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City candidates make campaign stops at churches

Politics and faith crossed paths yesterday as the leading candidates for mayor and City Council president took their campaigns to two of the city's largest and most influential churches yesterday.

Mayor Martin O'Malley and City Council President Sheila Dixon sat in the second row of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city's largest and oldest black church, as the Rev. Frank M. Reid III urged members of the congregation to create "breakthroughs" in their lives and the life of the city.

"We're not as big as New York, and we've got a world of problems, but a revival's going to happen in Baltimore," said Reid, whose sermon on faith, self-reliance and community involvement contained many echoes of O'Malley's "Believe" promotional campaign. "If it can happen in Baltimore, it can happen anywhere."

The pivotal role of black churches in city politics could not have been plainer than it was at Bethel AME, which counts three of the best-known candidates in Tuesday's municipal primary election among its 14,000 congregants. Dixon attends services there. So does first-term City Council member Catherine Pugh, who is trying to unseat her. And O'Malley's best-known challenger, educator Andrey Bundley, is also a Bethel member.

The pastor has been an O'Malley supporter. Reid endorsed O'Malley in his first mayoral primary in 1999, and has contributed $4,000 to the mayor's re-election campaign.

Reid prayed for a high voter turnout and praised all the candidates. He stopped just short of endorsing O'Malley from the pulpit, but called him "one of the finest mayors in the history of Baltimore." The pastor also praised Dixon's record as council president, complimented Bundley on "an excellent campaign" and called Pugh "courageous" for running against "a powerful candidate like Dixon."

Outside, Druid Hill Avenue looked like the site of a political rally, with signs and bumper stickers everywhere and campaign workers passing out fliers. A small cluster of Bundley supporters gathered on the sidewalk after the service, saying they agreed with Bundley that O'Malley has overemphasized crime control and that the city's top priority should be improving its schools.

"Education controls everything, crime rates and everything else, so it should come first," said congregant Glenda Hewlin.

In an interview, O'Malley predicted he would win re-election by an "overwhelming" margin. "Most everybody in our city understands we have a lot to do ... but we're making progress," he said.

Bundley and Pugh skipped the 9 a.m. service at their home church. Instead, they were in the congregation at Empowerment Temple, one of the city's fastest-growing churches, with 5,000 members. It meets in the auditorium of Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy, where Bundley is the principal, and its pastor, the Rev. Jamal Harrison-Bryant, has contributed $1,000 to Bundley's campaign.

Bundley stressed his campaign's major theme, "education not incarceration," and said those who expect O'Malley to easily win re-election are wrong. He said he will break from campaigning only long enough "to plan what we're going to do when we win."

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