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Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center in West Baltimore offers GED classes, after school programs, and weekly food give aways. Arthur "Squeaky" Kirk used his own money as well as receiving help from Governor Hogan's office and private business donations to reopen the center. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

Arthur "Squeaky" Kirk's community center in West Baltimore is a harbor for students looking to get off the streets and a blessing for families who need to supplement their pantries.

And in this polarizing election year, the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center in the Franklin Square neighborhood has also become an unusual base for Republican candidates for office — a tiny outpost for the GOP in one of the most reliably Democratic corners of the state.

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Maryland Republican Senate candidate Kathy Szeliga, a regular visitor, jumped in to keep the center open this year when the city threatened to close it — an effort noted in a recent radio ad supporting her campaign.

Kenneth Earl Ebron Jr., a Republican candidate for City Council who was there this week helping Kirk pack boxes with donated frozen chicken and bread, said he helps out at the center often.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who is not up for election until 2018, raised private money for a computer lab, and his administration has helped to organize coat and backpack drives at the center.

The work has given the GOP a chance to engage in a city that has been so heavily Democratic for so long that most statewide Republicans spend minimal time campaigning here.

Kirk, a 46-year-old city fire dispatcher, is the son of the late Ruth M. Kirk, a longtime Democratic state lawmaker.

He said his connection to Republicans has nothing to do with politics. Hogan, Szeliga and others, he said, got involved after Democrats were unwilling to help.

"It's a Democratic area, but I didn't get no help from the Democrats," Kirk said. "And [then] I had a guy tell me he was going to help me and the help's been there ever since."

The "guy" is Hogan, the popular Republican who is trying to be the first governor from his party to win a second term in Democratic Maryland since Theodore R. McKeldin more than 60 years ago.

Calling Franklin Square a Democratic stronghold would be an understatement. Only two people in the eastern half of the neighborhood voted for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Election Day in 2012, compared with 636 who cast a ballot for Barack Obama.

Exactly 12 people voted for Hogan two years ago, less than 4 percent of the total vote.

Republican involvement at Kirk's center won't change political reality in Baltimore. Polls show Hogan is popular in the city, as he is statewide. But he lost Baltimore to Democrat Anthony G. Brown by more than 50 points in 2014, and he has had a rocky relationship with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in part from their disagreements over the riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray last year and Hogan's decision to cancel the Red Line light rail project.

Still, the Republican presence at the center is the kind of outreach that could help the party narrow the gap here, and make the party's candidates more attractive to suburban voters who care about the city.

Tucked into an alley near Lexington and Mount streets, the center bustles with weekly food drives and GED programs. Dozens of students arrive every day to finish homework and play.

Kirk's efforts to open the community center — with money almost entirely from his own pocket — caught the attention of Hogan's staff last year. Steve McAdams, director of community initiatives for the governor, organized a fundraiser for the center that allowed Kirk to purchase computers and build a community garden that was recently planted with colorful fall chrysanthemums.

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"It's something the administration can do, and we do things like that in various places all around the state," Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer said.

Before Ruth Kirk died in 2011, her son promised her that he would open the center. Ruth Kirk served in the House of Delegates from 1983 to 2011 as a Democrat, though she endorsed and remained close with former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Kirk was unseated in the 2010 Democratic primary by Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who now works as a special adviser to Hogan.

"She was an old-school pol, and even though she was a Democrat, she knew how to find a way, how to get what she wanted across the table," Kirk said. "I'm a Democrat, but I like people for who they are. I don't believe in black and white, Democrat and Republican."

Asked about the center being raised in an ad in the race for Maryland's open Senate seat, Kirk said he didn't mind "because everything [Szeliga] says is true."

A spokeswoman for Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, Szeliga's Democratic opponent, declined to comment.

Szeliga said she learned of the center through Gary Mangum, a wholesale nursery owner, Republican donor and Hogan ally who helped Kirk with the gardens. She discovered city officials were moving to close the building because it lacked insurance and was in disrepair.

Szeliga called Scott Donahoo, a politically connected former car dealer, who called City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. The city, which owns the building and is leasing it to Kirk, backed off from shutting it down. Szeliga also called a friend in the construction business who is fixing the building at no charge.

Weeks later, a super PAC supporting Szeliga's campaign, Move Maryland Forward, began running a radio ad featuring the contractor.

"Kathy came to me and asked if my company could assist an organization in Baltimore City," the contractor tells listeners. "Kathy seems to understand that leadership is more important than politics."

A spokesman for the PAC, which is prohibited from coordinating its message with the campaign, said the narrator declined to be identified. The super PAC, which has spent $119,000 on Szeliga's behalf, has not yet identified its donors.

Young confirmed he spoke with Donahoo and then called city officials to try to work out a solution.

Kirk has "been there doing a great job," Young said. But he stressed that city policy requires Kirk to have insurance.

Young seemed surprised the center was the focus of a campaign advertisement: "I didn't know this was going to be a political football."

Szeliga, a Baltimore native who previously worked as a city schoolteacher, said she got involved not for political gain but because she knew Ruth Kirk, and because she believes in the work the late lawmaker's son is doing.

"There is nothing more inspiring than a private individual who is rolling up [his] sleeves ... to improve [his] community," Szeliga said. "I just love what they're doing there."

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