In a room at the University of Baltimore’s law school, about 80 people gathered quietly this past weekend to gird for a tough task:
Acquire enough skills to defeat state and city incumbents from Baltimore who for years – in some cases, for decades – have been clinging to their elected seats like barnacles.
“I think my opponent is very vulnerable. He has not been very effective,” said John T. Bullock, who is running against 9th District Councilman William “Pete” Welch.
Welch and previously his mother, Agnes B. Welch, have represented this impoverished West Baltimore district since 1983.
The Towson University political science assistant professor and a host of other hopefuls unsuccessfully sought an appointment to the seat when Agnes Welch retired in 2010. Instead, son Pete was handed the position by the City Council.
Welch went on to win the 2011 Democratic Party primary, which is tantamount to winning the election in Baltimore. (Telling tidbit: The last Republican on the City Council was elected in the 1930s.).
What makes Bullock so optimistic now?
His two-word answer: Freddie Gray.
The people who conceived and helped fund the three-day “Camp Wellstone” session in Baltimore said they want to build on a sentiment they saw in the city following the 25-year-old’s death in police custody and the protests and rioting that riveted the city and the world afterwards.
“Compared to the riots in ’68, people aren’t saying, ‘I want to get out of here.’ They’re saying, ‘I live here and I want to do something!’” said community activist Mary Jo Kirschman.
“They’re not just reading the real estate pages, they’re thinking, ‘What do we do?’”
“The needs here are so urgent,” said Kirschman who, with fellow community activist Betsy Krieger, spoke about their involvement Friday as the training began.
The participants, who paid $50 each, signed up for sessions on such topics as fundraising, crafting a stump speech, getting out the vote and dealing with the media.
Opting for the “candidate” or “staff” tracks, most were focused on City Council races, said Stacey Mink, of Maryland Working Families.
Along with Bullock, she said, they included Kristerfer Burnett, an Edmondson Village community organizer running in the 8th District, whose longtime incumbent, Helen Holton, recently announced she would retire after her current term.
Also at the training camp was Makeda Scott, a small business owner who unsuccessfully challenged Baltimore County Councilman Ken Oliver in 2014.
A couple of incumbents, City Councilman Eric T. Costello and 40th District Del. Antonio Hayes, were also in attendance. (“I’m just here to listen and learn,” Costello told The Brew.)
The participants are preparing for a primary turnout that is likely to be robust, said community activist Betsy Krieger.
At the upcoming primary on April 26, 2016, she said, voters will be thinking about the Freddie Gray demonstrations and protest marches that culminated in the April 27 riot in parts of West and East Baltimore.
“It falls almost a year to the day after that,” Krieger said.
Others were having the same thoughts as Kirschman and Krieger.
The recently-formed Maryland branch of the political action group, Working Families, also had been considering mounting “a progressive leadership program” ahead of the election, said executive director Charly Carter.
Likewise, state Sen. William C. Ferguson IV, representing south and southeast Baltimore, and political strategist Martha McKenna were thinking along these lines. Soon they all joined forces.
“We got together and said it doesn’t make sense to duplicate our efforts,” Carter said.
Carter said it was a natural solution to turn to the group created to honor the legacy of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone.
In 1990, the former college professor famously beat Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz, despite being outspent 7-1.
Wellstone, whose first vote as a senator was to cast a “no” vote against the Gulf War, was killed in a plane crash, along with his wife and daughter, in 2002. Wellstone’s two sons and campaign manager started Wellstone Action to continue his work.
“It’s a fight for the soul of the city,” said Ferguson, a Wellstone “graduate” who unseated six-term incumbent George W. Della Jr. in 2010.
“Wellstone helps people who want to do grassroots organizing and make change take it to the next level,” he said.
Joining Krieger, Kirschman, Ferguson and McKenna, U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, the University of Baltimore School of Law and the advocacy group Leadership for Educational Equity, all helped subsidize the training weekend.
Someone With Courage
Kirschman said they’re hoping to empower “a new kind of candidate” who can shake up the status quo at City Hall and make positive change.
“We’re looking for someone with courage. We’re looking for someone to not do the same old, same old,” Kirschman said.
“The City Council doesn’t have to be powerless,” she said. “They could actually make a difference in people’s lives. We just need people with guts.”