Nine in the 9th
Challengers line up to take on the 9th District's appointed incumbent
Published: July 27, 2011
Late last year, City Councilmember Agnes Welch retired after seven terms in office, totaling 27 years. She had not completed her last term as representative for the 9th District, so the Council appointed a temporary successor. It chose her son and longtime aide, William “Pete” Welch, despite complaints of nepotism and without a unanimous vote. Now the end of Welch’s appointed term is nigh, and eight Democrats have filed to run against him in the Democratic primary, more candidates than in any other city race.
Welch, 58, an accountant who worked for his mother for more than 20 years, says he has the experience and conflict-resolution skills to continue to serve the district. But his appointment was controversial. In 2000, he pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and several gun violations for firing a gun during an argument with a campaign worker over $40 in “walk-around” money. He told police at the time that he fired the gun to restore order, but under questioning from the Council early this year, he said the gun misfired. “If you want to know the truth,” Welch says now, “I really don’t remember the incident.”
In 2004, Welch pleaded guilty to submitting false campaign finance information. As treasurer for his mother’s campaign, he had submitted the same campaign finance report for several years in a row. “It was my intent to correct them, because I looked at them and said, ‘Oh, this is crazy,’” he says. “It was a horrible oversight and one I tried to correct but couldn’t correct in time.”
Welch says he aims for an “empowered and improved community.” He is particularly focused on looking outside government for “strategic alliances and partnerships,” and says he has “a technical perspective” on the Council that other candidates don’t, from his years working as an aide. He has raised about $26,000, he says. Welch has widespread name recognition in the 9th District because of his mother’s many years in office, and with so many candidates, the opposition could split the vote, leaving him his seat. But with the blemishes on his record and the typically low voter turnout in the 9th—less than 5,000 people voted in the 2007 primary—it could be a close race.
The 9th District, which occupies a large swath of Southwest Baltimore, is the most populous in the city. According to 2010 Census data, 88 percent of the nearly 47,000 residents are African-American, and 9 percent are white. The district includes many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, as well as areas like Union Square and Hollins Market, which, though still struggling, have middle-class pockets. Nearly half of Baltimore’s vacant properties are in the 9th, and more than one-sixth of the city’s residents currently in prison are from the district.
All four of those who applied for the vacancy when Agnes Welch retired—including her son—are running in the primary. Michael Eugene Johnson, 55, is the political veteran of the bunch, having run for a Council seat several times in previous decades, as well as in the 9th in 2007. (He got about 1,100 votes to Agnes Welch’s approximately 3,200.) He is known for founding the Heritage Cinema, a now-defunct movie theater devoted to African-American films. Johnson, a Mosher resident, previously worked for the city in small-business development, is former state director of the Black United Fund, and founded the Paul Robeson Institute, which he says conducts research in impoverished neighborhoods.
Johnson met a City Paper reporter on the 600 block of North Brice Street, which is composed almost entirely of boarded-up buildings. “I actually come here for my inspiration a lot, believe it or not,” he says. He can envision an artist colony here, brought in through economic incentives. (Johnson helped lead the push for Station North to become an official arts and entertainment district.) He’d like to see high school students learn vocational skills through fixing up city-owned vacant properties, and says he’d fight for local hiring by developers. Johnson is fond of comparing the 9th District to New Orleans’ 9th Ward, post-Hurricane Katrina. “We know that the 9th District hasn’t received the same types of services, and it has to do with leadership,” he says. Johnson says he’s raised about $15,000.
Abigail Breiseth, 42, was the only candidate aside from Welch to be nominated for final consideration during the vacancy hearings. (She received three votes from City Council members, to Welch’s 10.) A Hollins Market resident, Breiseth is a special-education teacher and co-founder of the Southwest Baltimore Charter School. This is her first run for public office, but she says 20 years of teaching has shown her how “systems and institutions and societal forces and historic injustice” affect the lives of children, and the adults they become. Education is key to her, but she defines that word broadly, she says. “It’s about ongoing experiences that help people be better advocates for themselves—as tenants, employees, entrepreneurs, taxpayers.” Breiseth says, for instance, that she would fight for more funding for schools, but also for ex-offender re-entry and adult-education programs. Such efforts will help boost employment, she says, as will changing the way city contracts are bid out, so that companies that commit to hiring residents are given preference. Breiseth says she has raised just over $20,000.
Another teacher, John Bullock, 32, applied for the vacant Council seat early this year. Bullock, a resident of the Evergreen Lawn neighborhood and vice president of the Evergreen Protective Association, is an assistant professor at Towson University, where he teaches courses in local and national government. He previously worked as a planner in the Washington, D.C. Department of Transportation, and says his experience is “particularly germane” to the position. “I can understand the jargon, how the system works, but also put it to use for neighborhoods that don’t normally get that kind of representation,” he says. Bullock says those skills will be especially useful when it comes to projects like the proposed Red Line transit project, which he says could help create safe public spaces in the district. He would like the city to offer vacant properties to community groups at discounted cost, and provide more enrichment programs for youth. And he emphasizes that he shares voters’ concerns, as a resident himself. Two years ago, he was attacked by three pit bulls while walking his dog. “It’s not just abstract,” he says, holding up his ring finger, which remains a bit stiff from the attack. “I live here too.” Bullock says he’s raised “several thousands of dollars.”
Chris Taylor, a 35-year-old Union Square resident, invites a City Paper reporter into a neighborhood house his development company recently rebuilt and put on the market. The former site of a vacant building is now a grand three-story affair with luxury amenities such as built-in bookshelves and marble countertops. Taylor raises the blinds to reveal the shell of a crumbling vacant next-door. Taylor says his company, Urban Space Developers, has refurbished numerous formerly vacant houses in the 9th District and sold all that were put on the market. “You’re selling a vision of where you want [the neighborhood] to go,” he says.
The former president of the Union Square Association, Taylor taught at a district middle school—where he co-created the Leadership Academy for troubled youth—before entering the real estate business. He has a four-part plan to improve the district. He wants to reduce the number of vacant houses, partly by creating strategic plans for each neighborhood; to reduce crime, in part through increasing the number of officers in uniform; to create jobs, partly by helping small businesses gain preferential access to government contracts; and to reduce the property-tax rate. He’s fed up with the “endemic corruption” he sees in the city, and says he’ll neither seek endorsements nor fill out questionnaires for special-interest groups. He declines to say how much money he’s raised.
Taylor had a run-in with the law in late 2009, when he was arrested for disturbing the peace. According to an e-mail from Taylor that was posted on examiner.com shortly after the incident, two young girls had come to his house seeking help after being assaulted. Taylor states that he called 911 on their behalf but when the police arrived, they refused to talk to him, telling him to “mind [his own] business.” When Taylor protested, he says the police called for backup and then handcuffed him. Then, he writes, they “abusively felt my genitals and went up between my butt cheeks” as part of a pat-down; he writes that shortly thereafter he called one of the officers a “faggot.” He says now that he regrets having said the word and meant no offense to anyone, but was incensed by what he saw as an unjust arrest. “It wouldn’t have happened if I lived in Roland Park,” he says. (The charges against Taylor were dropped.)
Taylor and Quianna Cooke, another candidate, briefly worked together at the same school, William H. Lemmel Middle School. Cooke, 62, was principal there for several years. Before becoming an administrator, she taught in the district for 25 years. A resident of the Bridgeview/Greenlawn neighborhood, she also served on the Democratic State Central Committee for a term and then lost a bid for re-election in 2010. A lifelong resident of what is now the 9th District, Cooke says she’s running because she’s disappointed. “I entrusted [the district] to elected officials who I feel allowed this decay I see,” she says. Cooke says she would overhaul 311, punish absentee landlords through fines and other penalties, and spend time educating community organizations, “giving them the basics.” On her campaign web site, she alludes to “a motivational conversation with the then-sitting Councilwoman Agnes Welch,” which helped her decide to run. Cooke declines to say how much money she has raised.
Waymon LeFall’s barbershop in the Midtown-Edmondson neighborhood doubles as his campaign headquarters, as well as his home. (He lives upstairs, with his well-groomed toy poodle.) At 73 years old, LeFall is a political newcomer. Here and there, photos of lawn jockeys hang on the shop’s walls. Several years ago, LeFall wrote a children’s book about Jocko Graves, who some believe was the inspiration for the lawn jockey (“Jockeying for Respect,” Books, Jan. 21, 2004). (In the story, Jocko is a hero, and the lawn jockey a monument to his bravery.) LeFall points to other photos on display, these of former students; according to LeFall, many now own barbershops. “We need trades,” he says. He’d like to develop other apprenticeship programs in the district, bring computer-training centers to the district, and put together a community newspaper, among other efforts. He also declines to say exactly how much money he’s raised.
Carrollton Ridge resident Derwin Hannah, 48, is a self-described “jack of all trades.” Hannah works part time at the Maryland Food Bank, is a full-time truck driver, and DJs at school dances. He says he’s running because since he moved here from South Carolina 15 years ago, he’s seen “a steady decline in the community.” He says he’d like to bring all the community associations together periodically, to talk with property owners about “some kind of rent control,” and to bring job fairs to the district rather than holding them in other parts of the city. He says he’s trying to run “a low-budget campaign,” but declined to give a number.
Janet Bailey, 49, says she’s lived in the 9th District her whole life and “it’s always been one name—Welch, Welch, Welch.” A Mosher resident, Bailey says she’s running because she wants to bring resources—including rec centers and stores—to the 9th. She says owners of abandoned properties ought to receive a $5,000 fine. A former abstinence educator who is now majoring in human services at Baltimore City Community College, Bailey says she’s raised very little money. But she isn’t worried about that, or her lack of experience in public office. “It’s time to bring in some people who don’t know too much about politics, who can learn the ins and outs the right way,” she says. “We have too many people who know the ins and outs the crooked way.”
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