Typically, Baltimore's City Council races are functionally over after the primary election. Democrats have won every council seat in Baltimore since the 1940s.
But in the 12th District, third-party candidates are waging spirited campaigns to challenge Robert Stokes Sr., who narrowly won the Democratic primary. The campaigns have sparked a competitive fundraising fight and a legal battle.
Stokes currently ranks third in campaign cash with about $8,600 on hand. Independent candidate Dan Sparaco has $17,200, and Green Party candidate Ian Schlakman has $8,800. Schlakman, in particular, has raked in donations from across the country. Another independent candidate, Frank W. Richardson, has about $500.
Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs, said Stokes has an inherent advantage because he is a Democrat, even though he trails in fundraising. He said many city voters likely will vote for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and then vote for other Democrats farther down the ballot.
Even so, Hartley said, a strong third-party campaign could make the 12th District race worth watching.
"Other candidates are actually raising more money — that's pretty significant," Hartley said. "Maybe the Democrat is coasting. If the third-party candidates have any kind of ground game, maybe they can catch the Democrat sleeping."
It's a race to replace City Councilman Carl Stokes, who left the seat open to launch an unsuccessful campaign for mayor. Stokes has thrown his support behind Robert Stokes, his legislative aide, who beat fellow Democrat Kelly Cross by fewer than 400 votes in April's primary.
In a seven-candidate field, Stokes was victorious with just 33 percent of the Democratic vote in the district, which stretches from Jonestown and Oliver in the east to Charles Village and Remington in the west. Third-party candidates have hope, they said, because two-thirds of Democrats voted for Stokes' opponents.
"When I saw that a supermajority of voters voted against him, I thought it was reasonable to run against him," Sparaco said of Stokes.
Sparaco's late entry into the race sparked a legal dispute.
Schlakman and Richardson filed a federal lawsuit against the Maryland State Board of Elections seeking an injunction — which was not granted — to stop Sparaco's name from appearing on the ballot. Sparaco, who filed to run in July, acknowledges that he missed the state's February deadline to file to run. He gained access to the ballot by filing a federal lawsuit that alleged that Maryland's February filing deadline was unconstitutional because it was too early.
Sparaco said he dropped his suit once state elections board officials agreed to put his name on the ballot if he gathered enough signatures. He was able to gather the hundreds of signatures needed.
A native of Long Island, Sparaco, 41, formerly worked in the Baltimore City Law Department. If elected, he would be the only lawyer on the City Council.
He said he has a plan to provide a "long-term tax break for neighborhoods with too many vacants" that would reduce by half the effective tax rate on residential structures to 1.1 percent, the rate in Baltimore County. He wants to establish a low- or no-interest loan program for home renovation.
Sparaco also wants to create a parks authority — funded by the parking tax — to improve recreational opportunities. He said he would use his insider knowledge of how City Hall operates to help improve local government.
"It's a time for renewal for the whole city," said Sparaco, who lives in Mount Vernon. "There are so many people who are hungry for something better."
Schlakman, 31, of Midtown-Belvedere runs a small co-op that provides tech support for schools. He describes himself as a "socialist." He said that means he "puts people ahead of profits."
Sporting a long list of campaign donors from across the country, Schlakman believes he is running a credible campaign to defeat Stokes.
"It's definitely a competitive race," Schlakman said. "We've knocked about 15,000 doors. Just about every door that is knockable in the district, we've knocked."
Schlakman said that, if elected, he will eagerly vote to raise the minimum wage in Baltimore to $15 an hour. He said he will vote against all corporate welfare and institute a plan to immediately begin housing the city's homeless. He also wants to create a wind-powered alternative source of energy, so that residents would not have to rely on Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
"We activists have been organizing and protesting outside of City Hall for too long," Schlakman said. "It's time for activists and organizers to get into City Hall and fight from the inside."
Stokes did not respond to a request for comment. In a questionnaire completed for The Baltimore Sun, he said he wants improve economic opportunity, education and public safety. He said working for Carl Stokes — to whom he is not related — gave him experience his opponents lack.
"I've spent over 30 years helping and fighting for the community," Stokes, 58, wrote. "I believe my passion for helping others and experience qualify me to be a true advocate for the 12th District."
Richardson, 43, of Charles Village, said Stokes has missed recent events, including a League of Women Voters candidates forum. Richardson said Stokes' lack of public appearances provides him with an opening.
"He's ducking a lot of things," Richardson said of Stokes. "I think I have a great chance."
Richardson said he believes he's the candidate who can best relate to the people of the district — black and white; rich and poor — because of his varied background. He's worked as a property manager, state commissioned officer, transportation supervisor at the Johns Hopkins University and urban youth minister.
If elected, he said, he will push to make sure students are provided with mentors, lobby for the hiring of more counselors and institute mandatory study hall for struggling students. He also wants to bring back the city's $1 homes program and improve lighting in poorly lit neighborhoods.
A former football player, Richardson calls himself the "heavyweight" in the race.
"I take on the heavyweight issues," he said.
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