get the Department of Public Works to fix the leaky water and sewer pipes in the district faster.
Martinez says she would push to revitalize CitiStat, the quality-assurance and performance-measuring program former Mayor Martin O'Malley instituted that withered under the Rawlings-Blake administration. She wants better technology within the bureaucracy, she says, so city officials don't have to use their own equipment to do city work.
She also wants to make sure the City Council has a lawyer, serving as part of the body, who is familiar with the legal issues the city faces.
"I'm planning to bring smart change to the City Council," she says. "I think this is a change election."