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Zeke Cohen, a Democrat seeking the 1st District City Council seat in Baltimore, stands to address the crowd at a forum in Canton. Matt McDaniel, the Republican challenger, looks on.
Zeke Cohen, a Democrat seeking the 1st District City Council seat in Baltimore, stands to address the crowd at a forum in Canton. Matt McDaniel, the Republican challenger, looks on. (Luke Broadwater / Baltimore Sun)

For the first time in years, political observers are closely watching a Baltimore City Council race that's not between two Democrats.

Republican Matthew McDaniel, a 28-year-old lawyer, is waging a spirited campaign against Democrat Zeke Cohen, 30, an educator. They are vying to represent the 1st District, which includes Canton, Little Italy and other Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods.

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McDaniel is trying to break the Democratic Party's streak of winning every election for a City Council seat since 1942 — 342 in all.

"For the last decade, we haven't had a choice in November," McDaniel says. "For 73 years, we've had only one party in control of the Baltimore City Council. It's time to open up a dialogue."

In a district that has grown more conservative in recent years, McDaniel points to a win here two years ago by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan as evidence that the 1st District is open to Republican views. Cohen sees the Hogan win as an "anomaly" for the area and thinks his longer-running, better-financed campaign will keep the district blue, as it has been for decades.

Still, Cohen says, he's running like he's trailing McDaniel.

"I'm taking nothing for granted," Cohen said. "I'm running as though I'm 10 points behind."

The 1st District, which includes affluent areas like Harbor East and Fells Point as well as Canton, chose Hogan over Democrat Anthony G. Brown by 53 percent to 47 percent in 2014. Hogan got 22 percent of the vote citywide.

But registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans in the district. Its voters picked Democrats Brian E. Frosh for Maryland attorney general and Peter Franchot for comptroller over their GOP rivals.

"It's probably the only district in Baltimore that Republicans — maybe — could win," said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, who sees the race as a test of Hogan's "coattails" in lower-profile races. "But you can't just say you're a Larry Hogan Republican. You have to appeal to Democrats and independents, too."

She added that if a candidate has far less money than his opponent, as McDaniel does, "it's difficult to campaign the way you'll need to."

The 1st is a largely white district with a growing Hispanic population. The contest is to replace Councilman James B. Kraft, who is retiring after holding the seat for 12 years.

"It's going to be competitive," said Joe Cluster, director of the Maryland Republican Party. "It's the first time in a long time we've had the opportunity to even have a competitive race in Baltimore City."

Baltimore-based political strategist Catalina Byrd says the Democrat still has a definite edge.

"The right Republican in the right time" could win in the 1st District, Byrd said. But she believes Cohen has run a dominant campaign this year.

Cohen is the better financed of the two candidates. He has been running for office for nearly two years, and bested five Democrats in a big-money primary. To date, Cohen has spent $122,000 and has $77,000 in campaign cash on hand. Cohen's donations include $6,000 from a laborers union, $3,000 from the Shops at Canton Crossing and $3,000 from City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

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McDaniel, by comparison, spent less than $1,000 defeating two Republican challengers. He has $12,000 on hand.

Michael Yacht, a 43-year-old business executive who lives in Canton, has noticed how the district is changing.

"Canton and Fells are doing extremely well," he said. "You're seeing people move in from outside the city. That's bringing a more affluent white group to the neighborhood. With an affluent white demographic comes a Republican viewpoint."

Yacht, a Cohen supporter, thinks the Democrat has been effective in reaching out to members of both parties, explaining socially progressive policies and getting them to buy in.

"I know from a number of my Republican friends, he's earned a fair amount of respect," Yacht said.

A native of Massachusetts, Cohen moved to the Baltimore area to attend Goucher College, earned a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University and became a teacher in West Baltimore through Teach for America. He then founded The Intersection, a nonprofit that has helped more than 30 high-schoolers obtain college scholarships.

Through his work with youths in Baltimore, Cohen said he's gained a sense of how to address the needs of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"We've got to care just as much about the folks north of Fayette Street as south of Fayette Street," Cohen says of the dividing line between the wealthier areas of the 1st District from poorer ones in East Baltimore's 13th District. "If we continue to have concentrated poverty, we will not grow, we will not rebuild as a city."

He says he plans to press for more access to prekindergarten, an expanded youth summer jobs program, reduced fees on small businesses and more community walks with the police.

"With all the violence post-uprising, people want to see our City Council members stand up and articulate a vision that is clear, honest and addresses the racial turmoil that is gripping our city," Cohen said.

Patterson Park resident Robbyn Lewis says Cohen's understanding of racial and socioeconomic inequalities makes him the perfect candidate to help a city reeling from last year's rioting and record homicides.

"Zeke's out in front of everyone in terms of his attention to ... the weaknesses in our social fabric," Lewis said. "Zeke's challenger's values and platform do not represent the district's values."

McDaniel is a native of Frederick County who attended Catonsville High School, Loyola University Maryland and the University of Baltimore law school. He works at the Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew law firm, where he helps small businesses open.

He says he decided to run because he thinks Baltimore's finances are fundamentally broken and a that more conservative economic mentality is needed.

"The city is hemorrhaging money," he said. "The city's a mess. We can't even balance a budget."

He promises to push for lower taxes as well as better trash collection and safer streets.

"I'm going to have a very nerdy office," McDaniel said. "I don't want to vote for any ordinance that doesn't come with oversight or audits."

He argues that having a Republican on the council would help the city get state support from Hogan in Annapolis. Hogan has endorsed McDaniel.

Katie Vigliotti, who lives in Upper Fells Point, supports McDaniel.

"Matt's a really genuine, good-hearted guy," she said. "He's not running for power or to further his career. He really wants to bring about change." She believes Cohen "is running to represent everyone but the 1st District."

The two men agree on a battery of issues, but there are some stark differences that emerged at a Canton Community Association forum last week.

The next City Council is likely to tackle the issue of whether to raise the minimum wage in Baltimore to $15 an hour. Cohen backs the measure, with an exemption for small businesses, arguing that it would help increase the incomes of the working poor. McDaniel opposes it as a job-killer.

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Cohen criticized a proposal by McDaniel to ask police to post officers and security cameras on streets going in and out of the 1st District. Cohen called the proposal "racially loaded." McDaniel countered that policing shouldn't be politicized and there's nothing racist about keeping the community safe. "We need to be innovative," he said. "We need to be looking for solutions."

The men also differ on what direction development should take.

McDaniel opposes any effort to bring back the Red Line light rail plan, which Hogan killed last year as a "wasteful boondoggle." Cohen thinks that was a mistake and would support efforts to revive a light rail system that runs into Canton.

There's also the question of whom they support for president. Cohen says he'll vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton, while McDaniel won't say.

"We have a secret ballot for a reason," he said. "I'm a Larry Hogan Republican."

Kromer, the Goucher polling director, says surveys indicate Maryland Democrats and independents prefer it when Republicans oppose GOP nominee Donald Trump.

"I'm surprised he hasn't disavowed Trump," Kromer said. "Trump is wildly unpopular for Democrats."

Cluster, the GOP director, who calls McDaniel a "great young candidate," said he's right to model himself after Hogan instead of Trump when running in Baltimore. He also said Cohen's fundraising advantage doesn't worry him.

"Larry Hogan was outspent 5-to-1," he said.

Cluster said McDaniel is running against "one of the most liberal Democrats running in the entire city. This is someone who is for a $15 minimum wage. … Matt McDaniel is going to outwork him and be a more practical candidate."

Kraft, a Democrat, said he believes Trump could win some precincts in the district near Dundalk, and that could help McDaniel. But, Kraft said, he doesn't believe the race will be all that close.

"All things being equal, the district still favors Democrats," Kraft said. "Zeke has been bringing people on board. You can go anywhere in the district and people know who Zeke is."

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