Coffee klatsch fuels candidate's brush with voters Small groups voice political concerns.


In a house on a tree-lined street with manicured lawns and rough-stone duplexes, middle-class professionals dressed in their summer cottons gathered to sip iced raspberry tea and to tell 1st District City Council candidate Perry Sfikas what was on their minds.

About a dozen people had come to what is known as a "coffee klatsch" in political slang. During the gathering in the Harbel area of northeast Baltimore, they expressed their concerns about the city's financial condition and quality of education being offered in the city's public schools.

At a second coffee klatsch in a working-class community made up of rows of attached bungalows, Sfikas heard from another dozen or so residents. These people, some still dressed in their work clothes, congregated in the small Armistead Gardens home

to drink Budweiser beer and complain about their streets not being repaired, the high cost of auto insurance and the lack of jobs.

Coffee klatsches are tailored to draw out voters who welcome the opportunity to share their views and frustrations face to face with political candidates.

The Harbel coffee klatsch took place at the home of Martha Mazzone in the 3700 block of Gibbons Ave. It was one of the first streets where Sfikas handed out literature door to door early in the campaign.

The talk in Mazzone's living room centered on the city's high property taxes and its declining revenue base.

"I pay about $2,000 a year in property taxes and the assessment on my home grows by leaps and bounds," said Mazzone, who works as an outreach and training director for the International Special Olympics in Washington.

Although the tax rate has dropped in the past four years by 10 cents to $5.90 for each $100 of assessed value, it isn't enough, residents said. Elected officials need to do more in reducing the city's $1.05 billion budget, which could help lessen its dependence on property taxes.

Brandon Roberts, an economic development consultant, said he couldn't see why the city can't pare its work force and privatize certain city services.

"The city has a high ratio of city employees to residents and with the city's decline in population and revenues, it just doesn't make sense. We need more efficiency in city government," said Roberts. "We also have too many City Council members."

In Armistead Gardens, Debbie Green, a bartender at Sfikas' favorite bar, invited some neighbors to meet the candidate. In her small living room, the talk turned to the problems caused by night clubs on nearby Pulaski Highway, street repairs, the lack of school crossing guards and how hard it is for working-class folks to make ends meet.

When Patricia Houck, a 27-year-old single mother was living in Perry Hall in northeastern Baltimore County, she paid $460 a year to insure her car. Recently she moved back to her home community of Armistead Gardens and can't find insurance cheaper than $1,200.

"I have to work six days a week to support my daughter and myself," she said. "I can't afford car insurance at that price. Our politicians have to do something about this."

Members of both communities said they were not enthusiastic about the upcoming city elections and said they are tired of politics.

"People tell me every day that they're turned off by elections, that they aren't going to vote because they don't see that their vote or the people they vote for make any difference in their lives," said Helen Wheeler, an Armistead Gardens retiree.

Wheeler lamented the absence of political rallies and other evidence that a vibrant campaign is sweeping the streets of her community.

"There's nothing happening at the top of the ticket to excite people," said Martha Mazzone. "None of the candidates in the mayor's race is exciting anyone."

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