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Mobtown Beat

Indifferent Stokes?

Carl Stokes bags his mayoral bid to try to retain 12th District Council seat

Photo: Carl Stokes, License: N/A

Carl Stokes


“Stokes for mayor!” chirps the young woman who answers the telephone at Carl Stokes’ 12th District City Council campaign office in the late morning of July 6. Asked for the candidate, who is running for City Council, the woman takes a phone number and promises to get back to a reporter.

It is, perhaps, an understandable reaction. Just a day earlier, Stokes was running for mayor, not trying to keep the 12th District Council seat he was appointed to in 2010 when it was vacated by Bernard C. “Jack” Young on his appointment to the Council presidency.

“It’s an intern there who is probably not aware,” Stokes says by phone later in the day about the receptionist still answering the phone for his mayoral campaign.

The councilmember’s last-minute entry into the crowded field vying for the 12th, which encompasses the neighborhoods within about a half mile of Greenmount Cemetery on the city’s east side, took the other seven contenders by surprise. It also changes the dynamic of a race heretofore dominated by political newcomers like De’Von Brown.

Brown, a slightly built man with a lilting voice, ushers a reporter into his home at 1722 N. Caroline St.—the house, he pointedly says, that he has lived in since the age of three, his grandmother’s house where he lives with a sister and brothers.

Brown declared his candidacy for the 12th District seat on April 15. The 21-year-old film student at MICA is the youngest of eight candidates. His one brush with fame to date came as a co-star in The Boys of Baraka, the 2005 documentary.

Brown decries the politics as usual that dynastic leadership has produced: “Nothing changed in this district since the ’90s,” he says, pointing across the street at two abandoned three-story rowhouses that bookend an occupied third house. One has empty window frames, and Brown says it’s been that way for nearly a decade.

“I’ve been part of the community. I live here. I know the struggles people go through,” Brown says. “I know what it’s like to have a drug-addicted mother. I know what it’s like to be in foster care, to struggle to keep the lights on.”

Brown walks down his street and points to disheveled yards behind two empty houses, contrasting them with that of a neighbor he calls Miss Ann. “But she’s the one who gets a ticket if there’s an extra trash bag on top” of the can, he says. Brown says he would submit a bill that would give landlords a time frame, say, six months, to get their place fixed up, or they would face fines. But they would not pay property taxes until the renovated units were rented.

Brown pledges to get police to live in the community—or at least know the people there better. He says he would reinstitute twice-weekly trash pickup with savings cut from City Hall—printing fees, for instance. “I want people to think about not just the names” in the 12th District race, he says, “but ask themselves, ‘What have they done for me lately?’”

Jason Curtis thinks: not much. The president of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association and a downtown hotel manager is uncomfortable just being in the 12th District. He and his midtown neighbors were in the 11th District until this year.

“Politics is never something I thought I would go into until the recent redistricting,” Curtis says. “Knowing there’s nothing we could do about it . . . we said, What are we going to do—me mostly—to make sure we had good representation in the Council?” And thus a candidacy was born.

“As a small-business manager, I understand the concerns of small business,” Curtis says. “We need to retain those small businesses so they can help our employment numbers” by hiring locals. He also wants to bring the crime rate down and impose “special fees and fines and penalties” on vacant “properties that are not being utilized.”

Curtis says he can raise $100,000 to win the seat if necessary and, having spent years immersed in Mount Vernon’s neighborhood politics, he’s keen to campaign in the rest of the district. “You’ve got to learn what people want,” he says. “I need to get out there and continually learn their thoughts, ideas, and opinions.”

Odette Ramos has spent much of the past decade doing just that, and she has done plenty for folks in the district lately, citing restored street lighting on the 1900 block of Cecil Avenue and vacant lot mowing. “I know the city is understaffed,” she says, “but there’s no excuse.”

And that’s a campaign slogan for the 38-year-old Rutgers University-educated consultant to nonprofits who is running her first political campaign. Ramos has perhaps the most organized campaign among the challengers, with colorful signs, a big campaign office on East 25th Street, and regular e-mail blasts to supporters and media. She boasts support from 43rd District state Del. Maggie McIntosh and 14th District Councilmember Mary Pat Clarke. She has spent the past decade learning the political ropes, first as a founder of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, an initiative allied with the city Planning Department to gather data about the strengths and needs of neighborhoods, and later as president of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Despite Stokes’ entry into the race as an incumbent, “Everyone is still on board,” Ramos says of her supporters. “Certainly it makes it a little bit more challenging, but I have to say he has not ever campaigned in this district, not recently anyway, because he was appointed to the seat.”

Ramos uses the word “strategic” a lot. Her campaign is strategic, she says, and the initiatives she plans will be also. “There’s the real need to really be strategic about getting the vacant houses . . . into the hands of someone who is going to do the work,” Ramos says, detailing a system of transactions by which vacant homes are transferred to housing court, then to a nonprofit that auctions them to qualified rehabbers. “That has happened in a number of places around the district,” she says. “I want to make sure that is done in the district.”

The small contractors would hire local workers, she says, to rehab the houses in neighborhoods that can support the redevelopment. “In other cases you just gotta knock the darn thing down,” she concludes. “We’ve just got to be more strategic about it.”

Ramos calls Stokes a friend. But she says she’s hearing from voters that not enough is being done in the district, “and that has motivated me even more and more that this is the right move for me . . . and for the City Council.” Ramos plans to raise $80,000 to win the council seat. That works out to more than $27 per vote, if turnout is similar to 2007.

“It makes me sad that she’s going to do that, because we could use that money in our community,” Ertha Harris says. “This is a community where people are looking for money every day.”

Harris agitated to be appointed to the City Council seat last year, bringing dozens of people to a City Council hearing that was supposed to help councilmembers learn about the contestants for the open seat. “I brought 85 people down there,” she says. “I had professional black men there, I had community there, ’cause I had showed them the process. And a lot of people were really disappointed that City Council didn’t listen, to not only me but the other people.”

Harris, a nonaccountant who runs a tax-preparation service, says she has been organizing in the community since the Million Man March of 1995. She says her group, an offshoot of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Millions More Movement, brings speakers to Sojourner-Douglass College to educate the community.

As a councilmember, she says, “I would prioritize education, because not only do we need education for our kids to get great jobs, but we need political education so our community can solve their own problems. When a community is illiterate they become complacent.”

Robert Stokes, a third-term elected member of the Democratic State Central Committee, also vied for the open 12th District seat last year, and he too was aced by Carl Stokes—who is no relation.

Today Robert Stokes serves as an aid to Councilmember Stokes, so when people call Carl Stokes’ City Council office to complain about unjust trash tickets, vacant houses, or crazy water bills, they often end up speaking to Robert Stokes. Lately he’s taken a lot of complaints about crazy water bills, he says.

“I know a gentleman who got a bill for $548,” Stokes says. “And he got another one three months later for the same amount.”

Robert Stokes says he has been getting water bills fixed for constituents for the past year. “It’s an issue,” he says. “Any time someone can take your house for a water bill. We need to go to the legislators in Annapolis” to reform that law.

Stokes says the usual things about what needs to be done for the district: more youth programs, more recreation centers, lower taxes. “I think you pay for it by looking at city government—look for waste. And a lot of developers in the city, they aren’t paying taxes on property. Some of them, the city offered them TIFs,” he says, referring to tax increment financing, wherein property taxes paid are dedicated to paying back money borrowed to finance the project. “I heard some developers say if the city lowered property taxes they wouldn’t take the TIFs. If we take the same thing we give developers and give them to the community, then you get a better tax base because they redevelop it.”

Robert Stokes says he’s been handling community complaints for decades. “I ran the mayor station at Oliver for [former Mayor] Kurt Schmoke,” he says. “I worked for [former City Council president] Lawrence Bell. People got to be comfortable with you and trust you. When they ask you to do something, it gets done.”

Frank W. Richardson says he’s running, again, “because I’ve always been inspired to bring about positive change.”

The 38-year-old Johns Hopkins University campus safety and security officer and youth minister earned more than 500 votes in a three-way race for the seat in 2007. Along with public safety (street lighting, foot patrols), “My priority would be education and schools,” Richardson says.

In addition to better recreation options, Richardson says he would advocate for more vocational training, as well as tax incentives for companies that hire, say, at least 100 city residents. Richardson says he knows about managing people from disparate cultures. As a safety and security officer, he says he has hired more than 120 part-time dispatchers and drivers, some from the ranks of students, some from the community. “I’ve learned a lot from it,” he says. He also earned two Student Employer of the Year awards and, most recently, Supervisor of the Year.

Richardson says he specializes in connecting people with resources they need. “We have a ton of resources, to be honest with you,” he says.” I would specialize in connecting the dots.”

Richardson says he hopes to raise $15,000, “maybe $20,000, just enough for some mailings.” He says he’s not intimidated by the crowded field or the incumbent. “You want the status quo, vote for them,” he says. “You want change, vote for me.”

Jermaine Jones is a 27-year-old Syracuse University political science graduate who says he came home to Baltimore and found positive change. “My grandparents lived here,” he says. His grandmother decided to move into a rehabbed home on the 1500 block of Bond Street. There were, he says, 20 abandoned homes on that and the 1400 block.

“My uncle bought one, then another when I got back from school,” says Jones, who took a job with the Laborer’s International Union of North America (LIUNA). “My uncle [Lloyd Williams of the Verde Group], he does most of the development. I’m a community organizer. The thing is to get people to buy back into your community. I bought one back from him. . . . When I came home, I had my eyes opened.”

Jones expects to raise around $50,000 to win the seat, with an upper goal of $70,000. If elected to City Council, “I would like to see an incentive to hire people who live in the city,” he says. “So that’s the first thing I want to promote.”

Jones would promote legislation to make it easier for the city to take over abandoned buildings and hand them over to developers like his uncle. “The city will say they can’t find the owner, so they can’t do anything. But they take your house for your water bill,” he says.

Jones’ family had to take on the drug dealers who had infested the 1500 block of Bond, he says, and they did that with cooperation from the police. He says it wasn’t that difficult. “Once you let police know that you like to see them there, they’re a little more willing to drive though your neighborhood,” he says, adding that youth recreation and education programs would also be a priority.

Today the 1500 block of Bond is touted as a success story in the district. In an interview, Carl Stokes takes credit for helping to clear away the bureaucratic and financing hurdles. “I’ve been central in rebuilding the 1400 and 1500s block of Bond Street that were sets for The Wire,” Stokes says. “They were two blocks that were heavily drug-used, and drug-trafficked. We brought in some developers in there who rebuilt, and now we’re selling homes for close to $200,000 over there, and we’re rebuilding the Oliver community.”

Stokes says he supports “incentives for developers who are going to hire local people,” which he contrasts with the big-ticket downtown development incentives he’s opposed. “They could use money the same way the Ritz-Carlton gets $45 million of taxpayer money,” he says. Stokes has also spoken up about the 800 families who were relocated from the East Baltimore Development Initiative redevelopment area, promised new and better housing that has not yet materialized in the troubled project. “So I’ve been strong to say, since I been back, this is nonsense. . . . If I’m here you’re gonna rebuild homes.”

Summing up his decision to run to keep his Council seat, Stokes says, “We just want to keep the 12th strong. There are people who will be running saying the 12th is neglected . . . which is nonsensical. I was the guy, when the mayor said, ‘I’m gonna close half the rec centers and some schools,’ I was the guy who went out on the streets and said, ‘No you’re not’ and, guess what, we didn’t close any.”

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