12th District: Throwbacks and newbies in a heated race

City Council candidate Robert Stokes, a Democrat, says he believes in hope and change—but those things can only get you so far.

"You can't go into the City Council and say 'I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do that.' The Council has to work together," he says. It's a theme he comes back to many times when discussing the 12th District race.

Since City Council member Carl Stokes (no relation) is running for mayor, the 12th is wide open. There are nine people vying for Stokes' old seat. They are: Democrats Robert Stokes, Kelly Cross, Gary Crum, Ertha Harris, Jason Pyeron, Rashad Staton, and Gordon Stick. One Green Party candidate, Ian Schlakman, and one unafilliated candidate, Frank Richardson, are also running.

Robert Stokes, 58, is a throwback in an election season full of newbies—he doesn't even have a website up and running yet. But, he leans heavily on his experience and his track record. He says he's been working in local government for about 30 years.

"I already work with Mary Pat [Clarke]," he says. "I already have a relationship with a lot of the Council people."

He has worked as an assistant for Carl Stokes since 2010. From 1988 to 1994, when former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke was in office, he worked as a community representative for the mayor's office. From 1998 to 2000, he worked under former City Council president Lawrence A. Bell III as his assistant. He also served three four-year terms at the Maryland Democratic Central Committee, an elected position. He ran to represent the 45th District in the Maryland House of Delegates in 2014 but lost to Cory McCray.

He says, by the way, that Carl Stokes has given him his blessing to run for his old seat.

"I know how bills get introduced, how many votes you need, how they have to go to committee," he says. "That's experience—everybody saying they want new people but you've gotta have somebody down there that know what they doing and I have the experience. I go back to the community and find out what they want and I've always been that way."

One thing he's done, he says, is bring the presidents of various community organizations together, so that they might better work together.

"I just put together a group called UNC, Unified Neighborhoods Coalition, because I always believed that presidents don't talk to each other; they talk around each other. He says that when he started, he brought together the presidents of eight community associations, but they were able to bring five more into the fold.

He echoes Carl Stokes' belief that city agencies need to be audited.

"We ain't had an audit in 40 years," he says. "You can't run a company that don't do audits."

He thinks that he often has to help elderly citizens and business owners in the community who come close to losing their property due to sloppy, incorrect billing.

"We're talking about property tax, we're talking about water bills," he says. "Do you know how many people's houses I have saved with a property tax bill or a water bill?"

"One lady had a bill that was $1,750, and when the revenue supervisor checked it out it was $170." Another business owner, he says, was sent a bill for $75,000 when it should have been $7,500.

"So that's the kind of things that's been happening in our city government in terms of not making sure that the water bills are accurate, the property taxes are accurate," he says.

"You're giving all these TIFs to all these businesses," he says, referring to Tax Increment Financing. "Some, like Sparrows Point, they had a $3 million tax bill. The city wrote it off. But if somebody that's struggling or working every day and our seniors struggle to keep their homes, if they miss their tax bill for $300 and they can't pay it, the city takes their property and they can't get it back."

Sitting on a stool inside the Silver Star Restaurant, a small campaign poster mounted on the wall behind him, Gary Crum talks about the need for youth involvement in local politics.

"The younger generation, we do not involve ourselves in the political process or the policies of Baltimore City and it has a direct effect towards us and the generations that are coming up under us," he says.

Crum, 33, was born and raised in the 12th District, and said he feels the need to champion it.

In front of him, a man cooks a heaping pile of fried potatoes on a griddle that's tucked against the wall. A small crowd congregates around the cash register to pick up their orders and move on. He's chosen the tiny restaurant, he says, because it's a good example of the independent businesses that should be flourishing both in the 12th District and all over the city.

"It is some nice mom-and-pop type things in the 12th District, we just need more," he says.

Crum works as an assistant property manager for a local real estate company. He used to work as property manager for a business in the Oliver community, which is part of the 12th District. "I was able to provide over 100 houses to people that's from my neighborhood, family and friends," he says.

Crum has built some name recognition in the city for his work within the community, specifically with the group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. While he has never held elected office, he brushes off the idea that he needs a lot of experience to be a good Council member.

"I don't think you need a Ph.D. to pass legislation in City Council," he says. "A lot of the legislation is common sense. For instance, you shut down the rec centers, you shut down the schools, what do you think that's going to cause?"

The city has been reactive to the problems but he'd be different, he says.

"I'm being proactive in the community. I'm trying to stop something before it starts. Since this Freddie Gray case came up, all of the sudden we have all these different companies coming in giving us money. But what good is money if the person that has the money they're not doing the right things? It doesn't take a genius to be a City Councilman. It doesn't. All you need to know is what do your District needs. I've been there for 33 years, I know what my District needs."

He says that if elected, he intends to address the issue of affordable housing in Baltimore.

"Right now, the way the taxes are set up in Baltimore City, we can't continue to be mad at the landlord for raising the rent when he has to be forced to pay the mortgage on a lot of these houses."

He knows Council member Carl Stokes and has even sought his political advice, but he's lukewarm in evaluation of the Council member.

"He did try to fight for a lot of stuff in our District. He fought against the closing of the rec centers, he fought against the money going down to the harbor, he just didn't have the votes to stop it," he says. He complains about a lack of transparency. "The residents find out everything after [the City Council] already had their closed door sessions and made deals and that's not how I envision being a city Councilman."

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