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In Baltimore’s District 12, a seasoned politician meets new, bold challengers

City Council member Robert Stokes Sr. narrowly won his first term on the Baltimore City Council in 2016 out of a field of seven Democrats. The victory paved the way for another job in a long line of public service positions he has held over the last 30 years.

Stokes, a former legislative aide to then-outgoing councilman Carl Stokes (to whom he shares no relation), previously worked for former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, former City Council President Lawrence Bell and Congressman Kweisi Mfume, among other local officials.

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Despite a global pandemic looming large overhead, Stokes, 62, hopes to remain in the ring as his own boss a while longer.

“The bottom line is, I am visible and I am getting the work done,” Stokes said. “I go to every community association meeting in my district, and I didn’t just start when I became a candidate.”

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He again faces a crowded contest with six Democrats vying for the District 12 nomination, some of whom have landed coveted endorsements from groups including the national political organization Run for Something and Progressive Maryland.

With a cash balance of $46,000 in April, Stokes led the pack with cash-on-hand for that filing period. The Westry campaign contends, however, that the challenger out-raised Stokes throughout the campaign, with about $104,000 in donations reported from January to May, compared to the $60,000 Stokes reported bringing in.

Phillip Westry, a relative newcomer to politics, launched his campaign after consulting with some of his Greenmount West neighbors and friends. A public interest lawyer who formerly served vulnerable families and low-income individuals at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center and Maryland Legal Aid, Westry said he has a better grasp of the district’s problems — and how to combat them — than his competitors.

“I’m a service provider at end of the day, and it’s taught me that you have to take people exactly as they are and where they’re coming from,” said Westry, who, if elected, could be the first openly gay candidate to serve on the City Council. “My goal was to elevate the conversation around economic justice ... in a district where it’s so divided as far as income and unemployment.”

Westry reported a cash balance of about $33,000 in April, which he attributed to mostly small donations from many of the 32,000 households he said his campaign has visited since last year. He has been endorsed widely, including by City Council President Brandon Scott and groups such as the AFL-CIO Baltimore Metro Council, the LGBTQ Victory Fun and Baltimore Women United, among others.

He said he hopes to serve as the champion of the district’s forgotten neighborhoods, which he defines as those east of Greenmount Avenue, such as East Baltimore Midway, Oliver and Broadway East.

But Westry isn’t the only candidate banking on running to the left of Stokes. Fellow challenger Dave Heilker considers his platform more progressive than that of anyone running citywide.

Heilker, a self-described policy wonk and communications director for Strong Schools Maryland, said his platform centers around water bill reform and relief for those living below the poverty line. But he would also seek to revise and amend the city’s charter, if elected, and put limits on the mayor’s executive power.

“There’s a need for really examining, at the molecular level, the lack of equality in policy in Baltimore,” said Heilker.

Stokes, however, hopes to resume his tenure as councilman with the same steady hand that earned him last cycle’s win.

He highlighted a list of accomplishments during his first term, including getting funding to open a swimming pool in Oliver and establishing an apprenticeship program for city students with the Baltimore City Community College.

“My record speaks for itself,” Stokes said. “I have the trust of the community, and when I say I am going to do something, I do it.”

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