In Southeast Baltimore, there's a big-money City Council race going on that folks are calling a "street fight."
Three Democratic candidates have raised more than $100,000 — enough to rival the fundraising of some campaigns for mayor. Republicans believe the winner of the April 26 primary has a legitimate shot in November's general election for the first time since the 1940s.
It's a power struggle to succeed Councilman James B. Kraft, who is leaving the seat after 12 years to seek a judgeship. With nine candidates running, neighbors in the bustling district that includes Little Italy, Fells Point, Canton and Highlandtown say it is not uncommon for multiple campaigns to knock on their door on the same day.
"We're all working hard," said Zeke Cohen, an educator who was the first candidate to emerge about a year ago and has $103,000 on hand. "It's a street fight. It's a grind."
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said money is pouring into the council race in part because the district is an economic center of Baltimore — with more businesses and individuals with higher income than some districts.
The candidate who emerges from such a competitive race, she said, could become a rising political star.
"A lot of people who run for City Council and win end up running for state legislature, Congress or even mayor," Kromer said. "These donors have a vested interest in using the City Council as a training ground."
The race will also test just how conservative Southeast Baltimore has become. In the 2014 gubernatorial race, 1st District voters chose Republican Larry Hogan over Democrat Anthony G. Brown by 53 percent to 47 percent, signaling that the area is in play for both parties.
"Is there a real Republican wave in the district or was it just a Larry Hogan anomaly?" Kromer asked. "This is a real test of Hogan's coattails."
The three Republicans in the race had raised little money as of the last reporting deadline in January. Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland GOP, says the party will offer support once the primary is over.
The Democrats "all have a lot of money," he said, "but they're going to spend a lot of it in the primary."
"Whoever our nominee is, we plan on introducing them to the big donors around the state. We have very few competitive races this year. This is one of them, and the party will put effort into it."
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district, as in the rest of the city. Even as they were helping to elect Hogan two years ago, District 1 voters chose Democrats Brian E. Frosh for Maryland attorney general and Peter Franchot for comptroller.
Six Democrats are seeking the council seat.
Cohen, 30, of Canton, is director of The Intersection, a nonprofit that helps Baltimore high school students prepare for college.
He says he plans to press the city to increase access to prekindergarten, expand the youth summer jobs program, reduce fees on small businesses and increase community walks with the police.
Part of his campaign money — $7,600 — has come from Leadership for Educational Equity political action committees, the political wing of Teach for America. He is an alumnus of the program, which places recent college graduates at schools in poor communities.
Another top money-getter is Scott Goldman, 34, an Army officer and attorney who lives in Fells Prospect with his wife and young son. A Harvard graduate who earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan, he is endorsed by the progressive veterans organization VoteVets.org.
If elected, he says, he will work to make neighborhoods safer, schools stronger and development smarter, using property tax reform. He has $109,000 on hand, with many top donations from out of state.
Attorney Mark Edelson, 31, of Canton has raised more than $100,000. He says 85 percent of his donations are from Baltimore or its surrounding counties. He received $2,000 from the Beatty Development Group, which is building the more than $1 billion Harbor Point project in the district.
The South African immigrant says his platform includes the creation of "transit hubs," where residents can choose from Zipcars, buses, bike shares and water taxis. He wants to streamline city permitting, increase staff in the inspector general's office and reduce property taxes.
Lutheran pastor Mark Parker, 32, has raised $32,000. The Highlandtown resident says the city needs new leadership after the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in April after suffering a spinal injury in police custody.
With at least six City Council seats turning over this year, Parker said the time is ripe to transform city government. He wants to expand recreation and mentoring for youth, improve parks and improve transportation options. He also wants Baltimore Public Schools CEO Gregory Thornton to communicate better with the community.
"The stakes are pretty high for the future direction of our city," said Parker, who is married with two children. A Spanish speaker, he has been endorsed by CASA in Action, an organization that supports immigrants.
Retired DEA agent Ed Marcinko, 56, of Upper Fells Point, who has raised $16,000, says he stands out from the other candidates because he does not have another job.
"The other candidates, they're lawyers, administrators and ministers," he said. "We need a full-time council person."
If elected, he says, he would support small businesses and advocate for constituents. He says he is the only candidate in the race to sign a pledge to fight planned zoning changes in Fells Point that would allow taller buildings.
"I've been a public servant all my life," Marcinko said. "My parents helped save Fells Point from the highway. I've been a community activist for close to 20 years."
Sean Flanagan, 44, a former president of the Canton Community Association, calls the amount of money being raised by his competitors "excessive."
"I hate to see that kind of money raised for a primary race for a council," he said. "That said, they all recognize this is a going to be a competitive race."
Flanagan opposed the Red Line light rail project, helped raise about $130,000 for the Canton branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and helped bring radio station WTMD's "First Thursdays" concerts to Canton.
Flanagan says he is the candidate best positioned to balance development and neighborhood interests.
"Patterson Park is the new waterfront of the 1st District," he said. "We've got incredible things happening. But what are the impacts to the neighborhoods?"
Baltimore has not elected a Republican to office since 1963, when Theodore R. McKeldin was elected mayor. Daniel Ellison, the last Republican to serve on the Baltimore City Council, left office in 1942.
That record has not stopped the three Republicans in the race, who have a combined $5,000 on hand.
Liz Copeland, 38, an administrator for the Department of Social Services, says the election offers a chance to make history.
The Canton resident wants to "hold criminals accountable," reduce taxes and fees, and promote school choice.
The former Democrat was a member of the liquor board, which was criticized heavily by state auditors in 2013. She says that the agency was hampered by politics and that she tried hard to hold bars accountable. Copeland said she decided to become a Republican as she watched the Democratic Party become more liberal.
"I was always a conservative Democrat, but in the last eight years, I've become more and more concerned about government's inability to show fiscal restraint," she said.
She said the 1st District is "an area where people put party affiliations aside and choose candidates based on the individual."
Her main rival in the GOP primary is lawyer Matthew McDaniel, 27, a Canton resident who says he sees a sea change taking place in Southeast Baltimore.
"If there's a place in the city that is a breakthrough area, it's this district," he said. "If you look at Dundalk, the whole district switched to Republican."
If elected, McDaniel pledges to build "strong working relationships" with police and help local businesses "stay open and prosperous."
He says his message can appeal to both Republicans and Democrats.
"I'm running against corruption and for transparency and audits," he said. "We need to make the city more affordable for people. Everybody wants lower property taxes, better trash collection and safer streets."
Jennifer Susan Dudley, 50, a school guidance counselor who lives in Bayview, describes herself as a "moderate Republican."
She says her top priority would be increasing the police presence in the community.