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40th District: One-Man Stand

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One might expect competition to be thick in a race featuring three delegates running for re-election for the first time, but only one challenger filed in the 40th District: Will Hanna, who says the incumbents are cloistered and out-of-touch from the 40th’s street-level realities, so one of them needs to go. Which one is most vulnerable—Frank Conaway Jr., Barbara Robinson, or Shawn Tarrant—is debatable, but in their 2006 victories in a hotly contested nine-way primary (“Open Seats,” Campaign Beat, Aug. 16, 2006), the top vote-getter was Conaway (with 5,889 votes), followed by Robinson (with 4,662), then Tarrant (with 4,126). Now that they have had four years to prove their mettle, voters have an opportunity to keep them all, or choose one to dump in favor of Hanna.

Conaway Jr. enjoys a highly recognizable name, thanks to his family’s two-generation presence on Baltimore ballots. His father, Frank Conaway Sr., and mother, Mary Conaway, are, respectively, the Clerk of the Circuit Court and Register of Wills; his sister, Belinda Conaway, is a City Councilmember. In 2006, the political prominence of Conaway Jr.’s family likely helped boost his electoral fortunes, despite some decidedly messy issues in his life (“Star Power,” Campaign Beat, Oct. 25, 2006): a drug convict is his campaign-committee chairman, and in 2003 his wife (who later divorced him) obtained a domestic-violence protective order from a Baltimore County judge, saying he is abusive and mentally ill.

The drug convict—30-year-old Adonis Sanchez Johnson—still chairs Conaway Jr.’s campaign, according to state Board of Elections records. In 2002, court records show, Johnson was indicted in Baltimore County for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. Prominent criminal-defense attorney Stanley Needleman represented Johnson, who in 2003 was convicted for possessing several hundred dollars worth of crack, but prosecutors dropped the intent-to-distribute charge. He received a suspended, 18-month sentence, along with 18 months of supervised probation. Since Conaway Jr.’s election, Johnson was charged in 2007 with firearms violations in Baltimore City, but the charges were dropped.

Conaway Jr.’s domestic-violence case has haunted his term as a delegate. He is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, and voted with other members this year to kill a bill that would have made it easier for domestic-violence victims to obtain protective orders. His opposition raised the hackles of the bill’s proponents, prompting the formation of a web site, dumpfrankconawayjr.blogspot.com, that publicizes the restraining order his former wife obtained in 2003. The court file in the case reveals that Latesa Thomas, the ex-wife, swore that Conaway Jr. “threatened to kill” her, placed her “in fear of imminent serious bodily harm, and “pushed her face through [a] back door window.” A Baltimore County judge granted Thomas a final protective order, and was also convinced that Conaway Jr. was not taking his prescribed medications for bipolar disorder, ordering him to undertake hospital evaluations under police escort.

As for his legislative record, online records of the General Assembly show that he’s been the lead sponsor of 94 bills since entering the House—an extremely high number—though none have passed. Many would have made changes at the Circuit Court, where his father serves as the elected clerk. Some—such as proposals to permit the use of deadly force against trespassers and to require that DNA samples be collected from arrested, undocumented aliens—were controversial. Others, such as one to designate the shillelagh, a heavy walking stick that doubles as a weapon, as “the State walking stick of statesmen and gentlemen,” were bizarre.

Conaway Jr., whose campaign information lists neither a phone number nor an e-mail address, did not respond to requests for comment for this article. When asked in 2006 about Johnson’s criminal record, he explained that, “in order to be one of the people, you have to help the people. I gave a person a chance.” Regarding the domestic violence case, he said that “people understand that things happen between man and woman and the rearing of children.”

When Barbara Robinson and other 40th District candidates went on Frank Conaway Sr.’s talk-radio show on WOLB-AM on July 23, a caller asked: “Have any of the candidates been in trouble with the law?” Robinson answered, “No.” She either didn’t understand the question or she lied.

Robinson and her family business, the non-profit assisted-living health care provider Self Pride, Inc., have been in trouble with the law for years. Self Pride’s state-issued license to provide residential services to developmentally disabled people was revoked in 2007, after one of its patients died due to neglect, following a series of serious compliance issues dating back to 2004. Robinson says she resigned as executive director of Self Pride “immediately after being elected” in 2006 (her son, Jerome Robinson, took over for her), but many of the violations that contributed to its license revocation occurred on her watch. In fact, in 2005, Self Pride had already been proposed for suspension and non-renewal of its license.

Robinson was kept in the loop of Self Pride’s back-and-forth with state health authorities even after she became a delegate, according to court records filed by Self Pride’s attorney, Neal Janey. Those records appear in a federal lawsuit that Self Pride filed in 2007 against a number of state health officials, seeking $10,000,000 based on claims of race-based retaliation in connection with the license revocation and other state enforcement actions against Self Pride. After the state in January filed a motion for summary judgment, spelling out the numerous valid reasons for the state’s enforcement actions, Self Pride voluntarily dismissed the case in April—only to turn around in June and sue again, this time in state court.

Separately, Robinson and Self Pride last December satisfied a $527,903.63 court judgment in favor of the U.S. Department of Labor, which went after illegal wage practices since 2001 that shorted hundreds of employees. The judgment, which will be used to repay the workers, was first entered against Self Pride and Robinson in U.S. District Court in 2006, but the two appealed it. In 2007, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judgment, noting that “a reasonable jury would have to conclude” that the violations— “random subtractions, double-docking for lateness, subtractions while waiting for a van to pick up residents, and docking for failing to call in” —did in fact occur.

Robinson, in an e-mail, declined to respond in detail to these issues, saying instead that “some of the events you mentioned, never happened.” When pressed, she added only that she resigned as Self Pride’s executive director after her 2006 election.

Shawn Tarrant has no such troublesome issues to contend with on the campaign trail. His job with a pharmaceutical company was recently downsized after 17 years, he says, and thus being a delegate is currently his only line of work. Tarrant likes the Annapolis game, and thinks he’s good at it. Freshmen such as himself, he observes, don’t get leadership positions in legislative committees (he sits on the Health and Government Operations Committee), but “you build coalitions and work with people, and if you start off that way, next term, you’ll be thought of for leadership positions. I’ve been a good team player, and I feel confident that I’m on that list.”

Tarrant is proud of his role in passing a law to crack down on illegal dirtbikes in Baltimore, and, on a statewide scale, to increase health insurance coverage for part-time employees and to require that incidents of chronic disease be reported so that the state can better manage health problems.

Hanna, the challenger, also claims pride in his legislative achievements, despite not being a legislator. He’s the volunteer executive director of the New Parks Heights Community Development Corporation, and takes credit for helping to pass key bills, including one that helped fund the Zeta Center for Healthy and Active Aging and another that prohibits liquor stores in the Park Heights area from selling alcohol before 9 a.m. The latter piece, he says, is the first step; if elected, he promises to bar anyone under 21 years old from entering a Park Heights package store.

Hanna, a military veteran whose resume lists stints as a U.S. Department of Justice legal analyst and a current post as CEO of a company called HMG Sports and Entertainment, based in San Antonio, Tex., is far from cowed by the incumbent delegates. The three are running as a team with Sen. Catherine Pugh, who is unopposed, but Hanna says, “me and the voters are running as a team, as well,” adding that “not only do we want to win the election—we don’t want the election to be close.”

When Hanna appeared on Conaway Sr.’s radio show on July 23, he answered the caller’s question about legal problems by explaining away the criminal charges against him—a 1993 battery charge, which prosecutors dropped, and a 1999 pot-possession charge, also dropped. He got caught trespassing with a friend, who had the pot, he said, and as for the battery charge, he claimed his uncle was abusing his grandmother— “and I did go after him.”

When asked about his history of court-adjudicated debt problems, Hanna writes in an e-mail that: “I don’t have a stellar credit record, and like a lot of people in this city, I’ve made some mistakes in the past. I have learned that those things that we experience in life allow us to become the people we are. I am now a very focused and dedicated candidate looking to help some young people to not make the mistakes that I made in the past.” (VS)

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