Mention the city schools' contract with Education Alternatives Inc. and Councilman Carl Stokes can't help himself. He's goes right into bashing mode.
For a year, the 2nd District councilman tirelessly preached that EAI, a private company that runs nine city schools and consults on three others, wouldn't be effective. He's said it so often that when one thinks of Carl Stokes, one thinks of EAI.
But now that he's running for City Council president, Mr. Stokes is trying to distance himself from his constant criticism of the Minnesota-based company. He fears voters will see him as a one-note candidate.
"I don't want to ride the EAI horse to death," Mr. Stokes said. "Education, not EAI, is my priority."
Mr. Stokes talks about bringing manufacturing businesses back to Baltimore, opening schools from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and restructuring the way the Board of Estimates functions to give the mayor less power on the board.
He also spearheaded the councilmanic redistricting that gave blacks more representation in the City Council.
Still, the councilman, who heads the EAI Oversight Committee, is best known for his work there than anything else he's done in his eight years on the council. While heading the committee, he has called for EAI to disclose financial audits and called into question Superintendent Walter G. Amprey's ability to evaluate the company's work objectively.
In assessing the EAI contract, fellow Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge gives Mr. Stokes high marks: "He did more than just milk it, he handled it well."
Even so, the city maintains its contract with the company.
Key endorsements for Mr. Stokes include the City Union of Baltimore and the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees (AFSME).
An outspoken man, Mr. Stokes is especially so about his opponents -- 4th District Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, 5th District Councilwoman Vera P. Hall and 6th District Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi.
"He just throws stuff up in the air and waits to see what sticks," he says about Mr. Bell.
"She's in [Mayor Kurt L.] Schmoke's pocket," he says about Mrs. Hall.
"He's not a real candidate. His whole campaign is based on 'I'm the white guy in the race,' " he says about Mr. DiBlasi.
But Mr. Stokes is not without criticism himself.
"I don't trust him," said fellow 2nd District Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch. "He'll present a position in one light, and then he'll do something else."
The bad feelings between the two arose after Mr. Stokes' East End Forum political club and Ms. Branch's Eastside Democratic Club failed to reach an agreement to field a unified ticket in the state Senate and House of Delegates in the 45th legislative District races last year.
Originally the clubs agreed to back former Councilman Nathaniel J. McFadden for the state Senate seat, Ms. Branch said. But shortly before the filing deadline, Mr. Stokes entered the race. Mr. Stokes lost soundly.
"I asked why," Ms. Branch said. "But I got the feeling that he had planned it all along."
Mr. Stokes disputes that. He said he ran because the ticket did not include enough representation from his political club.
Running for the Senate seat "was a mistake," Mr. Stokes said. "I guess I was angry. Maybe I put on a white hat that I didn't deserve to put on."
The gaffe has cost Mr. Stokes support for the council presidency within his district, especially from Ms. Branch's political club.
"I support Vera Hall," Ms. Branch said. Mr. Stokes "just does whatever he feels at the time. He reacts, he's not pro-active. You can't work or plan with someone like that."
Campaigning recently off Edmondson Avenue, Mr. Stokes talked about crime, education and the need for lower property taxes.
He fielded the questions, handled campaign workers filing into the neighborhood and worried about which lawns displayed his black and gold signs. He was a blur, never stopping in the 90-plus degree heat.
But EAI always seems to be active in Mr. Stokes' mind. When one of his campaign workers couldn't remember whether he had been to a particular house, Mr. Stokes playfully chided him: "You're thinking like an EAI student."