Del. Howard P. Rawlings, one of Maryland's most powerful politicians and the father of the City Council's vice president, is leading a campaign against a plan to reshape the council.
Rawlings is chairman of a campaign-style committee formed last week to fight Question P, an initiative that aims to shrink the council and do away with multimember districts.
Creation of the Power to the People Committee Against Question P is one indication that the ballot battle is heating up with just over a week to go before voters decide the council's fate in the Nov. 5 election.
A separate group of opponents formed a second ballot issue committee last week, calling itself Citizens for a Representative City Council Against Question P. That group has support from council members Catherine E. Pugh and Agnes Welch.
Meanwhile, Question P supporters have begun airing a 30-second television spot on CNN and other cable stations. On Friday, they recorded a radio commercial with Jill P. Carter and Curtis S. Anderson, both winners in last month's Democratic primaries for House of Delegates.
The coalition of community and labor groups backing the ballot question said they were undaunted by the involvement of Rawlings, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, whose large campaign fund has made him a local kingmaker.
"We will continue to push our endeavor as we have in the past," said Rose Taylor, co-chairwoman of Maryland Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which is part of the coalition.
"I think it's going great," Taylor said. "It really is."
Rawlings said his group is the underdog, with the pro-P forces bankrolled by labor unions. He said his group had not raised enough yet to match the TV and radio spots that ACORN says cost them "tens of thousands" of dollars.
"It's embarrassing," Rawlings said. "I think the number I saw at a meeting yesterday was about $25,000. ... We're trying to raise money at the last hour."
Rawlings said his involvement has nothing to do with his daughter's position as a councilwoman. He said he wasn't worried that Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake would not win re-election to the council of 14 single-member districts that Question P would create.
"I'm confident she would win in her district, so that's not the issue for me," he said. "The issue is, [if] you Balkanize the city of Baltimore into 14 subsets, it's more likely you'll divide communities and you will open up the influence of the City Council to those who are best organized."
By that, Rawlings said, he means labor unions and ACORN.
The pro-P television spot features four children taking swipes at the council for derelict housing, shuttered libraries, privatization of city jobs and an Aug. 8 closed-door meeting to discuss alternatives to Question P that apparently violated the Open Meetings Act.
"I want a City Council that will crack down on slumlords," the ad begins, with one of the children standing before a boarded-up rowhouse. The others continue, one by one: "I want a City Council that will fight to keep my library open. I want a City Council that won't lay off my mom and hire a greedy corporation. I want a City Council that won't hold secret meetings."
Peter Dolkart, treasurer of Rawlings' Power to the People committee, criticized the ad as misleading. He is a University of Baltimore law student and former director of legislative affairs for Council President Sheila Dixon.
"The council did fight for libraries," he said. "The library system didn't want those libraries open. They are still selling this dishonest message that the council closes libraries, closes schools and privatizes jobs. Those are things the council can't stop. That's the mayor's office."
If it passes, Question P would cut four seats from the 19-member council. It also would create 14 districts with one member each, replacing the current system of six, three-member districts. Under the plan, the council president would continue to be elected citywide.
A coalition of community and labor groups, known as Community and Labor United for Baltimore (CLUB), collected more than 10,000 signatures to get the plan on the ballot. CLUB contends that the reshaped council would save the city money and make members more accountable to constituents.
Opponents, including council members, argue that the plan would divide the city into small, self-interested districts.
If passed by voters, the plan would represent the first change to the council's structure since 1967, when membership was trimmed from 21 to 19.
The TV ads are part of an "in-your-face" campaign that also includes thousands of lawn signs and posters, Taylor said.
People involved with the two anti-P committees said they had just started discussing strategies and were not sure what form their campaigns would take.