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44th District: New Blood, Old Blood

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Marvin “Doc” Cheatham is not running in the 44th District House race, but he made a dramatic impact on it. The president of Baltimore’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held a press conference in March announcing his intention to run. The Baltimore Times gave the event prominent coverage, reporting his scathing attack on the incumbents: Keith Haynes, Ruth Kirk, and Melvin Stukes.

“How do we keep electing people and we get nothing in return?” Cheatham asked, according to the Times coverage, asserting that the district leads the city in crime, violence, vacant homes, addiction, and disease. Its voters, though, have returned incumbents to office, in particular Kirk, who has been a delegate since 1983. (Haynes just finished his second term, and Stukes, who has one term as delegate under his belt, came from a long career as a City Councilman.) “We’re all in this together,” Cheatham was quoted as saying. “We need to improve this city. We can’t do it falling asleep.”

Cheatham blasted the incumbents’ legislative record, claiming that they average only two bills per session. Legislative records do not bear this out, though the delegation’s accomplishments are indeed lackluster. In the 2010 session, none of the three incumbents were the lead sponsors of bills that passed, and in the three prior sessions, their successes were paltry. Kirk’s two successful bills involved pawnshops and workers’ compensation benefits, while Stukes established two task forces—one on vehicle towing, the other on students with multiple school suspensions—and got the second Saturday in May declared Negro Baseball League Day. Haynes, a deputy House whip, got five bills passed, including one to keep utilities from cutting off service during extreme temperatures and another to allow expunging of police records when defendants are arrested without charges.

Kirk and Haynes did not respond to attempts to contact them for this article. Stukes, saying “experience and position do play a major role in Annapolis,” emphasizes that voters should weigh the legislative prowess that accrues with incumbency. He believes that his task forces on towing and educational problems are worthy contributions, and looks forward to having an enhanced role in Annapolis if elected to a second term, saying, “there is such a multitude of things that I wish we could wave a magic wand and fix—maybe I need three or four magic wands.”

Ultimately, Cheatham did not file as a candidate, but his rhetoric loudly proclaimed that the district needs new blood, and five Democratic challengers—Chris Blake, Gary English, Arlene Fisher, Keiffer Mitchell, and Billy Taylor—took it to heart.

For the past six years, Chris Blake has been the legislative liaison for the Maryland Transit Administration. A 1992 Morgan State University graduate with a master’s degree from Carnegie-Mellon University, he says his Annapolis experience has given him hands-on training in the legislative process. Promising, if elected, “to serve as an honorable, pragmatic legislator” who goes to bat “for sensible legislative solutions” to problems, Blake says the incumbents “are attempting to pacify the electorate by bragging” about empty accomplishments that, in reality, do “very little for the people.”

A longtime mechanic with the city’s Department of Public Works, Gary English knows his way around a wastewater treatment plant, and thus says he’s the race’s “blue-collar candidate,” touting his years as a union shop steward. English is not new to electoral politics, having won one of seven 44th District Democratic State Central Committee seats in 2006. His top priority, he says, is to “revisit prayer in our classrooms,” in the hopes of reversing a “decline in morals.” Regarding his two criminal convictions for battery when he was in his 30s, English says, “Since then, my record has been fine. I’m not denying it. What happened happened, and I learned from it.”

Arlene Fisher got her social-work education at Morgan State University and University of Louisville, but her smarts about the 44th District come from many years in the political vineyards. She’s run for delegate before, but in the last two runs—2006 and 2002—she was a couple thousand votes shy of the winning bracket. Her community-organizing efforts have focused on Lafayette Square, where she is the community-association president, and nearby Harlem Park. Fisher says she’s exasperated with the incumbents, who “we hardly ever see, and when they come they bring nothing,” adding that they are “unaware of what the community issues are and how to help the community improve.”

A former City Councilmember who came in second, behind Sheila Dixon, in the 2007 race for mayor, Keiffer Mitchell Jr. is a scion of a major civil-rights and political family—and the only challenger who’s won elections for public office. Saying he will use his “experience from 12 years as a City Councilman and working in the private sector to make Annapolis work for the city,” Mitchell, a banker and former school teacher, boasts a “good working relationship with the House and Senate leadership.” Though the 44th is “one of the hardest hit districts,” he notes its “tremendous assets” —in particular, the city’s two major hospitals, Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland—and says “I can use my relationships with those institutions and help create jobs and economic growth.”

Billy Taylor did not respond to City Paper’s attempts to reach him for this article, but perhaps that’s because—as a man in the middle of a major political spat between police commissioner Fred Bealefeld and state’s attorney Patricia Jessamy—he’s been overwhelmed with media requests. A music promoter, minister, and board member of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, Taylor was thrust into the spotlight by Jessamy, whose reelection he supports, in an attempt to cast Bealefeld as a liar. The reason: Bealefeld, who displayed campaign signs supporting Jessamy’s main opponent, Gregg Bernstein, said he had spoken to Taylor on the phone about meeting with Bernstein, but Taylor says he’s only spoken with Bealefeld in person.

The three winners of the Democratic primary will face two Republican challengers in the November general election: Brian D. Jones and Trae Lewis. On the Senate side, Verna Jones will face Republican Bernard Joseph Reiter.

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