Josh Kurtz: A Change Is Gonna Come

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No matter who is elected mayor of Baltimore this year – even if it’s a retread like Sheila Dixon, even with veteran City Council President Jack Young (D) well on the road to reelection – there’s a big change coming to City Hall and the local political discourse.

That’s because five of the City Council’s 14 members who are elected by district have already announced their plans to retire, and others could follow – voluntarily or otherwise. It’s likely that when the new Council convenes in December, at least half the members will be newcomers.

This is a good thing.

A couple of Sundays ago, I got a glimpse of what the political change might look like, as I sat at a table at Teavolve in Harbor East, chatting with four incredibly impressive young Council candidates – and three of the 30-something political officeholders who are mentoring them.

It was a wide-ranging, fun and off-the-record conversation, full of political gossip but also sobering accounts about what’s wrong in the city and its neighborhoods and how to begin to fix them – and placing present-day Baltimore in a broader, historical context.

The candidates I met with, all Democrats were: John Bullock, a Towson University political science professor who is challenging Councilman Pete Welch in the West Baltimore 9th District; Kristerfer Burnett, a community activist who is in an open-seat race to replace Councilwoman Helen Holton in the adjoining 8th District; Jermaine Jones, a union organizer who is running for the Northeast Baltimore 3rd District seat now held by Councilman Robert Curran; and Shannon Sneed, a former TV journalist in a rematch with Councilman Warren Branch, who beat her by just 43 votes five years ago in East Baltimore’s 13th District.

The quartet is being advised – fussed over, really, with pep talks, strategic advice and a healthy dose of ribbing – by Councilman Brandon Scott and state Dels. Cory McCray and Antonio Hayes. These “elder statesmen,” who are already working to become transformational figures in their communities, are 31, 33 and 38, respectively – and are eager to bring in reinforcements.

Each of the four candidates faces unique challenges in the districts where they’re competing.

Bullock, Burnett and Jones are in crowded primaries, which sometimes makes it difficult to break out, especially if there’s an incumbent involved. Jones further faces the uncertainty of whether Curran is actually running again after 20 years on the job; he hasn’t said so formally and he hasn’t raised campaign cash in years. We’ll know for sure after the filing deadline passes next week.

Burnett’s race may have been scrambled by the recent entry of Reggie Fugett, a former lobbyist and brother-in-law of Orioles’ star centerfielder Adam Jones. Sneed is encountering what she learned when she ran the last time: That the Branch name still carries a lot of weight in East Baltimore.

But all four of these young Democrats possess several of the same admirable qualities: They are all community organizers at heart if not by profession, serial volunteers who have done grass-roots campaign work and are extremely well plugged-in to the neighborhoods they are seeking to represent (Burnett is raising his young family in his childhood home and his family’s roots there date back several generations).

As campaigners, they will not be outworked; each talked about the thousands of doors they have already knocked on, and some are already hitting doors for a second time. That’s got to help when you are running against tired incumbents like Branch and Curran.

All have attracted some support from unions and progressive organizations and community groups that provide the necessary ground troops in a low-turnout primary. And all have done a very respectable job of fundraising – especially as non-incumbents competing for Council seats.

Sneed was outpacing Branch on the fundraising front; she raised $50,000 in the past year and had $44,000 in the bank as of Jan. 13, while Branch raised $17,000 in that period and had just $21,000 on-hand.

Jones raised and banked more money than any of the other Democrats in the 3rd District: $71,000 and $57,000, respectively. Burnett was also ahead in fundraising of the candidates who have reported in his district, taking in $34,000 and finishing the period with $29,000 on hand. Bullock was ahead of those candidates reporting in his race, with $33,000 raised and $28,000 in the bank. Welch, the incumbent who was appointed to replace his mother, has not reported his fundraising totals yet, raising questions about whether he is actually running.

Beyond Bullock, Burnett, Jones and Sneed, the new campaign finance reports provide a few other storylines – and hint at some of the additional changes to come to the Council. In the North Baltimore 4th District, for example, Councilman Bill Henry has basically raised nothing in the past year, while his principal Democratic primary challenger, CSX Vice President Brian Hammock, vacuumed up $121,000 and had $101,000 on hand as of Jan. 13.

(As I write about impressive young candidates for the City Council, I’ve got to say a word about a personal friend, Curtis Johnson, who is among three candidates challenging appointed Councilman Eric Costello in the 11th District. Costello has been working hard reaching out to the disparate elements of his diverse district, and he is clobbering his opponents on the fundraising front. But Johnson seems to me the embodiment of what we want in a young public servant – personally driven, but also conscientious, hardworking and strategic. Even if he falls short this time, he’s a force of nature – and a force to be reckoned with.)

As my conversation with the four Council candidates and the three young elected officials was coming to a close, there was some musing about how all the newcomers would get along with Young, the Council president who is 61 and has been on the Council for 20 years, the last six as president.

Young is well aware of the changes that are coming and the challenges they might pose to his leadership. In a recent interview with the Baltimore Sun, Young seemed eager to put the new generation of contenders in their place.

“We are going to have some young people coming on who think they can change the world,” he told the paper. “It’s going to be a learning process.”

But Bullock, Burnett, Jones and Sneed seem unfazed and unafraid. To me, that said a lot.


Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews


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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.