Former Senator owner vows run for council president

The former owner of the Senator Theatre declared his candidacy Thursday for president of the Baltimore City Council, saying he wants to lead the body he called "a sorry crew."

Tom Kiefaber, who lost the historic theater founded by his grandfather to foreclosure last year, criticized city leaders and the local news media, and compared his candidacy to the "Arab Spring" that is prompting protests in the Middle East.

Borrowing an analogy from a film he screened frequently at the Senator, Kiefaber likened the council president's office to "that ventilation shaft on the Death Star in 'Star Wars' that they just forgot about. And that's what I'm going after."

With just days until Tuesday's filing deadline, Kiefaber becomes the best-known Baltimorean to challenge Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. Young was appointed to the position last year by other council members as part of a string of City Hall shake-ups triggered by the resignation of Mayor Sheila Dixon.

"We're going to put a group together and win back our city," Kiefaber said.

Kiefaber addressed reporters from the overgrown lawn of a home that he owned until a few weeks ago. The city took possession of the home — which is adjacent to a lot used by Senator patrons — a few weeks ago after Kiefaber lost it to foreclosure, the city solicitor said.

"This used to be my house," said Kiefaber. "Now it belongs to Baltimore City. They took it along with the Senator … for the reason they do anything: Because they can."

Kiefaber was forced to turn the theater over to the city last summer after falling behind in payments. The city chose Buzz and Katherine Cusack, the father-and-daughter team behind the Charles Theater, to run it.

Kiefaber said he planned to use the address of his foreclosed former home when he filed the paperwork to run for office. He has not yet filed to run.

Kiefaber said he decided to run for the city's second-highest office after he was asked to leave City Hall on Wednesday for the second time in as many weeks.

The 59-year-old stormed the dais in council chambers during a council meeting last week, grabbed a microphone and railed against city government, calling Baltimore a "banana republic." Police officers escorted him out of City Hall but did not press charges or ban him from the building.

On Wednesday, Kiefaber walked into the weekly meeting of the Board of Estimates, which is chaired by Young. Young banged his gavel and called a recess while Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who also sits on the board, slipped into an adjoining room to pour herself a glass of orange juice.

Mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty and a police officer assigned to protect the mayor confronted Kiefaber as he sat in the front row of the meeting.

Kiefaber initially refused to leave, but changed his mind when Officer Penny Sprinkle arrived.

"For you, Penny, I'll leave," he said.

City Solicitor George Nilson said he and the other members of the Board of Estimates made "a collective judgment" to ask Kiefaber to leave.

"It was very clear, in his affect and in his expressions and his body language, that he was making the council president and the mayor extremely uncomfortable," Nilson said. "His behavior in the council chambers … was the precipitating circumstance."

Nilson said that Kiefaber was not permananently banned from City Hall and that he would contact him in the next week or so to discuss the incident.

"We're trying to balance reasonable security concerns with his right as a citizen to try to access City Hall," he said.

A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said she did not know enough about the incident to comment on it.

"People generally can't be excluded from a public meeting based solely on the fear that they could disrupt," spokeswoman Meredith Curtis said.

But if there were evidence that a person was planning a disruption, or if there were a "very specific threat," a person could be banned, she said.

Kiefaber said the officials who forced him to leave City Hall violated his rights. He said he had not intended to take the microphone at the council meeting last week, but that it was a "spontaneous citizen reaction."

"I didn't expect to find myself on the dais, but there I was," he said. Watching fearful council staffers scurry from the chambers "was like switching on the light in the crack house kitchen," he said.

"The city is swirling around the bowl and about to go down the drain," he said.