City Councilmember Helen Holton survives legal troubles to face challengers in the 8th District
Published: August 24, 2011
Last month, the Maryland Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s dismissal of bribery and perjury charges against City Councilmember Helen Holton (D-8th District). The ruling was a long-awaited piece of good news for Holton, who is seeking re-election. In 2009, she was indicted by a grand jury; state prosecutors had accused her of accepting $12,500 from developers John Paterakis Sr. and Ronald Lipscomb for a campaign poll, in exchange for voting for tax breaks for one of their projects. Holton pleaded no contest to a campaign finance violation—candidates are limited to donations of $4,000 or less from any one individual during a four-year election cycle—and paid a $2,500 fine as a result, but until the recent ruling, the more serious bribery charges remained unresolved. Despite the decision in her favor, the case continues to provide ammunition for her three opponents in the upcoming primary.
“I don’t wish any kind of hardship on anybody, but I still think that as a public or elected official you’re held to a higher standard,” candidate David Smallwood says. “The charges may have been dismissed but that doesn’t mean she didn’t participate in what was brought against her.”
“There’s kind of like a gentleman’s nod going on down there,” candidate Haki Shakur Ammi says, “like, OK, you got away with this one.”
“[Holton’s] a microcosm of what I think is the bigger problem in Baltimore,” candidate Dayvon Love says, “which is that many public officials have very close relationships with developers.”
Holton, for her part, has called her prolonged legal problems a case of “public persecution.” She says she did nothing wrong. “I wasn’t the one that wrote the check [from the developers],” she says. “I didn’t see it. It never crossed my hands.”
Holton has been in office since 1995, and financially speaking, she has the edge. According to recent campaign finance reports, she has about $16,500 in her campaign kitty and has spent another $13,000 on campaign expenses this year. Smallwood, who has run against Holton twice before, has spent more than $16,000 on his campaign, with about $2,000 remaining. Love, the youngest candidate for office in the city at 24 years old, has brought in about $2,400. First-time candidate Ammi hasn’t raised enough to warrant a campaign finance report; he says supporters have donated about $200.
The district these candidates are vying for occupies a big chunk of West and Southwest Baltimore. It includes leafy middle-class enclaves such as Dickeyville, Hunting Ridge—home to former mayor Sheila Dixon—and West Hills, where Holton resides. But the district also has its share of neighborhoods such Edmondson Village, which struggles with blight and crime. Due to this year’s redistricting, triggered by the 2010 Census, the 8th lost three precincts in the south—including Violetville and part of Morrell Park—and gained three in the north that border Forest Park Golf Course. According to census figures, the 8th District has the largest proportion of African-American residents of any district in the city, at more than 89 percent; about 8 percent of the residents are white.
Holton, 51, is a certified public accountant and works as a finance administrator at a local accounting firm; she holds an MBA from Johns Hopkins University. She was previously chair of the City Council’s powerful Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, but after she pleaded no contest to campaign finance violation charges in October 2010, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) removed her from the position. As a legislator, Holton is a frequent sponsor of resolutions and only sparingly puts forward bills. “We have a lot of laws on the books already,” she says, “and rather than sponsor more laws that we’re challenged with enforcing, I’d rather start with a resolution process so we can really look at [if we will] benefit from the law.”
In June, for instance, Holton sponsored a resolution to investigate “how the City can best leverage its purchasing expenditures to encourage the growth of local, small, and disadvantaged businesses.” While short on specifics, the resolution encourages the council and city agencies to look into how other cities manage their small-business enterprise programs and subsequently design a program appropriate for Baltimore. “The big push is to get people in Baltimore City working,” Holton says.
Asked what she’s proudest of from her last few years on the council, Holton points to more concrete endeavors. She cites the completion of the Edgewood Recreation Center, which opened in 2005. Holton says she successfully convinced then Mayor Martin O’Malley to invest a million dollars in the center when the project ran out of funds. The rec center was the first to open in Baltimore in more than 30 years. She says she was also instrumental in making Edmondson Village part of the city’s Healthy Neighborhood Initiative, which helps struggling neighborhoods market their communities. (Holton cited this same accomplishment for a City Paper article on the 2007 race: “Behind the 8th Ball,” Campaign Beat, Aug. 1, 2007) And she touts having brought a satellite Community Action Center to the district, where residents can resolve problems and obtain resources from a variety of city agencies.
Holton says that if re-elected her priorities will be tackling vacant housing, creating jobs, and finding ways to shift funding to “youth opportunities,” such as after-school programming, rec centers, and summer jobs.
David Maurice Smallwood, 49, ran against Holton in both 2003 and 2007. (He garnered 25 percent of the vote out of a field of seven in the 2003 primary; in 2007, he came in second with 22 percent of the vote in a field of five.) Smallwood worked for the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks for 22 years in a variety of capacities, including director of the Ralph J. Young Recreation Center for nearly a decade. He currently works for the state’s Department of Juvenile Services as a recreation specialist. Smallwood is a certified “gang liaison” with the department, and says his long experience with young people makes him a good candidate for office. “A lot of the violence and the murders that occur in Baltimore City against our young people, the basis and the root of it has a lot to do with the gang culture,” he says. “What I would do is bring education to the community because people have to understand what’s around them.”
Smallwood, an Uplands resident, says he would like to “bring education, prevention, and intervention” to the 8th District, through educational forums on gangs for parents and enlisting “OGs” who have “extricated themselves from the gang culture” to work with young people. He’d also like to start a mentorship program for juvenile first-time offenders, introducing them to “men in their lives who are going to help guide them and teach them about manhood.” And Smallwood says he’s interested in “talking to labor” about creating apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs to train people for trades in which they can make a living wage.
Dayvon Love has gotten some grief during his first campaign for public office. “Some people are like, ‘You are so young, how do you think you could possibly know what you’re doing?’” he says. “After talking to people, they generally come around, because they see it’s something I have some skills in that lend themselves to being an effective councilperson.” Love, who has one class remaining to complete his bachelor’s degree in African-American Studies at Towson University, has won several national awards in intercollegiate policy debate. “I figure I’ve got all these skills, and I’m thinking about structural issues and public policy, I might as well use them where they matter,” he says.
Love, a resident of Howard Park, says his experience with “grassroots activism” will come in equally handy. Last year he helped co-found Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, which he calls a “community-based think tank.” (It’s not yet an official entity, he says.) “One of the things that’s lacking in Baltimore is rigorous academic scholarship on public policy that is independent from the influence of big funders,” he says. “So we attempt to try and provide an independent voice.” The group recently joined with other youth organizations such as the Baltimore Algebra Project to protest the building of a new juvenile detention center in the city.
Love says it was “necessity” that drove him to run for office. “The cloth that many of the public officials that are currently in leadership are cut from is one that I don’t think is most representative of the people,” he says. If elected he says there are two main areas he would focus on first. Bringing jobs to residents by encouraging local hiring is one of them. Love says that though it is illegal to mandate local hiring for big projects in the city, there are “legislative ways to incentivize it.” The stumbling block, he says, is that the campaigns of those in office are supported by those who do not have it in their “best interests financially to support local hiring.” (Love would also like to introduce the city to the concept of Community Benefits Agreements—in which developers sign a contract with community groups agreeing to concessions in exchange for support of a given project. “I think that communities in Baltimore have very little concept that they hold that power,” Love says.)
As for the education piece, Love says he would like the city to partner with both nonprofits and for-profits to provide vocational and entrepreneurial programming in schools. “We have a lot of young people who have the entrepreneurial spirit but don’t have the formal tools and training in how to run and manage a business,” he says.
Haki Shakur Ammi, 37, a city firefighter and paramedic, says he decided to run for office because he “heard the citizens of Baltimore ask for new leadership.” Ammi previously worked for the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development as an employment advocate and job developer, and he says his experience there taught him “what it really takes for persons to be gainfully employed.”
If elected, Ammi, a Yale Heights resident, says he would push for Council hearings on employment discrimination. “There needs to be a major discussion, particularly around African-American males,” he says. He calls himself a “holistic individual” and says he’d like to bring a vegetarian store to the 8th District where “people can get quality prepared food that could reduce some of the ailments that I see as a paramedic.” And Ammi believes Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III should be removed from office in the wake of scandals such as the recent corruption case in which an officer was charged with dealing drugs in a police station parking lot. “I think it starts at the top, the corruption and the kind of mob mentality in Baltimore,” he says.
In researching this article, a CP reporter found several derogatory comments about Jews and homosexuals that Ammi had posted to Facebook, including: “It’s nothing deep about. Jews control it. They hate and want to kill Black People.” Another read: “WTF, Gay Day. Damn, We are being attacked in all directions.” Ammi stands by his comments. Of homosexuality, he says, “I don’t think black people should acknowledge these things as something that we should accept.” Ammi says he believes “Jewish persons . . . control various media” and were involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He cites a book published by the Nation of Islam called The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican candidate Dennis Betzel in the general election. Betzel is a project manager for a local software company.
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