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46th District: Fighting Words

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Bill Ferguson, the 27-year-old Democratic candidate for the 46th District’s state Senate seat, knows he’s in for a fight. He knew that once he decided to run and started going around the district and introducing himself door to door. “At the beginning of conversations, people always said, “You’re going up against an institution—you know that, right?’” Ferguson says. “And, yes, I definitely understand. My eyes are wide open.”

The base of Baltimore’s Democratic political machine runs deep all over the city, but arguably no place is that establishment more firmly rooted than in the 46th District, which wraps around Baltimore’s waterfront. Incumbent Sen. George Della Jr., has represented this area for the past 35 years, first as a Baltimore City Councilmember (1976-’83), and since then as a state senator. His father, George Della Sr., was a state senator, representing many of the same precincts, from 1939-’63. Sen. Della heads a district delegation with equally deep South Baltimore roots.

Del. Brian McHale, a Locust Point native, has served in the House of Delegates since 1990; his father was a South Baltimore City Councilmember from 1952-’64. Del. Peter Hammen, was elected to the House in 1995; his father served as a City Councilmember and in the House of Delegates. As a ticket, they have long-standing name recognition, they’re progressively active—Della, Hammen, and McHale have voted in favor of extending unemployment benefits to part-time employees, a plan to reduce greenhouse gases, and a bill to establish a statewide living wage, for example—and they’re fairly popular.

In the last two elections, in 2002 and 2006, Della ran unopposed. This primary season, newcomer Ferguson has emerged as an energetic and passionate opponent, campaigning on a strong education platform designed to connect with constituents who have witnessed a tremendous rebirth of the neighborhoods that sit on the waterfront while the district’s more inland, working-class enclaves have seen virtually no economic development.

A Montgomery County native, Ferguson moved to Baltimore in 2005 as part of the nonprofit Teach for America organization, and began teaching history and American government at Southwestern High School.

“The experience teaching was very eye-opening,” the Canton resident says.” The way that I had perceived the world was, frankly, not realistic. I sort of believed in the power of markets, this idea of the private sector is providing everything that’s needed,” but he says he learned that the core presumption of free-market theories—that “everybody has perfect information” —is a sham. “If we have a public education system that is not even coming close to providing everybody with the opportunity to obtain a great education, it’s simply a flawed system.”

Ferguson went to work as a community organizer. Then-City Council President Sheila Dixon appointed him part of a two-person team dealing city-wide with community associations, and, while in law school at University of Maryland, he also began working in Baltimore public-schools CEO Andrés Alonso’s office, where he witnessed how Maryland state politics and education reform are, for good and bad, intertwined. He watched as, over three years in Annapolis, “a lot of education reform bills that are advantageous to the city or show a priority to the city [did] not get [to] make it through.”

“I am under no illusion that as a first-year state senator I will be able to enact massive changes in education,” Ferguson acknowledges, but he believes the best legislators are “the ones who know policy issues front and back for just a few issues, and they are the experts on those issues.” Thus, Ferguson wants to be the Senate’s public-education expert. ”I think there’s no better issue out there,” because “it is the single best public institution where we get a return on our investment for every tax dollar that we put into it.”

Ferguson’s community-rooted approach to campaigning is mirrored by the efforts of contenders in the 46th District House race, where a seat left open by retiring Del. Carolyn Krysiak drew four first-time candidates.

First-time candidate Jason Filippou, 29, wants to bring his experience in transorganizational development to the 46th on a larger scale. As director of the Greektown CDC, Filippou partnered with the Southeast CDC and spearheaded the Highlandtown-Greektown Transit Oriented Development plan for eastside revitalization. Filippou also piloted a mentoring program for 7th and 8th graders at John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School. “I’m in tune with local issues,” he says by phone. “And, it’s funny, I see a lot of the same things that I’m saying from other candidates—build up neighborhoods, safer streets, stronger police departments, and help for small businesses. And that’s exactly what I did for the past three years.”

Also running for Krysiak’s open seat are Bill Romani, an assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of Maryland Medical Center who is running as an advocate for affordable health care for low-income families, and Melissa Techentin*, the president of the Southeastern District Police Community Relations Council. Attempts to contact Romani and Techentin were unsuccessful.

The fourth challenger received a leg up on his competition when he was added to the Della, Hammen, and McHale ticket in early May. Anne Arundel County Assistant State’s Attorney Luke Clippinger has spent the past three years primarily prosecuting burglars and people who commit domestic violence. But since last November, the Baltimore native has been pounding the pavement in the 46th District; he says he’s knocked on more than 16,000 doors and spoken with 4,000 people at their homes. “Getting out and doing that work, I think, demonstrated that I was committed to the race and committed to being the kind of delegate people want,” he says by phone. “Someone who is committed to running. It’s one thing to talk about doing this, it’s quite another to go out and do it.”

Clippinger’s no stranger to campaigning. His mother got him involved in Mary Pat Clarke’s campaigns as a youth in the late 1970s and 1980s. As an adult, he worked on Tom Perez’s 2006 campaign for attorney general and served as campaign manager for Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s 2007 run for City Council president. He was one of the initial members of the Stonewall Democrats of Baltimore. This is Clippinger’s first run for delegate.

During Clippinger’s door-to-doors, he feels he’s hearing what constituents’ concerns are. “I just got out of a meeting in Cherry Hill, and it’s drugs and crime,” he says. “I talked to people out in the 1800 block of [South] Charles Street last week, and it’s drugs and crime. And on top of that, there’s a feeling that the schools, while they’re getting better, still have such a long way to go.”

Clippinger, Filippou, and Ferguson report that the residents they’ve spoken to sound hungry for somebody willing to do the work to facilitate change, but they might not be the same people who show up at the polls. In 2006, turnout for the primary was less than 25 percent—the lowest in the city.

*Correction: The initial version of this article incorrectly reported that Democratic candidate for delegate Melissa Techentin lived in Dundalk. In fact, she lives in Baltimore City on Dundalk Avenue. City Paper regrets the error.

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