Council contest lures a big name

The Baltimore Sun

Michael Sarbanes, executive director of one of Baltimore's leading neighborhood and regional advocacy groups, will announce today he is running for City Council president - a move that will likely draw significant attention to the city's second-most prominent political race this year.

As director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association since 2003 - and a former attorney with the Community Law Center - Sarbanes has become a well-known promoter of the city's most troubled neighborhoods. As the son of Maryland's longest-serving senator, retired Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, he is expected to attract considerable political support.

"The city is at this real crossroads and things could get dramatically better all over the city or they could stagnate," said Sarbanes, 42, who lives with his wife and three children in Irvington. "This is one of those once-in-a-generation moments, when leadership and vision and energy in city government can determine which way the city goes."

Sarbanes - the brother of U.S. Rep. John P. Sarbanes, who won election last year to a congressional district that includes portions of Baltimore - is the third major candidate to enter the race for council president. Two-term City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. announced his candidacy in January and the current council president, Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, also has said she will run.

Sarbanes is expected to officially announce his candidacy this morning at his home after months of speculation about his intentions.

The position, which will carry a $98,000 salary next year, is the second most powerful in city government. The president oversees the 15-member council and also has one of five votes on the Board of Estimates, which approves most city spending. Historically, the council has been considered a rubber stamp for the mayor, partly because it has little control over the city budget.

Sarbanes, who served as a top policy aide for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend starting in 1999, said he believes the council can act as a better liaison between city agencies and neighborhoods. In an interview with The Sun, Sarbanes spoke about broad goals, such as making sure children can travel safely to and from school, engaging residents to reclaim neighborhoods and better communicating the priorities of the city's school system.

He also offered specific proposals, such as floating a large bond issue, as much as $100 million, and using the borrowed money to invest in neighborhoods. Part of that investment, he said, would include a more aggressive and targeted acquisition by the city of blighted properties that have the potential to be redeveloped or rehabilitated - though he noted that current residents should not be displaced when those development projects occur.

Sarbanes proposed financing the bonds with the increased property tax revenue the city has received in recent years due to rising property assessments.

"Michael can make an extraordinary contribution," said Paul Sarbanes, who retired this year after serving in the U.S. Senate since 1977. "This is what he's been involved in, working in the neighborhoods and on the grassroots level to build a better community."

Sarbanes, who has done much of his advocacy work out of the limelight, used nuisance laws to shut down drug homes in the city with the Community Law Center in the mid-1990s. The Citizens Planning and Housing Association, which Sarbanes has led since 2003, is a nonprofit organization that attempts to find regional solutions to issues such as transportation and planning.

As director, Sarbanes was closely involved with the creation of a bill pending in the City Council that would require certain developers to build housing for low- and middle-class residents when they build market-rate housing developments. That legislation is scheduled for a hearing in June.

Sarbanes is white, running for citywide office in a city that is predominantly black. But at least one expert speculated that his professional background will add gravity to his campaign among all races. Given the Sarbanes name, which is well-recognized in the city, and the family's proven ability to raise money, Sarbanes will likely be a very credible candidate, said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson.

"This makes it a real contest," Crenson said. "I think it gives the race some electricity."

On the other hand, Sarbanes is getting into the race months after his opponents, who have been actively raising money in his absence. And while Gov. Martin O'Malley has publicly stayed out of the mayor's race, he has been much more involved in Rawlings-Blake's campaign.

The president is the only member of the council who is elected citywide. Rawlings-Blake was voted into the position by members of the City Council in January to fill the vacancy left when Sheila Dixon became mayor. The Democratic primary election, which typically decides citywide races in Baltimore, will take place Sept. 11.

"It doesn't really change what we do," said Ben Petok, campaign manager for Harris, who is traveling and could not be reached. "We've been talking to voters about their concerns."

Campaign officials with Rawlings-Blake could not be reached late yesterday.

Sarbanes, a Baltimore native, attended Mount Royal Elementary/Middle and graduated from the Gilman School in 1982 and from Princeton University in 1986. After studying at Oxford for three years on a Marshall Scholarship, he received a law degree from New York University in 1992. Sarbanes also served as director of the state's Office of Crime Control and Prevention from 1996 to 1999.

"It really ought to be the case that everybody in this city - from the person who's doing the surgery to the person who's cleaning up when the surgery is done - feels like the city is growing for them," Sarbanes said. "Part of what leadership is is seeing where we could go and saying, 'What can we do right now that can get us there?'"

Sun reporter Eric Siegel contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad