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Two challengers for 1st District—but Jim Kraft has all the money

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James Kraft

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Jason Kahler

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Helene Luce

First District City Councilmember James Kraft has served eight years in office in one of the city’s most dynamic and diverse districts. The neighborhoods of Fells Point, Canton, Highlandtown, Little Italy, Harbor East, and Patterson Park have grown during the past decade, buoyed by the housing boom and an influx of Hispanic immigrants, as well as major developments such as 1st Mariner Tower and, well, Harbor East. In this year’s Democratic primary election, Kraft faces two challengers, both political newcomers, both schoolteachers. Both say that Kraft is not sufficiently responsive to community concerns and has acquiesced to high property taxes. Neither challenger, however, is so far running the kind of aggressive campaign that shook up the last election.

Jason Kahler, 35, is a Baltimore native (he says his great grandfather came here in 1891) who has lived all over town and went to college in California, He spent 10 years in sales and marketing and then applied for the Baltimore City Teaching Residency program and became a teacher last year.

He teaches law in the Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts in Sandtown, a public high school established in 2004 and currently ranked a one out of 10 on the Great Schools web site. “We were a turnaround school,” he says. “This year we had an 82 percent graduation rate.” Kahler says his students encouraged him to run for City Council.

“This is basically why I’m running—we need to create a community in Baltimore,” Kahler says. “Do you know what happened last week in Baltimore? Two hundred people left! And the week before that, 200 people left! And the week before that, and the week before that.”

The exodus is easy to understand: “As soon as you find out you’re having a child, it’s time to get out of the city,” says Kahler, who has a 9-month-old son, “because of the schools, high crime, and taxes.”

Kahler and his wife paid $250,000 for a two-story rowhouse on Baylis Street in 2007. The house assessed at less than $230,000 this year, yet Kahler says his property-tax bill keeps rising. He pays more than $400 per month just in taxes—about what a place like that would rent for a decade ago. “We need property-tax relief for citizens who are doing the right thing,” Kahler says, adding that a dollar-auction giveaway of surplus city-owned houses (“to any takers”), combined with a 10 percent annual tax on vacant units, would spur redevelopment.

“Kraft will continue to develop this area, but he won’t create a community,” Kahler says. “This city has this huge divide, with million-dollar condos on Key Highway and children sleeping in vacant buildings in Sandtown.”

Kahler says Kraft and his high-priced campaign staff have broken the law by posting signs too early (he cites the law that says no signs can be posted until July 16). He also contends Kraft’s experience and fundraising are questionable. “Why does he need $100,000—$50 per vote—to win a $40,000 job?” Kahler asks. (Councilmembers are actually paid a base salary of $57,000.) “Raising that much should cause alarms, not support.”

Helene Luce, 53, lives four blocks from Kraft. During an interview, Kraft pays her the ultimate backhanded compliment, saying she “has been very generous in her campaign. There has been no negative campaigning.” And Luce returns the favor during an interview at City Paper. “I like Jim,” she says. “I don’t have anything against him personally.”

But Luce says her Patterson Park neighbors are not getting the constituent service they expected. “I feel he’s been more reactive than proactive,” Luce says of Kraft. “I’m from the old school. I return phone calls.”

Born in New York City and raised in New Jersey, Luce says she has lived all over the East Coast. She came to Baltimore several years ago to tutor the young actors on the set of The Wire, and stayed because of the sense of community she found. She is also a lawyer who taught in Virginia public schools for 11 years.

Asked how much money she plans to raise for the campaign, Luce calls it a tough question. “I know what I need,” she says. “I don’t know if I can raise it.”

The number is $50,000, she finally says. But if she doesn’t collect that much, “I’m very good at stretching a dollar.”

Luce says she would look for waste and bloat in city government to fund property-tax cuts. “We have the fifth-largest Housing Authority for the 26th-largest city,” Luce says. “Do we need 15 City Council members? We could get by with nine.”

Luce would charge the owners of vacant houses a 10 percent property-tax rate, an idea that has been in force in Washington, D.C., since 2009 and seems to be all the rage among Baltimore candidates this year. “You own a $3,000 house, the guy pays $65 a year in property taxes,” Luce says. “That’s less than a parking ticket.”

Though Luce says the biggest crime she sees on her street is “people not picking up after their dog,” she knows many people experience things differently. “It doesn’t do us any good to have Baltimore Street be safe and Fayette Street be a war zone.”

Kraft says getting people to feel safe in their homes is one of his major priorities. “And I really distinguish between feeling safe and being safe,” he says. “We can show the statistics—90 percent of murders aren’t random. Break-ins are down . . . but if someone breaks in next door or someone steals your bike from the backyard, it’s a crime wave.”

Over coffee on July 12, Kraft looks relaxed. “I have a plan,” he says. “We’ve gone through almost 18,000 pieces of literature.” He boasts of no campaign debt and $85,000 in the bank, with signs and staff already paid for.

He touts the green building code he shepherded through the Council, cleaning up the harbor (“Surface trash has been significantly reduced in the Harris Creek watershed”), and a baseball league with six teams and 90 players—all with donated money—among his accomplishments.

And Kraft says he’s been working hard to try to improve the schools in his district, citing Hampstead Hill and Wolfe Street Academy as success stories. “The Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance has really done a remarkable job encouraging people to stay in the neighborhood and raise their kids,” Kraft says.

As the real estate bubble burst and neighborhoods have begun changing, Kraft says, he has noticed some vacants. But, he says, their owners have mainly kept up appearances by making sure the places are furnished and the utilities left on. These owners, Kraft says, have “contributed to keeping those neighborhoods stable.”

Kraft is not pitching a steep property-tax cut. Those who are doing so, he says, are nice people but don’t understand the problem. “The assessable base drops by $6 billion,” Kraft says, handing over two pages of budget graphs with comparisons between the assessable fiscal 2010 tax bases of several counties, with the FY 2011 Baltimore tax base written on it in pen, straight from the budget just passed. “When you start looking at things like this you start seeing why it’s hard to change things.”

Kraft does have a couple of regrets. He says he wishes he had seen the economic downturn coming so he could have expedited some of the district’s big developments. And “I wish we would have had more success with the plastic-bag bill,” he says. “We ended up with a good bill, but it’s not being enforced.” When the bill is reviewed next year Kraft hopes to do what he wanted to do in the first place: charge a per-bag fee.

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