Eight vying for 7th District council seat

The race for the council seat in Baltimore's 7th District is a wide-open field -- both literally and figuratively.

The district stretches from predominantly African-American areas as far west as Walbrook to primarily white neighborhoods in North Baltimore around Hampden. It includes all of Druid Hill Park.

Of the 14 City Council districts, it is one of just three without an incumbent running in the Sept. 9 primary election. Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh would have been the incumbent had she not chosen to run for the citywide post of council president.

The district has eight candidates -- five Democrats and three Republicans. Several are newcomers to the political fray.

Most, without stating specific action plans, are concentrating their platforms on improving neighborhoods and education and decreasing crime.

"My primary objective is to find out what we can do to address crime and not put all of the burden on the Police Department," said Republican candidate Almaajid Muhammad El, who works for the city Department of Social Services. "We have to educate the community on ways we can involve ourselves to help our communities."

This is the first time Muhammad El, 48, a single parent of three, has run for any elected post. But he says he has been studying the workings of city government for the past decade, preparing himself for a council run.

Shawn Z. Tarrant, 37, has been quite visible at times around City Hall, working since 1994 -- when he and his wife bought their Ashburton home -- to get his neighborhood rezoned for single-family homes and to have a few streets repaved.

"Working for my neighborhood over the last nine years made me very aware of what was going on and what I can do as a citizen," said Tarrant, a Democrat who is a pharmaceutical salesman and president of his neighborhood association. "So I wondered, if I could get my roads resurfaced and neighborhood rezoned as a citizen, what could I do as a City Council member?"

Democrat Timothy Mercer, who once ran unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates, is running as a self-proclaimed outsider. He has refused to raise money for his campaign, and instead is spending $1,000 of his funds. And he isn't seeking any endorsements.

"I'm going door to door," said Mercer, 48, a general contractor. "I'm knocking on your door now before I win so that after I win, when you have concerns, I know how to get to your house."

And he is telling voters he will work to improve parental involvement in schools and empower principals to run their buildings without district interference.

Democratic candidate Belinda K. Conaway, 35, is a counselor with city schools and the daughter of Circuit Court Clerk and mayoral candidate Frank M. Conaway. She ran unsuccessfully last fall for the House of Delegates.

Conaway says skills she uses as a middle school counselor would help her as a councilwoman.

"I advocate for children and parents and do a lot of troubleshooting," Conaway said. "Advocacy is what I do, and I'm a troubleshooter. You want somebody in City Council that is going to work through the problems."

Democrat John Burke is a Hampden resident and city firefighter hoping to get on the council to fight for school system changes. Burke ran for the council four years ago and finished in the middle of a pack of 12 candidates.

"I'd like to change how the school board is placed into power," he said. "Rather than have all of them appointed, I'd like to see half of them appointed and half of them voted in by city residents. That way, there's more accountability."

John Holmes, a Democrat, is a former city rat exterminator who said he is running to improve the council, which he feels is unresponsive.

"If you remember Question P, the cry from voters really was that the council was ineffective and needed help," said Holmes, referring to November's referendum that created 14 single-member council districts and eliminated the six three-member districts. "That motivated me to get involved."

Other 7th District candidates are: Republicans Owen B. Hanratty and Carlton "Yummy" Dotson. They could not be reached for comment.