The Councilman Who Wasn’t There
(originally appeared in The City Paper)
‘Representative’ Democracy in East Baltimore?
Vernon Crider was recently appointed to the 13th District City Council seat, replacing Paula Johnson Branch who stepped down to take another job. Crider owns a house outside the 13th City Council District (left), but he says he lives in his motherís North Curley Street house in the district.
Glenn Ross keeps a satellite map of the city on the wall of his East Baltimore rowhouse. It takes up a lot of wall space, the rest given over to clipboards, certificates, awards, and newspaper articles, the mementos of his two and a half decades of activism and grass-roots community service. He points with a cane that he uses as a result of a slip on a handicapped ramp, or with a piece of post he keeps in an umbrella stand by the door, tracing the red and black arrows on the map that represent the movements of people and things across the city. He punctuates his conversation-more of an extended lecture, ranging from the polluted lots he played in as a boy to the demolition of the housing projects to the disappearance of the East Baltimore newspaper box-with the phrase “there’s a disconnect.”
The disconnect, Ross says, is between the people and their environment, and the politicians and the people. Ross sees connections that border on quantum mechanics. He can trace the origins of the Baltimore drug trade and name the dealers. He maps out the rat infestations that have plagued East Baltimore. He blames, among others, politically connected “absentee politicians” for the state of his neighborhood, and includes in that category the man who beat him to a City Council appointment last week.
Ross has held positions with a number of city administrations and grass-roots organizations, and he currently works as a community liaison for Johns Hopkins University-on a recent Tuesday morning he had just returned from riding around with a student considering buying a house in the area, showing her the neighborhood. He also serves as a guide for what he calls “toxic tours,” showing the uglier side of Baltimore’s industrial past and what he calls “environmental racism.” Primarily, though, Ross is a gadfly.
This year, with the backing of the Green Party, Ross is planning to run for a City Council seat in the 13th District where he lives. That seat was vacated by Paula Johnson Branch, who left office in March to take another job. Shortly afterward, Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued a statement that said, “I am confident that through an open and transparent process, we can fill the vacancy left by Councilwoman Branch with an able representative for the residents of the 13th District,” and laid out the qualifications for office: applicants needed to be U.S. citizens registered to vote over the age of 21 who have lived in the 13th District for at least one year.
Last week, before the City Council nomination committee voted for a temporary appointee to the seat, Ross was one of five candidates who had applied for the job, but his money was on the appointment of Vernon Crider, a Harford County special education teacher, former legislative aide to Branch, and member of the Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee. On Thursday, April 5, the council proved Ross right — seven of the eight members present voted for Crider, and he is scheduled to be confirmed by the full council on April 16. The eighth council member, Mary Pat Clarke, objected to the speed with which Crider was chosen and spoke in favor of Ross’ nomination, but ultimately abstained from voting. “I’ve worked with [Ross],” she said afterward. “I’ve watched him through the years. I’m a Democrat, but it would be nice to have a Green on the council. It would be nice to have a reasonable person such as Glenn Ross.”
Outside the meeting, she apologized to Ross for not introducing his name faster. Ross answered, “There’s always another election.” After she left, he shook his head: “This is why people say, ‘The heck with voting.’ This is where the apathy comes from.”
According to the documents Vernon Crider filed with the City Council to prove the required one-year residency in the 13th District, he lives a few blocks from Ross, in his mother’s house on Curley Street. His mother, Dolores, who answered the door last week, confirms this, as does his wife, Darlene, who emerged that morning, ready for gardening, from a different house seven miles north up Harford Road, at a two-story detached brick home with a slate roof and a neatly trimmed front lawn. Darlene and Vernon Crider bought the house on Kildaire Drive in Northeast Baltimore in 2004, and real estate records, signed by both, indicate that it is their primary residence. It is the house where Darlene Crider is registered to vote, and where Baltimore County police sent the speeding ticket Vernon Crider received in March. In 2005, Darlene Crider, who is a city police officer, signed a sworn statement in Maryland District Court claiming that Kildaire Drive was her home and the home of her husband.
Vernon Crider says they have never lived in the Kildaire house, which is outside the 13th District.
“East Baltimore is home to me,” Crider says. “Even though I was born in Virginia, I was raised here, went to high school here, and I have a grasp of the issues that the people face.”
Shaun Adamec, spokesman for the City Council president, says the candidates’ addresses were checked against real estate records, and no problems were found. Asked whether Crider would be disqualified from the post if he didn’t meet the residency requirement posed by the City Council, he checks, then says that “the answer is, it doesn’t necessarily disqualify him from the seat.”
“There have been some court cases involving this,” Adamec says. “And as long as the council member can prove they reside in the district, even if it’s not 100 percent of the time-if they reside in the district and serve the residents from an address in that district. We basically ask them, ‘Have you resided in this district for a year?’, and they say ‘yes.’ Until there’s a challenge-that means a court challenge-that’s what we go on.”
Maryland’s residency requirements for public office were relaxed in 1998, when then-State Senate Majority Leader Clarence Blount won an appeal allowing him to run for office in West Baltimore’s 41st District despite a lower court ruling that found overwhelming evidence that he did not live there. The state Court of Appeals ruled that the question of residency was one of “intent”-depending upon where the candidate chooses his or her residence.
Ross, Crider’s Green Party opponent, calls residency “a must” to understand the issues facing the residents. “They should live in the district,” he says. “But everyone knows these people don’t live where they claim to be living.” Ross says he’s known Crider since he was a boy, that their fathers used to play cards together. “According to Vernon, he lives two blocks away,” Ross says. “Everybody knows he doesn’t live there.”
Back on Curley Street in the afternoon, Vernon Crider bounds out the door, full of energy. As he sits on a metal porch glider, he booms hellos to the neighbors who line the street and porches up and down the alley street rowhouses. In 2005 he drove to New York to compete in Esquire magazine’s Best Dressed Real Man competition, but today he is casual in a Terps ball cap. He is eager to prove that he and his wife live with his mother in her house. Asked about his wife’s voter registration, he says, “She needs to change that.” Motor Vehicle Administration records showing a change of address to Kildaire Drive last year are a “mistake,” he says, which he corrected as soon as he realized it. The police, he says, took the address from the registration of his Ford minivan, which is registered at the Kildaire Drive house to get cheaper car insurance.
The Kildaire property is “an investment property-mainly for my wife,” Crider says. “A lot of people talk about ‘Where do I live? Where do I live? Where do I live?’ There’s no crime in owning property.”
Crider drives the minivan to the Herring Run library branch to check MVA records on the internet, and later provides a change of address card listing the Curley Street home. As he drives, he waves at people on the street. Sighting a crowd with sandwich boards, protesting police tactics outside the Eastern District police station where his wife works, he leans across the passenger seat and extends a fist, shouting “Go East Baltimore!”
Back on Curley Street, Crider stops to talk to a neighbor across the street, asking, “Did you go for that job I told you about?”
“Didn’t you hear?” the man responds. “I went into the hospital about two weeks ago.”
By midnight, the Ford minivan is parked in the long driveway leading to the garage behind the brick house on Kildaire Drive.
Correction: While Glenn Ross has run as a Green Party candidate for local office in the past, the party hasn’t officially endorsed him for the 13th District race and won’t endorse anyone until after the party’s primary in May. City Paper regrets the error.
April 11, 2007