Ben Barnwell | Image by Photos by Jefferson Jackson Steele
City Councilwoman Helen Holton
. In 2026, Helen Holton won't be running for City Council. "If you find me here in 18 years," she laughs, "I'll buy you dinner."
Twelve years ago, Holton ran for City Council in the old 5th District because most of the councilpeople were around 55.
"I thought, you know, as someone younger, I could make a difference," she says. Now she's 47, and her own hair is graying a little, but she still projects the enthusiasm of an up-and-comer.
Some people, like fellow councilman and mayoral hopeful Keiffer Mitchell, have grumbled that Holton got the chair of Taxation and Finance Committee because of her ties to City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Then-Council President Sheila Dixon, now mayor, appointed Holton vice chair of the committee, but Mitchell was recently stripped of his chairmanship by Rawlings-Blake, in order that Holton could take over. Holton dismisses charges of political maneuvering, saying that her qualifications got her the job.
"I'm the only councilperson who's had a real finance background," she says. She has a master of business administration from Johns Hopkins University, received her bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of Baltimore, and is now recruitment and marketing manager at a local accounting firm. "So it's a real reward to be chair of a committee to which you bring a level of expertise."
Since she's been on the council, Holton has had to be adaptable. In 2003, citywide redistricting bumped her out of the old 5th, which included such well-off communities as Mount Washington, Roland Park, and Homeland, and into the new 8th District, which includes a swath of less-affluent Southwest Baltimore, including Edmondson Village, Irvington, and Rognel Heights.
"It was like starting over," she says. "It reminded me of the prayer in the Book of Chronicles: `Give praise to the Lord, increase my territory, but protect me from evil!' It was a real shift."
Holton shuffles through her desk, and brings out the Edmondson Village Area Master Plan, which was adopted June 14 by the city's Planning Commission. As a liaison between the planning department and the community, she says she's proud of her role in shaping plans for redevelopment of the area. "Wonderful things are going to happen in Uplands," she says, an area for which Baltimore just chose a developer for a $200 million effort to revitalize the community. She also notes that Edmondson Village has been included in the city's Healthy Neighborhoods initiative, which helps struggling areas increase their home values and market their communities.
Recent bills that Holton has sponsored include a "neighborhood nuisance" proposal that, she says, would allow the "city to take a course of action against renters in single-family dwellings who are disorderly neighbors." She is also a sponsor of the city's recent paintball ban. If her name isn't listed frequently as a sponsor of legislation, she says that's because putting her name on every bill hasn't been a priority. Instead, she says, she's a believer in teamwork. But there's one thing she says is coming soon: co-sponsored legislation to make the Baltimore Development Corp.--currently a quasi-public organization--more accountable by opening its bidding process to the public. "Why shouldn't they be public?" she asks.
Holton faces four Democratic competitors in the Sept. 11 primary, and all of them are banking on her relatively low profile in neighborhoods such as Edmondson Village to gain them leverage in this race. The increase in gang warfare in the area is currently the major concern for all five, and all argue that Holton hasn't been proactive enough on the community level in combating it.
David Smallwood, a 45-year-old resident of Uplands, is a recreation coordinator for the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center and Holton's only veteran opponent. In 2003, he came in third in the council primary, with a respectable 25 percent of the vote. His wife, Valerie Smallwood, represents the 44th legislative district on the Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee. He traces his own ties to the community to 19 years spent in the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks.
"We're getting left out in the wind," David Smallwood says. "We need more assertiveness." He says that gangs in the poorer parts of the 8th District are getting smarter and more dangerous. Smallwood helped organize the West Hills Community Gang Summit last February, in which police and community leaders--and even a few ex-gang members--educated parents about recent developments in gang culture.
"We need an interactive approach," he says. "Not just with the kids, but the parents, too. They don't understand why their kids won't wear certain clothes, or what the gang tags mean. The teachers also need to know about that culture. This is a different generation. We need to form partnerships with ministries and colleges. We need professional mentors to help engage them, with after-school tutorial programs. This increase in violent crime didn't happen overnight. . . . We need to be more proactive."
Ben Barnwell, 42, is from Hunting Ridge. He is a minister at the New Creation Church of Jesus Christ and president and CEO of Academy of Success, a family and youth service organization that he established eight years ago. He is calling for "fresh ideas" to organize community resources. "Children aren't failing just because of academic reasons," he says. "They're failing because of outside forces."
Barnwell says he "isn't focusing on what Helen Holton hasn't done" but on what he can do as a neighborhood organizer. He says neighborhood empowerment is very uneven and that the district is fragmented--some neighborhoods are stable and thriving, while others are poor and drug-infested. Many people in the district, he says, "have no idea who their councilperson is."
He proposes a mentoring program that would form community alliances in which neighborhoods like Ten Hills, Hunting Ridge, and Violetville would join forces with neighborhoods in other parts of the district, such as lower Edmondson and Beechfield. "Some neighborhoods are less engaged than others," he says. "We need to bring that all together."
He also intends to focus on youth service organizations. "A lot of those are run by competent people," he says. "I want to give them training to help them to get access to grants and other resources."
Andre Mahasa, 35, is a lawyer in the city's public defender's office. He lives in Edmondson Village and, in discussing his campaign, emphasizes his legal background and contacts in city government. He promises a hands-on approach to gang warfare, which he feels the city doesn't really understand. Mahasa recently led a reporter around his neighborhood to meet residents who had concerns about gang activity, all of whom were afraid to have their names in the paper.
"Crips, Bloods, BGF activity," he says, BGF referring to the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang. "That's always been the issue. And now it's worse. Much worse. A neighbor down the street, for instance. She called the police, showed them where the [drug] stash was, and she got beat up by the drug dealers. Then she called the police again. She showed them where they lived. Officer told her that they weren't going to knock on the door because they don't have probable cause. They didn't even call an ambulance."
If elected, Mahasa says he promises to do "regular patrols" of neighborhoods beset by these kinds of problems. "If I'm getting paid $57,000 a year, I can do that," he says, referring to city councilpeople's salaries.
He also would like to see more funding for recreation centers, a public swimming pool for the Edmondson Village area, and conversion of the proposed Red Line subway to a monorail system.
Darryl Jefferson, 27, also of Edmondson Village, is an instructor for the American Red Cross and a board of trustees member for the Prisoners Aid Association of Maryland. He also started up League of Free Thought, a nonprofit organization that he says will spearhead efforts to "reclaim" younger children who have been drawn into gangs. Like Mahasa, he feels that Holton hasn't been very visible in Edmondson Village and that the district needs more aggressive representation.
"You need to get at the root of these problems," he says. "You can help them, but you need to get to the root of the problem. You need a holistic approach. The city isn't doing enough."
A similar argument is made by Sean Cummings, 31, of Yale Heights, the sole Republican running for this seat. Cummings is the owner of a tractor-trailer transportation company, and this is his first election.
"I'm not a politician," he says. "But I do know that 80 percent of the people in my neighborhood don't know who Helen is."
Holton disagrees with all those assessments.
"Those who say I haven't spoken, haven't inquired of me," she says. "I don't wave a banner. When people contact me, I'm more than happy to help them. I can't solve all their problems, but I'm always willing to help."
She offers a long list of the projects she's worked on in the district: introduction of new community programs, assisting schools in getting windows replaced and ceilings fixed, getting period lighting installed in the district's four historic districts, streamlining the ID process for volunteers at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.
"I have been working very hard," she says. "I've never felt that it was a requirement that I put it on a flagpole and shout to the world what it is that I've done."