Excerpted from the City Paper
by Christina Royster-Hemby
What Are the Odds?
Two Community Activists Seek to Take Out an Incumbent in the City Council’s 13th District
“I don’t know what’s with your paper,” 2nd District City Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch says of City Paper. “You never endorse me and you reported something about my not returning your calls, but I have always returned calls” (Campaign Beat, Aug. 20, 2003).
Branch, a Democrat, is running against two challengers for the right to represent the council’s new 13th District, which consists of a large wedge of East Baltimore north of Patterson Park, Belair-Edison, Orangeville, and a portion of Armistead Gardens. Large chunks of the district are dotted with boarded-up rowhouses and suffer from urban blight. Some of the most blighted neighborhoods in the 13th are being demolished to make room for the Johns Hopkins-affiliated East Baltimore Biotech Park, a project that is supposed to help jump-start the area’s economy.
Branch says that because she is a quiet person who sometimes “keeps to herself” she gets a bad rap in the media. She laments that during her last two terms on the City Council no one reported about all of the work she’s done in her current district, the 2nd.
“And if people don’t see you reported about in the media, they don’t think you’re doing anything,” she says.
Branch says that economic development is a theme that peppers her experience in the 2nd District, and she refers to “the $34 million fight” in 1996 in which she secured community development block grant funds from the federal government for the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition. Branch says this was the largest block grant ever awarded in the history of Baltimore.
“As a representative for East Baltimore, I had to work hard in securing those funds,” she says, detailing a fight she had with then-City Council President Lawrence Bell over the project.
With that money, Branch says, 54 homes were built or rehabbed, two industrial buildings were purchased for community use (the Diamond Press Building and 901 N. Milton Ave., which is still being worked on), an upgrade was made to the East Baltimore Medical Plan (one of the nation’s first community-based health maintenance organizations, founded in the early ’70s), 400 vacant lots were cleaned up and fenced, and a dozen community gardens were created.
More recently, Branch says she has helped change the way the city approaches development through her involvement in the negotiations over the East Baltimore Biotechnology Park. The park is one part of an 80-acre mixed-use redevelopment project in the neighborhoods around the Johns Hopkins medical campus that the city says will create up to 8,000 new jobs, 1,500 rehabbed living units, and numerous business opportunities.
“Historically, minorities have not played major roles in the development activities in the city of Baltimore,” she says. “So [I negotiated an] inclusion document in cooperation with the mayor’s office that encompassed certain guidelines for the inclusion of minorities in this development project down to equity, ownership, contracting opportunities, business development, and the development of technical work force. To my knowledge, this is not happening elsewhere in Baltimore City.”
Branch boasts that homeowners who will be displaced by the biotech-park project demolition and construction will receive $70,000 dollars plus the market rate of their homes and a relocation fee of about $1,000 for the loss of their properties. The city originally proposed to offer each displaced homeowner market rate plus $22,500 for their losses due to the area’s low property values.
“I surmised that if the market-rate value is $20,000 and [affected constituents] get $22,500 additional funds, they would only have $42,500 to purchase a new property—which is impossible,” Branch says, noting that the $22,500 was the recommended compensation for residents displaced by construction in 1976. She takes credit for boosting the compensation to $70,000.
Branch says if she is elected to represent the 13th District in November there would be changes in the “ways I communicate and do business.” In the current City Council structure, she shares the 2nd District with Councilman Bernard “Jack” Young and Councilwoman Pamela Carter; in the new council structure, each district will have only one representative.
“I may invite [community leaders] down to my office here at City Council on a quarterly basis to keep the lines of communication going,” she says for example.
If Branch were elected and did call such a meeting with community leaders, one community leader she could expect to hear from would be Glenn Lowell Ross, who has been working in the East Baltimore community for the past 30 years. Ross is challenging Branch for her spot on the council, running in this race on the Green Party ticket.
When asked about Branch’s tenure on the City Council, Ross notes some deficiencies.
“If you look at Sandtown-Winchester to see what the community leaders and politicians did with the empowerment-zone money allotted to them in West Baltimore, compared to East Baltimore, we have the poorest results,” he says. “When O’Malley became mayor he came over to East Baltimore and said: ‘Show me what you did with the $35 million.’ He wasn’t pleased [with what he saw], so he took back the remaining $19 million.”
But Branch insists this is not true—she says that the $34 million in community development block grant funds was granted for redevelopment in East Baltimore and $12 million was spent; the remaining $22 million, she says, was forfeited due to an administrative error that occurred during the changeover of Kurt Schmoke’s administration to the O’Malley administration.
However, a call to the city brings yet another version of the story into play: The Department of Housing says the $22 million was held because the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development felt HEBCAC was not in compliance with proper guidelines for use of the money—which was eventually distributed to the East Baltimore Development Inc. for an alternate use.
Ross says he is prepared for a City Council seat. He is very active in East Baltimore, he says, acting as a consultant for the community on issues like development and crime—a self-appointed task for which he is not compensated.
Ross is president of the McElderry Park Community Association, founder of the Southeast Stakeholders Coalition, vice president of the Banner Neighborhoods Community Corp., a member of the Presidents’ Council of Southeast Baltimore, and a board member of the Southeast Community Organization.
Ross grew up in Berea, a neighborhood that gave birth to such well-known Baltimore politicians as state delegates Clarence “Tiger” Davis and Talmadge Branch and former state Del. Hattie Harrison. He bought a vacant house in McElderry Park in 1980, and his activism started shortly thereafter. He discovered that his house was infested with rats and developed a program to help rid his neighborhood of its rat problem, and he was given an award by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer in 1985 for the development of the Rat Rub-Out program. And from there, his involvement in the welfare of his fellow city dwellers expanded: He became an advocate of such projects as the Mayor’s Campaign for a Cleaner Baltimore and It’s Your Baltimore, Don’t Trash It.
“These jobs and going out to the communities throughout the city helped me to see the bigger picture of community decay throughout the city,” Ross says, noting a lack of cooperation between communities and politicians that keeps the city from reaching its potential. “The politicians and community leaders . . . keep information and resources to themselves. They don’t inform people, and that’s the problem they have with me, [because I do]. I consider myself the Paul Revere of East Baltimore—the town crier alerting people [about city ills].”
For example, he cites the relationship (or lack thereof) between Johns Hopkins University in East Baltimore and the surrounding community. He says that Hopkins’ security officers tell students to stay within certain neighborhood boundaries because people in the community are dangerous. Meanwhile, he says, the university is expanding and taking over larger swaths of neighborhoods surrounding the campus, and residents are not informed of the institution’s activities.
Ross says he thinks he has a good chance of doing the unthinkable in November: unseating the incumbent for a spot on the council.
“Over the last 30 years, whether it’s in the state legislature, for the city, or here in East Baltimore, they’ve never had a real candidate with a reputation such as mine to challenge them,” says Ross, who thinks his independence from traditional political structures puts him at an advantage. “Not only am I running by myself, but I’m running as a Green Party candidate. And that’s the threat.”
If it could be said that Glenn Ross’ activism was spurred by rats in McElderry Park, then Republican Joe DiMatteo’s was spurred by broken glass and drug paraphernalia scattered around the playground behind his Belair-Edison home. DiMatteo left Belair-Edison in 1991 to move to New York; when he moved back in 1995, he says he was shocked at how much the neighborhood had deteriorated.
“I saw a lot of difference for the worse in my neighborhood,” he says. “City services had gone down—like when you call the police, their response time [was too long].”
DiMatteo says the city’s neighborhoods deserve responsive, active representation that helps take care of problems that directly impact residents’ quality of life. For example, when community grocery store Stop Shop and Save closed down in January 2001, he took matters into his own hands: He began a petition, which he took to City Hall, and lobbied to encourage a new grocery store to open in the neighborhood. In May 2002, he says, he received a letter telling him that a new store would be opened. The new store, Save-A-Lot, opened in the same location in August 2002.
“That petition really seemed to get the ball rolling,” DiMatteo says.
DiMatteo refuses to say anything negative about his competitors, but he contends that his area’s current City Council representatives are not visible in the community. (He lives in the current 1st District.)
“Nobody I talk to knows or has seen this community’s representative,” he says. “But if I am elected, no one will wonder who their representative is.”
September 15, 2004