All the President’s Men
Underfunded outsiders look to unseat appointed City Council president
Published: August 31, 2011
“I don’t know what it is I’m not doing to have all these people running against me,” says appointed City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D). The former 12th District councilmember from East Baltimore was voted in last year by his council colleagues after former President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) ascended to mayor upon the theft conviction of former Mayor Sheila Dixon (D). He is now running to keep the perch, from which he presides over the council’s lawmaking, budgetary, and agency-oversight responsibilities; sits on the city’s powerful five-member spending panel, the Board of Estimates; and, should a mayoral vacancy crop up—which happened in 2006 and in 2010—becomes mayor.
While Young says that “right now, I want to be the best City Council president I can be,” he doesn’t disavow having mayoral aspirations. “Every councilperson’s ambition is to be mayor one day,” he claims—and for him, at least, it’s been true since 1996, when he first joined the council by appointment, to fill a vacant seat. He said then that “maybe someday I can be mayor,” noting that he’s already called “mayor” around his East Baltimore neighborhood. Today—and, if he wins the election, for the next four years—Young is one step away from that goal.
This is Young’s first citywide race. Running against him in the Sept. 13 primary are four rival Democrats: Leon Winthly Hector Sr., Thomas Kiefaber, Charles U. Smith, and Renold B. Smith. The winner will be on the Nov. 8 general-election ballot, facing whoever prevails in the two-way Republican primary between Armand F. Girard and David Anthony Wiggins, and the Libertarian candidate, Lorenzo Gaztañaga.
Young, 57, says he was surprised that no seasoned veterans threw their hats in the ring. “I thought I might have seen somebody from the [City] Council or the state legislature” file against him, he says. “They all must think I’m doing a very good job.”
Or they may have been scared off by Young’s fundraising prowess. His campaign account hasn’t dipped below $100,000 since 2006, and as of the most recent campaign finance reports filed in mid-August, held nearly $350,000—more than big-name Democratic mayoral candidates Otis Rolley, Jody Landers, and Frank Conaway Sr. combined. By comparison, Rawlings-Blake had less than $100,000 on hand at this point in her successful 2007 City Council president bid in a hotly contested four-way primary contest featuring two other heavy hitters—Michael Sarbanes, the son of former U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, and the late City Councilmember Kenneth Harris.
This year’s big-ticket donors to Young’s campaign include developers, construction companies, unions, shipping companies, financial firms, nightclubs, liquor stores, towing companies, and other politicians—two in particular: Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and former state Sen. George Della Jr. (D), whose campaigns each gave $2,000.
Young, while enjoying the luxury of being loaded, downplays the importance of money in politics. “I don’t think fundraising is the key,” he says. “People vote. The money—all that does is get your message out.”
His challengers don’t have that luxury. Most of them have raised virtually no money. After Young, the next highest amount of campaign cash is in the hands of Renold Smith, with $1,184.03. The only other Democrat to file a report, Hector, had a negative balance of -$81.18; the rest filed affidavits saying they’d raised and spent less than $1,000, as did the two Republicans. Gaztañaga, the Libertarian, formed his campaign committee earlier this month, and his first report isn’t due until early September.
Renold Smith, 61, says he’s running because he senses that “there’s a little bit of corruption” in City Hall, which he claims is putting the interests of developers and other monied interests over those of regular citizens. The retired supervisor with the U.S. Postal Service is a lifelong Baltimore resident, and says, “I feel City Hall needs some new leadership,” and promises, if elected, “to strategize with each and every councilmember for what is best for the people.” He explains his 2007 drunken-driving conviction by saying he exercised “poor judgment” in following through on a promise to take his daughter to get her driver’s license the morning after a retirement party. “I should have called her and canceled,” he explains. “It’s one of the very few bad decisions that I’ve made.”
The first thing Hector, 61, says when asked why he seeks to be City Council president is that “I have 12 grandkids, and 10 of them are in Baltimore City public schools, and if I don’t stand up for my grandkids, I can’t leave a legacy for them, or for the other children of Baltimore City.” He retired in 2008 from Loyola University, where he was construction-project manager, and he’s shocked by the poor state of the city’s school facilities. “The schools,” he says, “have an atmosphere of jail, and that’s where the students will think they belong” unless the facilities are dramatically improved. Hector, who ran unsuccessfully last year for state delegate in the 43rd District, says, “I will be a president for all people. My main thing is that we have to have a better Baltimore.”
This is the 10th time that Charles U. Smith, a 61-year-old disabled Vietnam War veteran, has run for elected office in Baltimore City, and the second time he’s filed to become City Council president. His campaigns started in 1998, when he ran as a Republican for city comptroller, and continued in the years since, including five stabs at winning a seat in the U.S. Congress and one each at becoming Maryland governor and Baltimore City mayor. His reason for running, he says, is the same as it’s always been: “The representation just isn’t what it needs to be. We need more efficient management, and I could be the one who could best do that.”
Tom Kiefaber, the former proprietor of the Senator Theatre, a historic single-screen movie house in Govans, could not be reached for comment for this article. City Paper tried to reach him and his former campaign treasurer, Kyana Beckles, via e-mails and phone messages, to no avail. Since the struggling theater went into foreclosure in 2009, and later was bought by the city and leased to its current operators, Kiefaber has been a strident critic of City Hall. Earlier this summer, his conduct at two City Hall hearings prompted City Solicitor George Nilson to put conditions on Kiefaber entering the building: He must give 24 hours’ notice and be escorted by someone inside who’s expecting him to visit. In addition, a city judge in July, acting on complaints from the Senator’s new operators, ordered Kiefaber to stay away from the Senator and the Charles Theatre (whose proprietors now run the Senator) for six months; he’s scheduled for an Aug. 30 trial on second-degree assault charges.
Of the challengers, Young says he doesn’t understand why they’re trying to unseat him, asserting that “none of them have political experience.” He enthusiastically touts his experience, though, saying, “I’m accessible, I’m dependable, I’m efficient, and I’m doing everything a councilperson or council president is supposed to do. Baltimore’s best days are ahead of us, and people are going to see great things coming out of that City Council” in the years to come, he promises.
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