Young campaigns to keep council presidency

Baltimore City Council President Jack Young hands out campaign materials to Marie Daramy while canvassing the Berea Community in East Baltimore.
Baltimore City Council President Jack Young hands out campaign materials to Marie Daramy while canvassing the Berea Community in East Baltimore. (Kenneth K. Lam/The Baltimore Sun)

Campaigning on foot along a stretch of tidy brick rowhouses in East Baltimore, joined by a small entourage of family members, campaign consultants and volunteers, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young rarely needs an introduction.

"Whassup, girl!" he calls out to a woman driving a Honda Accord along Edison Highway in the Berea neighborhood. "You got my sign in the window?"

Young, a council veteran of nearly 15 years, runs into a guy who used to cut his hair at Old Town Mall, a woman with whom he worships, childhood classmates and grandmothers, whom he greets with a kiss to the cheek. All say they have cast ballots for him over the years.

Eighteen months after he was elected by his fellow council members to complete the term of former President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Young is running his first citywide campaign, to hold onto the seat.

The job, which involves chairing not only the council, but also the city's spending board, has long been a steppingstone to the mayor's office. William Donald Schaefer, Clarence H. Du Burns, Sheila Dixon and Rawlings-Blake all served as council president en route to the city's highest office.

Young faces four challengers in the Democratic primary on Sept. 13: former Senator Theatre owner Thomas Kiefaber, retired construction project manager Leon Hector Sr., retired U.S. Postal Service manager Renold B. Smith and perennial candidate Charles Ulysses Smith.

The candidates cite a need for new faces in city leadership, saying fresh ideas to solve the city's problems trump the experience of political veterans such as Young.

Young also faces two Republicans and a Libertarian. But in overwhelmingly Democratic Baltimore, it's the party primary that decides the eventual winner of the general election.

In interviews, most of the challengers expressed disdain for what they described as a culture of corruption running through city government. They said new leaders are needed to solve what they said were continuing problems of crime, an inadequate public school system, high taxes, joblessness and the huge number of vacant houses in the city.

With the exception of Young, none of the candidates have paid staff. They have relied mostly on volunteers to help campaign. Some have campaign websites; others have broadcast their candidacies exclusively on social media.

Young leads the pack by a significant margin in campaign fundraising, with about $325,000 on hand at the last financial reporting period in August. Several of his opponents have not raised any money.

A debate that was to have been held at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Aug. 23 was canceled after the earthquake that afternoon; it was to have been the candidates' one opportunity to face each other publicly.

Kiefaber has raised no money, but has knocked on doors, attended community meetings and hosted a drum circle to call attention to the issues he most wants to affect as council president: abolishing the Baltimore Development Corporation and rooting out corruption.

"We're in big trouble as a city and we need new leadership," said Kiefaber, 61, who lost the historic movie theater founded by his grandfather last year. "We are nationally infamous for our indebted culture of corruption that has been tolerated for so long."

He said his empty campaign chest should not be viewed as a shortfall, but rather a testament to his political independence.

"I'm not beholden to anyone," he said. "I'm not a career politician. I want to work for this city for four years and turn it over."

Kiefaber has been asked to leave City Hall twice recently after he was accused of disrupting public meetings.

Public documents alternately list his home address as in the city and in Baltimore County. He admits to doing "a great deal of couch surfing," but said he maintains a residence in the city, which he said he shares with roommates.

Hector says the condition of city schools would be first on his list of priorities as council president. A retired construction project manager at Loyola University from East Baltimore, he said he was inspired to run by a visit last year to Walter P. Carter Elementary School, where he encountered a water leak, and an apparent inaction to fix it.

"If I was president, somebody would have showed up within a half-hour to fix the school," he said.

Smith, the retired Postal Service manager, has lent his campaign about $3,000 to create a campaign website, brochures and signs, and has raised about $400 in individual contributions, mostly from family members and former co-workers, he said.

If elected, he said, he would work to establish term limits for council members.

Smith called crime a major issue. He said he would hold summits with community associations three times a year to strategize best practices.

"Crime is outrageous," said Smith, 61. "The police cannot do it alone. We've got to get the entire Baltimore City involved in this."

Democratic candidate Charles Ulysses Smith, who has run for public office several times in the past, Republican candidates Armand F. Girard, David Anthony Wiggins and Libertarian candidate Lorenzo Gaztanaga did not respond to requests for interviews.

Council members elected Young to be their president after Rawlings-Blake was elevated to the mayor's office following the resignation of Dixon.  Rawlings-Blake had been advocating for Councilman William H. Cole IV to replace her at the helm of the legislative body, but the majority of council members decided to back Young, in part because they felt Cole was too closely-allied with Rawlings-Blake.

After months of strained relations between the second and fourth floor of City Hall, Young and Rawlings-Blake reconciled their differences.  Rawlings-Blake endorsed Young at a campaign rally earlier this summer – appearing on stage moments after one of her chief rivals in the mayor's race, State Sen. Catherine Pugh.

 Cole, who many expected to make a bid for the president's seat, decided to run to continue representing his district, which includes the Downtown area, Federal Hill and South Baltimore.

As council president, Young has attempted to address many of the issues his challengers cite. He said his work ethic entitles him to a full term as president.

"People from all over the city have called me," said Young, 57. "Call Jack Young and he'll get it done for you."

He has aired spending, zoning and liquor board hearings on the city's cable channel. He also shepherded legislation to create a fund to pay for repairs to city schools, which voters will consider on the November ballot.

But the council removed from the final version a section that would have stripped the mayor of the power to designate general fund monies for school renovation and construction and given it to the council.

Young takes exception to the notion that the bill was gutted.

"If I was ever mayor, I wouldn't let no council person dictate where money goes," said Young. "I don't know why people keep saying nothing didn't happen."

As council president, he declined to vote on the controversial bottle tax proposed by Rawlings-Blake, which ultimately passed.

Young, too, apparently has his eyes on higher office. He considered a run for mayor before settling for council president. When he knocked on the door of one supporter, she greeted him in a way that left Young giggling.

"She said, 'When you running for governor?' Young said to a reporter. "Did you hear that?"