Tax Break: A yet-to-be-released study concludes that the City isn’t getting its full share from property taxes

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 13, 2004

This spring—as happens almost every spring—Baltimore confronted a budget crisis. City Hall’s $2.1 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2005 entailed cutting 533 government jobs and curtailing city services to pay for it. On April 14, Mayor Martin O’Malley proposed an alternative: a suite of new taxes and fees that would preserve the jobs and services with $48 million in revenue.

Five weeks later, with the budget process complete, the City Council had trimmed O’Malley’s tax proposal down to three elements that would generate $30 million from taxpayers: doubling levies on real-estate sales and imposing new fees on phones and energy use.

“It happened so fast,” City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (D-4th) says in summing up this year’s open-and-shut budget battle in Baltimore, the most heavily taxed jurisdiction in Maryland. Mitchell chairs the council’s Taxation Committee and thus led the legislative body’s tax debate. In a recent interview, he remembered how he and his council colleagues felt as if “we had our backs against the wall” when confronted with the mayor’s proposals.

Since April, Mitchell has learned that there was an unexplored option—going after millions in untapped revenue potential from the city’s existing property-tax rolls by appealing low assessments. While O’Malley touched on this idea in passing in a Sun article in December 2003, saying that “generally the state underassesses city properties,” a strategy to get the state to do more accurate assessments never made it into his set of gap-closing proposals in April 2004—or into the City Council’s ensuing tax debate.

Property assessments are the basis for calculating how much property owners are taxed for their holdings, and are conducted by the state in three-year cycles—a third of the city is assessed each year. Baltimore City’s property tax rate, just shy of $2.33 per $100 of assessed value, is much higher than in any of the state’s 23 counties. Thus, underassessing property in Baltimore shortchanges city coffers—and, due to the high tax rate, those coffers are being shortchanged more dramatically than in other parts of the state. Montgomery County is the only jurisdiction in Maryland that appeals property assessments it believes are too low, but under state law any jurisdiction is free to do so.

Unbeknownst to Mitchell and the public during the five-week debate this past spring, a privately funded study about the revenue potential locked up in underassessed city commercial property had already been underway for more than two years. While the City Council was weighing its options, a draft report from this effort was in the hands of a select group of people for review and comment, including staff at the city’s Department of Finance. Its fundamental finding: The city should consider going after millions in unrealized revenues by appealing underassessments of commercial property within its borders. By the time Mitchell learned of the draft report, the new taxes had already become law.

“I guess it was July when I first heard about it,” Mitchell recalls, “and that was through some businesspeople. I’ve asked for a copy of it from the [city’s] finance department, but was told it was in draft form.”

The study, which has yet to be released, was overseen and underwritten by the Abell Foundation, the renowned research and grant-making outfit that works to improve quality of life in the city and state. In mid-September—five months after first hearing rumors about the study—City Paper obtained a draft copy of the report, titled “A Costly Problem: Commercial Property Assessments in Baltimore.” Its preliminary conclusions, based on comparing assessed values to the sales value of a sample of 121 commercial properties, show that nonresidential property in the city is significantly underassessed.

For example, one of the properties study author John Hentschel looked at as part of his research was the old United Iron and Metal site at Pulaski Highway and Haven Street in East Baltimore, a scrap-metal processing facility on one acre of land with a 4,400-square-foot building. The property sold for $220,000 in 2000, yet Hentschel discovered that it was assessed at $42,000—less than a fifth of the sales price. He also looked at the old Abbey Schaefer Hotel at 723 St. Paul St. in Mount Vernon, which sold for $650,000 in 2001; its assessed value was $315,020, less than half of the sales price.

The question of exactly how much city commercial properties are underassessed is still a matter for discussion as the study continues to wend its way through the review process, but it is enough to translate into millions in unrealized tax revenue—potential revenue that Mitchell believes should have been on the table when the council was weighing its budget options.

While the councilman still hasn’t seen the report, he says that what he’s heard “suggests to me that I didn’t have all the tax information that I would have liked to have had before we went raising taxes on everyone.”

Steve Kearney, O’Malley’s director of policy and communication, says that the mayor’s office wasn’t “aware of the report, because it was still a draft that was under review.” He adds that “the purpose of the report is to promote public discussion, but you don’t have the debate before you have the facts.”

“As soon as the report comes out,” Mitchell promises, “I’m going to have a hearing—one that we should have had before we started biting the hands that have invested in this city.”

The Abell Foundation was not pleased that a copy of its report-in-progress had gotten into the press’ hands.

“We’ve got a problem here,” said a stern-voiced Gilbert Sandler, Abell’s spokesman, in a late-September phone call to City Paper. “That report has not been vetted. We have no idea what’s true and what’s not true, so it is not ready, by any means—we are not ready to release any piece of it.”

Later, after talking it over with other staff at Abell, Sandler called back to say, “You do what you want to do, and we’ll do what we’re going to do.” Abell’s people would not be available for interviews or meetings to discuss the study, he explained, and he cautioned that “there are many points of view that need to be taken into account that aren’t in that draft. It’s a work in progress. You shouldn’t publish [its findings] until we release it.”

On Oct. 4, City Paper learned that Abell’s position had shifted—the study’s author would be allowed to discuss the study and address its shortcomings. John Hentschel, a real-estate appraiser who served as the city’s real-estate officer from 1982 to 1992, is founder and president of Hentschel Real Estate Services, an Abingdon-based consulting firm, and an internationally recognized expert in public-sector real-estate practices. An afternoon meeting with Hentschel at the White Marsh Mall food court presented a clearer picture of the study’s findings.

During the meeting, Hentschel—a friendly, forthcoming, well-dressed fellow who chooses words carefully as he wrangles complex real-estate concepts into clear language—readily concedes that his draft report contains some errors in analysis. But, he adds, his overall conclusions stand: The city is missing out on substantial revenues due to underassessed commercial properties, and there are steps—at both the local and state level—that can be taken to remedy the situation.

The road to the “A Costly Problem” report started, Hentschel recalls, late in 2000 or early in 2001, when “Abell called me and said, ‘We are thinking about doing a study about this, are you interested in doing it?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’ and I wrote a proposal.” He had noted, while perusing newspaper reports, that when major commercial properties sold the assessed values were well below the sales prices. “It would make you scratch your head,” he recalls.

And so, starting in late 2001 or early 2002, Hentschel embarked on a lengthy project that would ultimately lead to the draft report, “A Costly Problem,” which he submitted to Abell in late January or early February 2004. It was based foremost on looking at recently transacted commercial property sales and comparing the sales prices to the properties’ assessed values.

“The more you got into it, the more you would say, ‘Well, why is this, why is this, why is this?’” he says. “So you start asking more and more questions. And if you are not coming in with a pre-conceived conclusion, it takes you where it goes.” And where it went, Hentschel says, indicated that underassessments of commercial properties were a real problem that could be remedied if the city chose to appeal low assessments.

“Each year,” Hentschel wrote in his conclusion of the draft, “taxpayers diligently review their property tax assessments to ensure that they are being asked only to pay their appropriate share of property taxes, and no more. Isn’t it reasonable to expect local public officials to exert a similar degree of fiscal prudence on behalf of all City residents by diligently performing a similar annual review to ensure it is receiving its fair share of revenues from the assessable tax base, and no less?”

The main constructive criticisms of the “A Costly Problem” draft so far, Hentschel explains, have come from Doug Brown, supervisor for public-policy analysis in the city’s Department of Finance, who handed over his thoughts in writing to the Abell Foundation on Sept. 28.

First, Hentschel says, Brown identified a link between tax rates for real property (land and improvements, such as buildings and parking lots), which are levied against property owners, and personal property (equipment, machinery, furniture, fixtures, and the like), which are levied against business owners. The draft report, Brown pointed out, did not consider that link.

“The personal property tax rate is computed at two and a half times the real-property tax rate,” Hentschel says. Thus, he continues, if the city were to lower its real-property tax rate in response to more revenue from increased commercial-property assessments, it would have “a corresponding effect of reducing the personal property taxes” entering the community chest.

The draft report also failed to include the impact of increased property-tax assessments on the amount of state education aid to the city. If the city, on its own, successfully appealed assessments upward to the tune of millions of dollars, Hentschel says, then Brown’s “projections show there would be an adverse affect on state aid to education.” (In 2004, the state provided $533 million of the city school system’s $931 million operating budget.) Since the state divvies up education aid based on each jurisdiction’s wealth, as measured by the assessed value of its real estate, then a rise in Baltimore’s assessments—without a corresponding rise in the rest of the state’s assessments—would lead to a reduction in state aid to Baltimore’s cash-strapped education system.

Thirdly, Hentschel continues, if the city unilaterally appealed state assessments upward, “there may be an adverse reaction from an economic-development standpoint, in terms of perception” among businesses that feel they’re being picked on.

Donald Fry, president of local business group the Greater Baltimore Committee, says he knows that in the one Maryland jurisdiction where appeals of underassessments are routinely brought by local government—Montgomery County—“it has resulted in some consternation among some property owners.” Given the city’s “financial strains,” he adds, “City Hall is going to want to look at that very closely, as will we.”

However, Hentschel adds, “the report basically re-emphasizes and re-emphasizes again the matter of parity, equity—that it has to be done in an equitable and above-board fashion. There have to be safeguards put in it so there are no maneuvers to aggressively or capriciously go after certain taxpayers.”

In order to calm such concerns, Hentschel suggests a process by which the city could “look for anomalies that might give basis for appeals” of low assessments. “You need to be comparing apples to apples,” he explains, so the city should find an average assessment value for different types of properties, classified by use, age, size—whatever category works best.

“Once you have each group’s average assessment,” he continues, “you look for outliers—properties that appear to be underassessed because their values are so far below the average. And then you try to find out why. Maybe they are in an off location or they’re deteriorated with age. Then the low assessment is either explainable or not, and if not, you consider it for appeal.”

That’s a fair and equitable way, Hentschel says, to find assessments that don’t pass the smell test. The city could take up such cases with the state’s assessments office in Baltimore City for initial appeal, then, if necessary, to the Baltimore City Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board, and finally—if a case goes this far—to the Maryland Tax Court for a final, binding decision.

But, Hentschel says, Brown makes a good point on behalf of the city: Appealing for assessment increases has to be done on a statewide basis. “Otherwise,” he says, “there would be certain unintentional and adverse effects on the city because of these various linkages in other things—personal property tax, and state aid to education, and adverse perception.”

Though Hentschel did not provide a copy of Brown’s comments to City Paper, Kearney did, faxing them to the paper on Oct. 6 and asking that the document not be quoted directly. (Brown was out of the country and unavailable for comment until after press time.) Computations and conclusions contained in Brown’s written comments reveal the city’s analysis of the revenue impact of seeking to raise underassessments.

According to Brown’s written comments, an 18 percent increase in nonresidential property assessments overall would yield $26.5 million annually in new revenues for the city; and that the same assessment boost on all city property—residential properties included—would add $76.8 million to the coffers. (Brown’s analysis, in the second instance, assumes the same kind of underassessment for residential properties as well.) If the city’s response to this was to try to give taxpayers a break and reduce the real-property tax rate by the same proportion as the boost in assessments—18 percent—there would be a corresponding 18 percent decrease in the personal-property tax rate, the document explains. In other words, any reduction in the real-property tax rate would lead to a reduction in the personal-property tax rate, as well, which would result in a greater over-all revenue reduction.

When Brown’s comments turn to the subject of the aid-to-education impact of increased assessments, he uses a slightly different example—a 15 percent increase in assessments. If the city increased assessments 15 percent without any increases in property assessments in the state’s 23 counties, the city would lose $21.5 million in state aid for education, much of which would shift to other counties. If, however, each county reassessed its properties to the tune of 15 percent, then the city’s share of state aid would increase by about $7 million.

Without delving further into the mathematical and statistical minutiae of Brown’s comments and Hentschel’s draft report, it is clear that addressing underassessed properties in Maryland would have a significant impact on local-government budgets—all the greater if the job was undertaken state-wide, as Brown recommends.

For now, the state agency in charge of property assessments is staying mute on the subject. “The Abell report hasn’t been officially released,” John Sullivan, head of the state’s Department of Assessments and Taxation, says in a phone conversation. “We received the draft in April, and we responded to everything in the report, and so far the Abell Foundation has not gone forward with it. Our response to their draft is in their hands, and I’m not obliged to give you my response to that draft until it is officially released.”

However, Sullivan says that he does not think there is an underassessment problem in Baltimore, much less Maryland. “We treat all property owners the same,” he says. “Each one is our customer, and we treat that customer as we would want to be treated. And all of our assessments—every one, and we have 2 million properties we’re responsible for assessing—are valued uniformly and equitably across the state.”

While Sullivan won’t share his written comments on Hentschel’s draft, he reveals that there was at least some administrative reaction to what it contained. “It did show many examples of inaccurate assessments that have since been corrected,” he says. “I think 90 percent of the properties he cited have been adjusted.”

When City Paper reviewed some of the properties Hentschel sampled as underassessments, state Department of Assessments records indicate that nearly all have been adjusted since the study was conducted (see “The Short Lists”). Some assessments were raised to almost equal the sales price—but several upward adjustments were minor, and a couple were adjusted downward, so that the gap between assessed value and the sales prices actually widened.

In addition, City Paper did an analysis on its own set of sample properties (see “The Short Lists”). Anyone with Internet access and a minimal amount of database searching skills can go to the Department of Assessments Web site and do his or her own analysis of assessment-to-sales-price comparisons.

Even before Hentschel’s “A Costly Problem” draft report was sent out for review and comment, rumbles of discontent over possible underassessments statewide were being heard last year in Annapolis. “Property under-assessments are a significant problem facing the State of Maryland,” wrote Ronald Bowers, administrator of the state’s Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board, to state Del. Leroy Myers (R-Allegany and Washington counties) in a May 13, 2003, letter (emphasis in the original). “Many properties in the state are under-assessed at between 10 and 80 percent of the actual market value,” the letter continues. “This translates into inequitable taxes for similar properties and lost revenue for the State and local governments.”

The state Department of Assessments and Taxation “was cut back, budget-wise, and it was kind of hampering them from doing their job,” Bowers said recently when asked about the letter. “They need modern equipment other than clipboards to keep up with this ongoing problem, and they were losing people,” he says—touching on a possible reason why assessments appear to have gotten out of whack in the first place. “The proper equipment and the right amount of people is a good investment,” he continues, “because a little bit for them yields a lot for government—and a greater sense that the process is working fairly. If it isn’t fair, if it isn’t done properly, then the mainstream taxpayer is paying an extra burden.”

Councilman Mitchell echoes that sentiment: “I don’t think the city’s getting its fair share, so let’s recoup what we already have [from correcting underassessments] before we go taxing everybody. And these new taxes—especially the phone taxes—hit everybody at the same level, $3.50 per line per month. At least with property taxes, the amount you’re supposed to pay is intended to be in line with the amount of value you have.

“Right now, there is so much distrust in government that it’s not right,” he says. “We have to do what is right.”

Falling Waters: One longtime polluter is cleaning up, but the Jones Falls’ troubles are far from over

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 4, 2004

When City Paper literally stumbled upon Hollins Organic Products in December (“Untestable Waters,” Dec. 24, 2003), the three-acre mulch-making operation in Baltimore County’s Bare Hills section was polluting an adjacent stream with black, fusty runoff from its towering piles of compost. The unnamed stream, which runs through city-owned Robert E. Lee Park, was opaque and dark from the point where Hollins Organic discharge entered it, and its sediments were stained from the discoloration.

Hollins Organic owner Doug Hollins told City Paper it was a new problem, brought on by 2003’s unusually wet weather, and that he was in the midst of designing a permanent fix to keep the compost-laden water from overflowing the site’s containment pond and spoiling the stream.

In a Jan. 29 interview, though, Hollins changed his tune after he was informed that the Baltimore County permit file for Hollins Organic shows a 10-year history of stream pollution, despite a permit requirement that the facility “shall not be operated in such a manner as to create water pollution.”

The overflows from the site, the file makes clear, are believed to be brought on by storm events, but the record rains of 2003 were by no means unique in the documented history of Hollins Organic’s sullying of the stream. Community complaints and inspection reports about problems at the site fill the file, with county visits dating back a decade. By that time, the business had already been operating there for 12 years.

“We probably should have done this years ago,” Hollins concedes, referring to the solution he hopes to have installed by early March: a large cement tank to hold site runoff, designed with a mechanism that automatically sprays its contents back onto the mulch piles when it fills to a certain level. “In the long term, it’s going to be a better process,” he predicts, adding, “I do take this stuff very seriously. We will do whatever it takes to make sure this issue is solved.”

In the big picture, Hollins Organic’s faulty runoff containment may seem insignificant. But the unnamed tributary it despoils tumbles downhill for about half a mile before emptying into the Jones Falls, the heir of more than 350 years of human-generated runoff, which rolls along in all of its nutrient-laden, sediment-bearing glory, bound for Lake Roland, then down through the city to the Inner Harbor, the Patapsco River, and the Chesapeake Bay. The Hollins Organic problem is yet another thread in the much larger story of what water-quality experts call “loads to the system”: erosion, animal waste, leaky septic systems and sewers, the runoff from roads, buildings, farms, and parking lots–all of them bringing more water-borne baggage for the Jones Falls to handle.

The efforts of government and citizens to reduce this load have been underway since at least 1972, when the federal Clean Water Act was passed, establishing rules intended to stem pollution. Slow, steady implementation of laws and better management choices have led to some improvements in some upstream parts of the Jones Falls, but, ironically, as the river approaches the relative idyll of Robert E. Lee Park, its water quickly degrades. That’s because the park’s main attraction, Lake Roland, is the common catch basin for every source of upstream water pollution, from Pikesville east to Towson.

Lake Roland, in essence, is like Hollins Organic’s sediment pond–instead of a small composting yard, though, Lake Roland handles the drainage for 33 square miles of suburban watershed. Like Hollins Organic’s pond, Lake Roland over the years has been much studied and lightly managed. Both hold back pollution from the Chesapeake Bay, and both do so less effectively when it rains.

But, whereas Hollins Organic is on track to stopper up its leaky catch-basin, there are no plans to keep Lake Roland from continuing to do what it’s done since it ceased being an active reservoir in 1915–filling in with whatever pollutants drop out of the Falls’ water as it settles behind the dam. The lake’s capacity to trap pollutants before the river crests over the dam, en route to the city, depends on plugging up upstream sources–like Hollins Organic. It’s a never-ending task that, despite years of talk, has only just begun.

The first visit to Hollins Organic Products by the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management (DEPRM), back in January 1993, found “an open dump consisting of old 55 gallon drums, 275 gallon oil tanks, pressure treated lumber, metal pipes, etc., . . . Mr. Hollins stated that his landlord . . . dumped the material.”

That was count number one, leveled against the landlord–who dragged his feet past the 30-day deadline for cleaning up the mess, but eventually complied. Count two was against Hollins Organic, whose owner was informed that the facility had 30 days to apply for a DEPRM solid-waste processing permit. The company finally submitted the paperwork after nearly a year, without penalty–though DEPRM did threaten legal action, which seemed to get the process in gear.

The permit file indicates that the delay was due to Hollins’ uncertainty about how to go about controlling sediment on the site. Ultimately, though, Hollins Organic installed a containment pond to trap runoff, a low basin on the site where the liquid dregs of the operation would drain and settle. The pond is separated from park property by an earthen berm, leading to a steep slope down to the unnamed stream, which starts beneath parking lots and businesses along Falls Road and meanders through the woods behind Hollins Organic on its way to the Jones Falls.

The stream courses through an area of uncommon history and ecology. In 1992, months prior to DEPRM’s first visit to Hollins Organic, the National Registry of Historic Places had made 450-acre Robert E. Lee Park the centerpiece of the then-newly designated Lake Roland Historic District, named after the erstwhile city reservoir a mile or so downstream from the composting facility. A stone’s throw away from the mulch piles is an abandoned quarry, a reminder that here is where chromite was first discovered, in 1808, heralding a half-century of Baltimore domination of global chromium production. The Virginia pines and briars that dominate Hollins Organic’s side of the park cover rocky terrain known as serpentine barren, an unusual geology attractive both for mineral extraction and, in small outcroppings of unforested space, a special array of grasses, flowers, and bugs that can tolerate its metallic soil.

Thus, it would seem, the case for stopping its degradation by Hollins Organic was that much more compelling.

In April 1994, a DEPRM inspector noted that Hollins Organic’s pond “did not appear to be designed properly. Runoff and leachate from the compost stockpiles overflows through rip-rap stone to a small feeder stream to the Jones Falls.” In February 1995, a DEPRM supervisor noted that the pond “was filling up with sediment and should be upgraded with the addition of stone”–a measure Hollins Organic took immediately.

It didn’t fix the leak, though, because a year later Robert E. Lee Park Conservancy President Robert Macht wrote a letter to DEPRM, pointing out that the stream’s “water quality is being adversely effected” by the Hollins Organic operation, that “sometimes the stream is bright green,” and that “an unpleasant odor is emanating” from the water. The county investigated the complaint, and in March 1996 issued a one-page report explaining that runoff “ponds behind blockage [on the site] and percolates into the ground and is seeping out from the side of the berm.” The one-page report’s solution: Remove the blockage, and if that didn’t work, install an impermeable liner to contain the runoff on-site.

Concerned citizens wanted more. “Water [in the stream] above this runoff is clear and largely odorless,” observed Laurie Long, then-executive director of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, in a March 1996 letter to DEPRM. “Water below the runoff is very dark and murky, somewhat frothy, and sometimes green,” adding that “we request that DEPRM . . . establish stream quality requirements as a condition” of Hollins Organic’s permit.

No liner was installed. No stream-quality requirements were established as a condition of the permit. Instead, the pollution continued–not continuously, perhaps, but whenever there was sufficient rainfall to overwhelm the pond’s ever-changing capacity. A Dec. 10, 1996, DEPRM memo about a phone call from the Valleys Planning Council’s then-executive director, John Bernstein, summed up the problem in shorthand: “Organic material washing into stream during storm events–improper containment. Mr. Bernstein said the stream smelled like Hollins Organic Product’s site.”

It’s not as if county officials were simply sitting on their hands. When complaints were lodged, they inspected the site. Within a week after Bernstein’s December 1996 call, for instance, an inspector again visited Hollins and found that the “pond has been washed out and filled in with mulch. The runoff was filtering through . . . [and] was murky in color and did have odor of [Hollins] products.” Doug Hollins told the inspector “he would correct the problem ASAP.” If Hollins did correct the problem, though, it was a short-lived solution because follow-up DEPRM visits, most responding to complaints in 1998 and 1999, showed the leaking continued–and was often “malodorous.”

Then, in April 2000, a DEPRM inspector visited Hollins Organic, prompted by an anonymous phone call, and discovered that “a pump was being used to empty a sediment control pond and water was being discharged” over the berm into the stream. “Mr. Hollins stated that that was the usual practice during a significant rain event.” After that, DEPRM in May 2000 secured assurances from Hollins that he would stop the illegal pumping and come up with a permanent solution to the pond problem. Nearly four years later, the county still awaits one.

In an effort to determine Hollins Organic’s impact on the stream, DEPRM sampled its water at various times starting in 1996–including once at the suggestion of Mr. Hollins himself–but the permit file is only clear about the results from 2002. The data shows that, after a rainstorm, the leaky pond dramatically elevated the stream’s concentrations of common minerals such as iron, sodium, calcium, and potassium, and discharged so much organic content that the stream water exceeded by up to 10 times the recommended standards for water released from the state’s wastewater treatment plants.

DEPRM ordered more samples, but by the end of 2002 the data-gathering was called off. “Plans have been submitted to relocate HO facility to site off of Beaver Dam Rd., in Cockeysville,” a memo in the DEPRM file reads. “As a result, no additional sampling of stream behind Falls Rd. facility is warranted.”

So far, Hollins’ plans to move to the 4.5 acres he purchased in Cockeysville haven’t borne out. (Today he says he still hopes to at least use that property as “a satellite site to relieve the pressure off of” his Bare Hills base.) But, as noted, 2003 turned out to be a record year for rainfall, and history had already shown what happens at Hollins Organic when it rains. When DEPRM returned for a routine inspection in December, it found yet again that Hollins Organic’s pond was polluting the stream.

The county agency declined, for now, to share with City Paper the documents pertaining to the latest discoveries at Hollins, but its director, David Carroll, was willing to talk about DEPRM’s position during an interview in his Towson office. “We’ve said to [Hollins Organic], you’ve got to control this permanently,” Carroll explains, his water-quality staff at hand, ready to answer further questions. “We’ll have to see what he designs, and then decide whether or not to renew his license.”

One thing is clear, though: “The law says he can’t discharge any water” from the site, says DEPRM’s waste-management chief, William Clarke, who adds that Hollins “understands now that there is no scenario under which he is permitted to discharge. Those fixes he tried over the years proved to be inadequate, and now a lot more attention has to be paid to how [the pond] is constructed.”

Clarke bristles at the conclusion that DEPRM’s efforts on behalf of the stream constitute bureaucratic foot-dragging, but, when reminded of the permit file that shows the same problem cropping up over and over again for a decade, he sums up the obvious: “Sometimes it’s a long process.”

David Carroll is head of Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management now, but he’s had similar leadership roles in Baltimore City, state, and federal government over the decades–experience that brings a hardened sense of reality about managing the environment in and around a major urban area.

“People have this romantic notion that eventually we’ll get it cleaned up, and that’ll be it,” he says of efforts to improve water quality, in the Jones Falls or any other watershed. “No, it is forever,” he announces solemnly, his slacks and sweater complementing his well-worn bearing of a wizened administrator, comfortable with the big picture and the nitpicking details alike.

“You have to manage for invasive species and deer so that birds will come back, do expensive stream restorations, fix sewer leaks–there’s always something happening there–and make new development create options to improve streams and forest cover with plantings, and install the best technology to control runoff,” Carroll says rapidly. “It’s a long-term commitment and a very complicated project. We spend quite a bit of money every year to go back and find and fix problems. Everybody has their role in it–and we welcome efforts to keep the heat up, because that’s the media’s role.”

Carroll’s posture is understandably defensive, considering the longstanding water-quality problems such as those at Hollins Organic, despite decades of lip service about cleaning them up. In his view, though, certain portions of the upper Jones Falls watershed are recuperating after decades of abuse or neglect. “A large portion of this stream is actually in pretty good status,” he points out. “We do see improvement, and it’s not finished–we have more work to do and we wish we could do even more.”

The good news is that long-term indicators of ecological health confirm that upstream sections of the watershed in the Greenspring Valley area support enough bugs and fish to qualify for removal this year from the state’s annual list of biologically impaired waters. Last year, the entire Jones Falls was taken off a similar list of waters impaired by zinc. Baltimore County officials, meanwhile, report that the Jones Falls trout population has been found as far downstream as Sorrento Run, inside the Beltway where the Jones Falls nears Lake Roland, and is so robust that it is used to stock streams in other county watersheds.

But the Jones Falls continues to bear heavy burdens from bacteria, copper, lead, nutrients, sediments, and PCBs (only in Lake Roland), according to Richard Eskin, head of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Technical and Regulatory Services Administration. The state Department of Natural Resources, meanwhile, deems the Jones Falls a “Priority Category 1” watershed, meaning the watershed fails to meet the agency’s clean water and natural resources goals. Volunteer stream-water monitors with Maryland Save Our Streams, a now-defunct environmental group, assessed water quality just below the Lake Roland Dam 17 times between 1990 and 1999, finding it “poor” on 13 of those visits. Clearly, something’s rapidly fouling the Jones Falls water as it travels from Interstate 83 to the Lake Roland Dam.

County officials finger three urban subtributaries–Moore’s Branch, Roland Run, and Towson Run–as the most troublesome contributors to these problems. “All three have poor ratings on nine years of biological monitoring,” says DEPRM’s water-quality chief Steve Stewart, adding that costly stream restorations are planned. All three of them dump their loads on the threshold of Lake Roland, which continues to be what researchers dubbed it in a 20-year-old report about the lake: a “microbial sink,” where bacteria, sediment, and other pollutants settle out of the water. As a result, its value for water-based recreation is all but gone–swimming is a high-risk endeavor, and don’t eat the fish–but its value as a giant ecological filter is beyond question.

“Lake Roland’s been doing quite a clean-up job in itself,” observes Eldon Gemmill, another DEPRM water-quality expert. “It’s shallow, it has a lot of aquatic life and wetlands to help treat the runoff. I would dare say the Chesapeake Bay would be a lot worse off without Lake Roland.”

After all, as Carroll points out, “for 140 years, it’s been capturing everything that has come off that watershed. And all that sewerage and storm-water infrastructure from all the highways, and runoff from unregulated pre-1990s development, all of it coming through there–if I wasn’t from around here, and I was seeing the maps for the first time, I’d expect that’s where all the problems would be–right around Lake Roland.”

Field trips to hard-to-reach stretches of the Jones Falls watershed near Lake Roland leave the same unavoidable impression that Carroll describes–these are the areas where it all comes together, so to speak, and dumps a heavy load of contaminants into the falls as it rushes toward the lake. The effects of past abuses–chlordane from termite-control treatments at Greenspring Valley homes, effluent from the textile mill that operated for 150 years until 1979 on the Jones Falls banks just east of I-83–are no longer apparent, but it’s clear the water is still actively polluted.

Each little downstream tributary between Moore’s Branch and Robert E. Lee Park–about a mile-long stretch where the river’s main stem runs just east of Falls Road–makes it own little offering. One, emerging from a secluded, wooded dell right next I-83, trickles with a low but constant flow of foul-smelling water, which wells up from the ground beneath a jumbled wreck of old moss-covered pipes. Another rushes out of the Sorrento Run housing development, staining the creek-bed orange with iron oxide–a sign, county officials explain, of nutrient-rich, oxygen-depleted water upstream, possibly due to sewage. The same phenomenon can be seen where the next two downstream creeks come out of culverts carrying them from neighborhoods west of I-83. Next is the tributary that drains down from Hollins Organic, its banks periodically stained black from the murky discharges upstream.

The combined loads from these active sources are already in the Jones Falls when Roland Run and Towson Run join it at the head of the lake. Roland Run drains Riderwood’s middle-class tracts of detached single-family homes, as well as the posh yards of Ruxton, where leak-prone septic systems are the prevailing sewerage. Towson Run handles the runoff of the Shepherd Pratt/Towson University area, and by the time it approaches Lake Roland, just east of Bellona Avenue, it’s already assumed what DEPRM’s Stewart calls “an urban character” from pollution.

Pollution, of course, has been entering Lake Roland for a long time. It wasn’t until a 1972 study by Goucher College, though, that anyone had a well-informed understanding of its modern problems: rapid in-fill from sediments, high levels of nutrients robbing the water of oxygen, and bacterial contamination. The Goucher study also documented the lake’s ability to cleanse the water. Far fewer microbes were in the water as it left the lake than when it entered, the report showed, so Lake Roland was not only holding back sediments, it was also eliminating microbes.

A Baltimore City report from 1984 confirmed the Goucher group’s finding that Lake Roland was “an efficient microbial trap,” and added that nutrient concentrations in the lake had decreased since 1972. Yet it uncovered a new mystery: “in-lake bacterial contamination was observed which could not be accounted for by tributary inputs.” In other words, something in or immediately around the lake itself, as opposed to its feeder streams, was adding bacteria to the water. The report speculated that the giant sewer main that runs under the lake, or failing septic tanks nearby, might be to blame.

Given the sediment loads entering the lake, meanwhile, the city researchers working on the 1984 report estimated the lake would fill in completely sometime between 2004 and 2048. Without dredging, the report predicted, a filled-in Lake Roland would lose effectiveness as a trap and “sediment and pollutants now trapped in the lake will be transported” downstream to the harbor, where they would have to be dredged later as part of shipping-channel maintenance.

The lake was not dredged, though a stronger replacement dam–the first since the original was put in service in 1861–was constructed in the early 1990s. Carroll knows of no dredging plans–“It would cost a great deal,” he points out. Much better, he says, to let Lake Roland continue to fill in, its open water replaced with emerging acres of stream-traversed wetlands soaking up and settling out the pollutants–cleansing the Jones Falls, at least partially, before it heads across the dam. “We’d almost have to reproduce it by design,” Carroll says of the wetlands’ aid to Jones Falls water quality.

Still, the 1984 report raises the undeniable prospect that the lake will continue to lose more of its valuable capacity to trap so much of the pollutant load the Jones Falls brings it. Since dredging is not in the cards, the obvious solution is more of the same–working to plug leaks, slow erosion, and generally lighten the load the lake and the Jones Falls have to handle.

When it comes to improving the health of the upstream portions of the watershed, “that’s the only way we’ve been able to turn the corner” Carroll contends. “And that’s how we’ll work our way out of the rest of these years of abuses.

“We still have a long, long way to go, certainly in the lower watershed,” he continues. “And the city has a doubly or trebly tough situation.”

The city’s contribution to the Jones Falls’ pollutant load is substantial, and measured in great detail by the city Department of Public Works in an annual report. The latest one, issued last June, shows that Western Run (which enters the Jones Falls at Mount Washington after coursing along Cross Country Boulevard) and Stony Run (which drains Roland Park and Hampden) both suffer from chronic sewage contamination and are virtually devoid of fish. Channel improvements for Stony Run, costing $6.65 million, have been put in the city’s capital budget to help improve matters.

But above the dam, the city also has key responsibilities. After all, city-owned Lake Roland and Robert E. Lee Park fall under the bailiwick of the city Department of Recreation and Parks. Efforts to improve the department’s attention to the park have proven exasperating for critics, such as Robert Macht of the Robert E. Lee Park Conservancy, who says he’s “really frustrated by the lack of care that I perceive the city has taken–little if any management, maintenance, enforcement of rules, or concern for environmental problems. They’ve just failed to show concern on so many counts.”

“There is a lot of controversy around the use of the park,” concedes city Recreation and Parks spokesman Robert Green, “about upkeep and maintenance and future safety, particularly in regards to the 30 acres that are to be closed–the peninsula area–for a soil remediation and erosion control project.” This effort, which is scheduled to begin soon, intends to rectify suspected contamination from dog waste in an area of the park that has long been used almost exclusively by dog owners.

The move was sparked by an October soil analysis on the peninsula that found bacteria and acid levels up to 17,000 times what’s acceptable for human contact, Green explains, though he’s hesitant to speculate that these over-the-top bacteria readings may help explain the 1984 study’s mystery of in-lake bacterial sources: “It’s hard to say for sure, but clearly the soil is very contaminated” and is actively eroding into the lake. Many dog owners have vocally voiced doubt about the contamination, and heated public meetings this winter have left an acrimonious air around the controversy.

In addition, Green adds, the long-planned replacement of the old footbridge across the Jones Falls just below the dam with a bridge capable of handling heavy equipment “is in the final planning stages, and will enable us to do the [soil-remediation] project, and provide better maintenance on an ongoing basis.”

Jeff Budnitz, a board member of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association, lives next to Robert E. Lee Park and is optimistic that the city is beginning to take an active interest in improving the park. He points to the city’s 13-point “concept plan” for improving the park, a one-page planning document distributed last September, that he says marks the beginning of a coordinated city-county effort to “make the community feel like the pump is being primed” for more action. Some issues set to be addressed, such as shoreline stabilization, erosion protection, and trails maintenance, are much-needed elements of any strategy to help the park reduce its impact on Jones Falls water quality.

Of course, humans and human use are the biggest contributors to the decline in the ecology of the park area. As Christel Cothran, program director of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, notes, “There is so much foot traffic, you have to ask, as with so many such parks, are we loving them to death with high use?” The city’s strategy of closing off the peninsula seems wise, she says, adding that it should extend the practice to other areas of the 450-acre park–“close off sections at a time, give them a rest,” she says. Either way, she adds, now that the city’s doing something, “I think maybe we should give them a little bit of credit for that.”

The same, Cothran continues, holds true for the county. While its handling of the Hollins Organic permit appears to have been a case of ineffectual regulation, Baltimore County’s government “is more attuned to protecting the environment than most any other place in the country,” she contends, rattling off various ways that agencies there have been recognized nationally for their zealous pursuit of good environmental management. “They’re way advanced,” in her estimation, which is why she’s tickled that her organization is partnered with DEPRM to help improve conditions for the Jones Falls by monitoring for pollution problems.

“This is a great opportunity to promote stream-watch programs,” Cothran says of the current attention focused on Lake Roland and the Jones Falls, including the snafu at Hollins Organic, which garnered lots of attention over the years from complaining citizens, yet continued to pollute the stream. “We try to catch these things,” she says. “But the effort’s still not good enough, in many cases. Years go by before people walk back in some of those stream-valley areas, much less report what they might come across. The more people doing that, the better we’re going to be at catching and stopping sources.”

Echoing Carroll’s response when confronted with suggestions that maybe not enough was being done to lessen the Jones Falls’ load, Cothran says bring on the spotlights. “All of the attention we can get for these problems is welcome and needed,” she says. “That’s the only way to fix them, is to have more people involved in the solutions.”

Dave Desmarais: 1958-2004

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 24, 2004

David Desmarais was City Paper‘s dry cleaner for years, and he became friends with many of its sales staff as a result. In the editorial department, too, Desmarais was regarded as a friend, but even more so as a vital force in city life.

As a small-business owner, he wanted Baltimore to do well, but his true motivation as a civic booster derived from his role as a community activist and resident – though he sometimes admitted deep disappointment in the city’s directions, especially during its bleakest years in the late 1990s. He died of cancer Nov. 12 at the age of 46.

Desmarais was a man on the scene, always present at festivals, films, political events, taverns, concerts, and government hearings, always ready to start a free-ranging conversation, offer a news tip, comment on the outrages of local leaders, or constructively critique City Paper, whose writers became very familiar with the sound of his calm, steady voice, hearkening from Northeast Baltimore, or receiving e-mails from him—his address was (His license plate read “bawlmer”).

Desmarais moved here from his native Boston when he was still a toddler. His father, Ken Desmarais, took to the airwaves as a WCBM-AM radio jock, and Dave took to his new neighborhood, Northwood. Graduation from Calvert Hall College High School (1976) was followed by enrollment at Randolph Macon College in Virginia, where he earned an English degree. After that, he worked in retail sales downtown and, later, for the Downtown Partnership business association.

By 1990, he’d gotten into the dry-cleaning business, and his routes for pickups and deliveries added to his impressive knowledge of local culture, history, and architecture.

Desmarais was also a community activist. He helped found the Herring Run Watershed Association, a local environmental group, and Communities Organized for Responsible Development, which monitors Harford Road economic development. He also served as president of the Moravia-Walther Community Association.

At the Nov. 20 memorial service for Desmarais, held at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Lutherville, brother Doug Desmarais recalled that, before he succumbed to cancer on Nov. 12 at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care in Baltimore County, Dave made a last-minute change in his own memorial plans.

“One of the things we talked about was this gathering,” Doug Desmarais said. Dave ultimately opted against “going to a dive on Harford Road for crabs and Natty Boh” to commemorate his Balto-centric life. Instead, though he was not a member of the church, he decided that a service where his siblings—Doug and sister Suzanne Vinyard—practice their faith was fitting.

Anthony Tomassetti, who shared a birthday with Dave Desmarais, rued that he’ll miss an annual tradition: drinking a mutual beer to one another on Feb. 16, no matter where each was at the time. He commended Desmarais for his curiosity, intellect, and individuality, and recalled that the dry cleaner/activist “forced local political-signage laws to be enforced” in Baltimore City—a crusade for which City Paper dubbed Desmarais “Baltimore’s cherub of political-sign justice.” Tomassetti used the title “passionate pilgrim of Baltimore” to describe Desmarais, and pointed out that Mayor Martin O’Malley sent Desmarais a “very nice letter” before his passing.

“That Dave, he knows almost everything,” was a common remark made about Desmarais, Tomassetti continued. “I fully expect he will be debriefed in heaven on current affairs by everyone from Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr., to John Lennon of the Beatles.”

Put that roster around a table of crabs and beer at a Baltimore local, and Desmarais would know he’d reached Nirvana.


Law of the Land: Maryland General Assembly works to restore weakened Critical Areas Act

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March 31, 2004

Shortly after Tropical Storm Isabel’s floodwaters hit the Chesapeake Bay shoreline last fall, carrying away chunks of waterfront land and destroying vast sums of bay-side investments, the Maryland Court of Appeals relaxed key provisions of a 20-year-old law restricting development within 1,000 feet of the water (“Time and Tide,” Oct. 22). Backers of the Critical Areas Act of 1984 assaulted the court’s opinion and argued that the law had slowed the pace of coastal construction for nearly a generation, and thus, by constraining new development where storms exact the heaviest tolls, had prevented further losses from Isabel. But the judges’ blow to the law, coming from the state’s highest court, was final. The job of straightening its spine now falls to members of the Maryland General Assembly, who are now attempting to trump the court’s move with legislation to restore the law to its original ecologically protective intent.

The Critical Areas Act, which bans new construction within a 100-foot buffer zone closest to bay waters and curtails it in specified areas within a 1,000-foot strip, is overseen by the state Critical Areas Commission for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays. The commission’s chairman, former Republican state Sen. Martin Madden, was sworn in less than a year ago and immediately alerted lawmakers of his hope to firm up the act’s enforcement provisions. Then came Lewis v. Department of Natural Resources, a case before the high court in which Edwin Lewis, an apparel-industry executive, belatedly sought permission to build a hunting lodge and cabins on a tidewater hummock he owns in Wicomico County. By the time Lewis had applied in 2000 for a county variance to build on his site, which is in the critical-areas buffer zone, construction had already started.

The seven-member court’s 4-3 decision relieved Lewis, and therefore other landowners in the critical areas, of the burden to prove that their proposed building projects won’t harm the bay. Instead, local governments now have to show that such projects would harm the bay. That’s a tall order for governments to fill, say Madden and others who criticized the court ruling. Asking cash-strapped counties to prove the harm caused by each proposed project in the critical areas, Madden says, would effectively undermine the law’s intended goal of protecting the shoreline from damaging development. To make matters worse, the decision condoned Lewis’ course of action: build first, seek permission later, then claim the remedy–the removal of illegally built structures–is an undue hardship.

“The ruling turned everything on its ear,” says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the 1,000 Friends of Maryland, a nonprofit coalition that advocates environmentally sound growth. “Twenty years ago, when the law passed, we said, ‘We all agreed that we’re going to protect this fragile shoreline,’ but now we have to come back and re-establish the intent of the law. I find that extraordinary.”

In the decision’s aftermath, Madden, like the many homeowners repairing post-Isabel wreckage, set about patching up the court’s blows to the Critical Areas Act. He has been working his persuasive magic on his former colleagues in the state legislature, and his efforts appear to be paying off: The legislation, introduced this session, is moving through the General Assembly process at a brisk pace with little controversy or fanfare.

“The main bill basically brings us back to where we were prior to Lewis,” Madden says. It clarifies the law’s overall intent to protect the bay and plugs the holes shot through the law by the Lewis decision. It also increases penalties–from the existing maximum of $500, to a proposed $10,000–for violations. And it gives local governments the option of asking the state Critical Areas Commission to handle tough enforcement cases. The measure was supported by a broad array of interests–everyone from realtors and builders to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Maryland Association of Counties–and passed, 41-6, in the Senate on March 22. The House will consider the bill after a hearing scheduled for April 2.

“It was agreed by everyone that we needed to go back” to the law’s pre-Lewis strength, says lobbyist Bill Castelli, of the Maryland Association of Realtors. “[But] everybody needed to get comfortable that the bill wouldn’t go beyond that.”

A comfortable consensus was reached, Castelli adds, after a few, minor clarifying amendments were added. Still, he points out a cautionary note about future litigation over a restored Critical Areas Act: “You just can’t predict what will and won’t get challenged in court.”

Future Vote: Computerized Balloting is Taking Over Elections In Maryland–But Can We Trust the Results?

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 11, 2002

On Nov. 21, a computer programmer for Autotote, an electronic-wagering company, admitted in court that he was the “inside man” in a computer-based scheme that manipulated horse-racing stakes, culminating in an Oct. 23 Breeders’ Cup wager that would have yielded $3 million in winnings for a Baltimore man had the bet not raised suspicions.

The scandal prompted the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to convene a panel headed by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani to review the industry’s computer-betting system. It also spawned a lawsuit: Gambler Jimmy “the Hat” Allard accuses Autotote of negligence, claiming in a statement made through his law firm that the “betting public may have been cheated out of countless millions of dollars for possibly the past eight years” due to lapses in the company’s computer security.

This fall, voters in four Maryland counties for the first time cast ballots on computerized voting machines using a technology called “direct recording electronic” (DRE), a system that Baltimoreans have been using since 1998. The whole state is scheduled to switch over to a unified computer voting system by 2006, but DRE system skeptics question the system’s security because, just like the Breeders’ Cup betting scandal, it could be rigged using computer code.

Imagine a computer programmer at Diebold Election Systems or Sequoia Pacific Systems, the two companies that manufacture computer voting machines used in Maryland, manipulating the software code used to run the machines to tweak the results in favor of some candidate, some party, some agenda. Imagine that he or she gets caught overreaching. Losers and voters in computerized elections nationwide would mull lawsuits and question the integrity of their races’ results, just as Allard questions whether bettors have been cheated all along by the Autotote system.

“If you can fix the Breeders’ Cup, I guess it’s certainly possible to do the same with computer elections,” says former Maryland U.S. Attorney George Beall, who also headed the state task force that investigated voting irregularities in the 1994 Baltimore City election. Given the potential stakes in politics vs. gambling–a hand on the purse strings of the public agenda, compared to a winning Pick Six ticket worth $3 million–the possibility seems worthy of consideration.

The potential stakes are even higher than the outcome of a few political campaigns. An actual incident of computer-voting fraud, should one ever be discovered, would cause a crisis of democracy. In addition to criminal charges being brought and state panels being convened to investigate, a shadow of doubt would fall over the legitimacy of all those who gained office with votes cast through computers, and the electorate’s confidence in how we choose our leadership would fall further. There’s never been a proven case, but what’s to prevent it from happening?

Precious little, nationally recognized computer-security experts say. First and foremost among them are Peter Neumann, principal scientist at SRI International’s computer-science lab in Menlo Park, Calif., and Rebecca Mercuri, computer-science professor at Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia. Despite their well-aired warnings over at least the past 15 years and a few minor scandals involving the three companies that make most of the voting machines, simple steps that would abate the risk of tampering have not been implemented as counties and states across the country–and governments around the world–increasingly switch to computers for holding elections.

Federal legislation passed this fall, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), includes $3.9 billion to help jurisdictions pay for election-technology upgrades, so, barring any changes in the trend, many more voters can look forward to casting digital ballots in the years ahead.

Diebold Election spokesman Joe Richardson says the security concerns that Neumann and Mercuri raise about DRE voting systems are moot. The level of security precautions already taken are sufficient to provide “what the voters are looking for,” which, he says, is “peace of mind” that their votes were accurately recorded and counted. So why not give it to them by implementing the additional security that the skeptics say will prevent fraudulent outcomes while protecting ballot secrecy? Because the existing security “does not necessitate it,” Richardson says.

In the coming months, the new HAVA regulations governing election technology will be written, and skeptics hope adequate security measures will be included. Even if they are, though, there’s no way to be assured of the integrity of computer elections already held. A look at some of those outcomes in light of the security risks posed by electronic voting gives cause for concern.

When all was said and done, the Maryland elections on Nov. 5 were good to Bob Urosevich. As the president of North Canton, Ohio-based Diebold Election Systems, his reputation was riding on the performance of the AccuVote-TS computer-voting system, which got its first workout in Maryland during the fall elections. The state and Montgomery, Prince George’s, Dorchester, and Allegany counties split the $13 million price tag for nearly 5,000 of Diebold’s touch-screen units, which resemble the ubiquitous ATMs manufactured by Diebold Election’s parent company, Diebold Inc. “We are pleased all four counties had successful general elections,” Urosevich said in a press release the next day, “and look forward to working on the statewide implementation of this secure voting technology.”

This fast-emerging way to vote appears at first glance to be manifestly better than what it is replacing. Lasting memories of past election debacles involving punch cards or lever machines–Florida in 2000, say, or Baltimore City in 1994–strengthen the allure of voting via a central device in most Americans’ daily lives: the computer. So governments worldwide are increasingly relying on this privately owned technology to run public elections.

The rub, though, is in what can’t be seen when the computers are recording and tabulating the votes–the proprietary software code that runs the system.

Like any voting system–and despite Urosevich’s emphasis on its secure nature–DRE is not fraud-proof. With computers, security experts say, the method of committing election fraud is, in theory, insidiously simple. Here’s how it would work: A company insider who knows how to write computer code surreptitiously inserts some nefarious programming language into the election software, causing votes on Election Day to be recorded and tabulated in whatever fashion achieves his or her purpose–for example, redirecting a small percentage of votes cast for Candidate A to Candidate B’s total. Such a piece of code could run without otherwise obviously affecting the machine’s operation or the outcome of other races.

Since nearly all computer elections are paperless, there is no independent, voter-verified record with which to compare the computer-generated outcome in the event of a recount. Computer-voting recounts, therefore, are merely a matter of taking another look at the same data that was stored in the computer’s memory after the polls closed, and are therefore unlikely to produce any changes in the results. As long as the outcome is not patently bizarre–a complete unknown beats a popular incumbent in a landslide, for example, or more votes are cast than there are voters–it would be exceedingly difficult to question it. Knowing that the industry considers each election software code to be a trade secret, and won’t let anyone examine it without a court order, the corrupt insider is able to commit the crime without fear of detection.

Neumann, the computer-security expert with SRI International, says the Breeders’ Cup scandal aptly illustrates core security problems with electronic voting. The difference in the security precautions taken in electronic wagering vs. computer voting lies in what he calls the “desire for accountability.” In betting, “you want complete accountability,” he explains. “Everything’s on the record, and there’s no anonymity.” Someone places a computer bet, and information associated with that bet is maintained so a name and a face can later be connected to it, if need be. With voting, though, “you want to maintain a level of secrecy, of anonymity, in the ballot. So the desire for accountability is less. And vendors, when selling these systems, essentially say, ‘If you want ballot secrecy, we’re not going to be able to give you accountability.'” The result: vastly less stringent safeguards in protecting computer elections from fraud than exist in protecting online wagering from fraud.

Clearly, this potential risk is not registering with decision-makers, at least not to the point where they demand a more secure system. The only example of a jurisdiction changing its mind about purchasing a DRE voting system, Neumann says, is from the mid-1990s, when New York City canceled a contract with Sequoia because of the concerns he continues to voice today. Otherwise, the trend is clear: Elections officials across the country–in Florida, Georgia, California, Texas, and Louisiana, to name but a few states–and officials as far away as Brazil and Belgium are opting to buy DRE systems. And when Maryland Secretary of State John Willis announced earlier this year that 2006 is the target date for all state elections to be entirely electronic, he did so fully aware of these risks. Today, he defends the decision, saying the state “felt that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.”

“An absolute disaster.” That’s how Neumann characterizes Maryland’s decision to go with a unified, statewide DRE system without an independently verified audit trail. Neumann is not some loopy conspiracy nut who happens to have a lot of letters after his name. With his double-doctorate and 50 years as a computer scientist, he is the widely respected principal scientist at SRI, where he has worked since 1971. Earlier this year, he received the highest honor in information security: the Computer System Security Award from the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Security Agency. When Neumann uses words like “absolute disaster,” they carry some authority.

“He’s being totally cynical about the process,” retorts Willis, who chaired the Special Committee on Voting Systems and Procedures in Maryland, which recommended a unified DRE system. “It was the intent of the commission and of the governor and state legislature to capture as much voter intent as possible as efficiently as possible. And with Diebold’s system, we are capturing more voter intent–assuming we believe the codes are right and nobody’s manipulating them.”

How does Willis know that’s not happening? “Well, one, you have to have confidence in the vendor,” he says. “And then you have testing before, during, and after the election, and the source codes are kept in escrow so they can’t be changed. And then if something looks odd in the outcome, there are experienced people around who are going to notice aberrations from historical voting patterns at the precinct level. And if it could be empirically demonstrated that something there does not make sense, then a court could order a look at the code and the outcome would be challenged with technical expertise.

“So if somebody tried to rig a computer election here, it would require a good deal of sophistication. I think we’d be able to detect it,” Willis continues. “But if they can beat all of that, how would we detect it and what would be do about it? Well, the academics are right–some of those questions are still unaddressed. We were aware of the risks, and I have no objection to raising theoretical concerns, and I can’t say that those risks aren’t there, but they were outweighed by the advantages of capturing as much voter intent as possible.”

Neumann and Mercuri have some simple advice on how to get around the security problems that Willis describes: After a vote is cast, they say, the computer should issue a physical record of the choices made by the voter, not unlike an ATM receipt. The voter would then review the record for accuracy and drop it into a precinct lockbox. That way, in the event of a recount, the computer-generated outcome can be compared to the independently verified record contained in the lockbox. Absent such voter-verified receipts, Neumann says, “there is absolutely zero accountability.”

Given this apparently simple solution, why are states buying DRE systems that don’t provide such independent auditability? Maryland’s commission weighed the option but decided against it, Willis says.

“We went through this philosophical debate over the whole idea of having paper records and putting them in a drop box,” he says. “But at that point, it starts to seem like, ‘So why not just go back to paper ballots?’ And there are all sorts of problems with paper ballots.” Willis acknowledges that providing such receipts would only require reconfiguring the printers already inside each Diebold machine in Maryland, but adds that “it’s very labor intensive” to do manual recounts with receipts–“and there are going to be recounts.”

Mercuri says she suspects election administrators like the potentially vulnerable computer systems because the recounts are so orderly and predictable–you always get the same outcome from the computer’s memory. No messy manual recounts, no legal arguments over voter intent–no Florida 2000 debacles.

Diebold Election’s voting industry director, Mark Radke, points out that his company’s system offers an audit-trail option: the ability to print out each and every ballot, if the need arises. They’re called “ballot images,” and Mercuri says they “prove nothing” because voters do not see them at the time they vote and thus can’t verify that the ballot accurately reflects their intended votes.

Asked repeatedly, “Is a ballot image a voter-verified receipt?” Radke refuses to give a yes or no answer. Instead, he repeatedly stresses the “overall security of the software,” pointing out that testing, data scrambling, and encryption all work to secure the system to insure it produces accurate outcomes. As for the idea that a lack of voter-verified receipts may be sufficient to undermine voter confidence, Radke responds, “At that point, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” adding that, to date, no jurisdiction has asked for receipts.

Another factor to consider in trying to explain the rush to DRE technology is the influence of lobbyists. In Maryland this year, Diebold competitor Election Systems & Software hired a team of four lobbyists from the Annapolis firm Alexander & Cleaver. During the current election cycle, the company and the lobbyists combined have given nearly $30,000 to Maryland political campaigns–including to those of state senators Michael Collins (D-6th) and Joan Carter Conway (D-43rd), both members of the commission that recommended the new DRE systems. That kind of expenditure buys access to lawmakers, who (short of meddling in the procurement process) can help lobbyists influence state officials as they decide what election technology to buy.

At the federal level, the lobbying activity by is notable. Billing itself as “the global election company,” provides computer election services and aims to talk the federal government into staging a national online computer election. With capital and a line of credit secured by Saudi investors, and former Republican congressman, cabinet member, and vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp on its five-member board, has substantial political clout. An extra push was provided in 2000, when the company spent $100,000 to further its cause by hiring two lobbyists who specialize in representing the information-technology industry. Apparently, it paid off: In late October, Newsday reported that’s federal contract to administer online electronic elections for the military in 2004 “appears on track.”

Election Systems, of Omaha, Neb., doesn’t have far to go for friends in high places. Major shareholder Michael McCarthy serves as the campaign treasurer for conservative Republican Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, who is sure to answer the company’s calls.

For Neumann, though, the rapid switch to DRE systems boils down to a simple explanation: “Inertia. There is simply no recognition on the part of the voting public as to how vulnerable the systems are,” he says. “Nobody’s listening, because voters, by and large, don’t understand the technology. And the vendors stonewall any attempt to drive them into accountability, and I can only assume it’s because then [the vendors] can’t rig anything. I have no hard evidence that they do, but I don’t know what else it could be.”


It’s one thing to theorize about the possibilities of computer-election fraud. It is quite another to ponder whether or not it has already happened. But that is the problem with election technology: Once it is understood that it can be rigged and detection is unlikely under the current level of security and oversight, people are free to doubt the integrity of any outcome. When upsets occur in computer elections, or when a series of tight contests all fall in favor of one party, security-savvy observers who doubt the safety of the technology are going to wonder whether someone has manipulated the code. Results across the country on Nov. 5, which were tabulated and announced without the expected benefit of exit polling, cause Rebecca Mercuri to suspect fraud might have occurred.

“All I have [to go on] is races across the country that looked to be close that were all won by candidates of the same party,” Mercuri says. “OK, that could happen. But we have no real way to know whether the races were manipulated. And in states with computer voting, there were very surprising outcomes.”

Voter News Service is an exit-polling outfit funded by the major TV networks and the Associated Press. After its analysis mistakenly prompted networks to call Florida for Al Gore on election night 2000, great effort was put into revamping VNS’s data services, which provide much valuable information about how people vote–and also serve as a soft check to see if vote counts don’t square up with how people say they voted. VNS’s database broke down due to a computer glitch on this year’s election night, and the data still aren’t available. “Where is that data?” an exasperated Mercuri asks. “All they do . . . is Election Day exit polling. We rely on that for error-check, and without it there is no real way to know that something’s amiss.”

The results in Georgia, in particular, worry Mercuri. That’s because it is the only state with a unified, statewide DRE system–similar to the one Maryland has decided to implement. And in Georgia, the results favored the Republican Party with unexpected decisiveness. The U.S. Senate race in Georgia helped clinch majority status in the U.S. Senate for the Republicans, and the Democratic governor was tossed out in favor of the Peach State’s first Republican chief executive since Reconstruction.

Are any of the results in Georgia so surprising that they raise questions about election integrity in light of the security problems with computer voting? The answer is a matter of perspective.

Incumbent Sen. Max Cleland, a first-term Democrat who lost three limbs in the Vietnam War and was the youngest-ever head of the Veterans Administration, ran unchallenged in the August primary. Saxby Chambliss, a four-term Republican congressman from central-south Georgia whose bad knee got him a deferment from serving in Vietnam, won a three-way GOP primary with President Bush’s endorsement. During the general-election campaign, Chambliss aired a TV ad with an image of Osama bin Laden and a voice-over that questioned Cleland’s commitment to national security, and another in which the Veterans of Foreign Wars endorsed Chambliss over the Democrat. The Republican consistently put out the message that Cleland is too liberal for Georgia. Cleland was stoic about the attacks, but also fought back, questioning Chambliss’ voting record on issues important to senior citizens and students, among others. Between the primary and general elections, polling consistently showed Cleland in a double-digit lead over Chambliss, but slipping as Election Day approached; one election-eve poll had Chambliss in the lead by one point.

On Election Day, the conservative weekly magazine National Review published its predictions for Senate races nationwide. “Republicans may be disappointed if they don’t capture the Senate tonight, but they should put things in perspective,” national political reporter John Miller wrote. “Midterm elections usually lead to big-time losses for the party that controls the White House. At most, it appears the GOP will lose a seat or two.” In Georgia, National Review predicted that Cleland would win. However, Chambliss’ astounding 53 percent to 46 percent win over the Democrat helped the GOP win back the Senate, a clincher in a string of victories in races that had been too close to call before Nov. 5.

For those inclined to believe that the results in Georgia were legitimately recorded and counted–and other than Mercuri, no one spoken with for this article would do so on the record–the results are perfectly believable. Even without exit polling, it is clear that the influx of prominent national Republican leaders, including Bush, in Georgia prior to Election Day gave the party’s statewide candidates a lift in the final stretch of the campaign. Georgia’s Senate delegation historically tends to be Democratic, but, as was pointed out by in-state observers after the election, Georgia has been trending Republican for some time now. Election Day manifested the trend, as right-leaning voters came out in droves, due in part to the much-lauded get-out-the-vote effort engineered by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, who now heads the Georgia GOP, with substantial assistance from the national party and White House senior adviser Karl Rove. The GOP’s success in Georgia was simply the result of the party’s concentrated effort to win.

For those inclined to share Mercuri’s worries about the Georgia outcome, the GOP’s extraordinary effort only goes so far in explaining voter performance. A close look at county-level data for the primary and general elections, for instance, shows remarkably shifts in voter loyalties in unlikely areas of the state. Code manipulation or not, the results are unusual enough to stump, at least partially, the head of the University of Georgia’s political science department. But first, some background on the race.

Voters in Georgia don’t register as party members; they choose which primary to participate in when they show up at the polls. Thus, how voters cast their ballots in the primary serves as a leading indicator of the state’s partisan patterns and provides a good comparison to general-election patterns, says Charles Bullock, the University of Georgia professor. With 3.7 million registered voters in 159 counties (by comparison, Maryland’s 22 counties have 2.7 million voters), county-by-county analysis gives a pretty high level of definition as to how those patterns are distributed.

August’s primary results reinforce Georgia political wisdom that there is a partisan wall separating the Republican-dominated northwest segment of the state–the 58 counties surrounding Atlanta, where two-thirds of the registered voters reside–and the other 101 counties to the south and east, which combined have half the population, but a greater number who cast Democratic ballots in August. Within each of these two regions are islands of renegade counties. DeKalb, Fulton, and Clayton counties in the Atlanta metro area, for instance, are heavily populated with Democratic voters; several areas in the rest of the state, including Chambliss’ south-central Georgia base, show heavier Republican participation than Democratic. Overall, though, as Bullock confirms, North Georgia tends to lean Republican, South Georgia tends to lean Democrat.

In the 58 northern counties, in spite of the heavy rain that fell all day Nov. 5, turnout was higher than expected, at a little more than 55 percent. The official results had Chambliss with 53.3 percent of the vote to Cleland’s 45.1 percent, with the rest going to the Libertarian candidate. In South Georgia, where turnout was slightly below average, voters also picked Chambliss, 51 percent to 47.4 percent. Unfortunate for Cleland, but not the sort of thing totally unexpected in politics.

What’s interesting, though, is how the counties’ party loyalties shifted between the primary and the general election. Voters in 58 counties spread throughout the state (accounting for 40 percent of the state’s electorate) voted more as less as they did in the primary. In the other 101 counties, the results were a little odd. In 27 counties in the Republican-dominated North, voters supported Republican Chambliss as expected, but Democrat Cleland won 14 percent more of the vote than he did in the primary. Likewise in 74 counties in the traditionally Democratic South, Cleland carried the day, but Chambliss won 22 percent more of the ballots than he could have expected based on the primary results.

So in the end, 60 percent of Georgia’s electorate live in counties which dramatically shifted partisan loyalties between the primary and general elections. Yet the final tally didn’t follow those shifts. In addition to his stable power base, Cleland won those anomalous Southern counties that shifted toward the GOP in the primary by an 18 percent margin. Unfortunately for him, Chambliss won the Northern counties that veered towards the Dems in the primary by a whopping 29 percent of the vote. What happened?

“Good question,” Bullock says over the phone, agreeing that it is a puzzling outcome. After mulling it over for a few days, he e-mails to suggest that the disparity in the number might be partially explained by voters in the minority party–say, Democrats in a heavily Republican county–casting ballots in the majority party’s primary in order to influence local races, then switching back to their true allegiances for the general election. While he cautions that it would take a much deeper statistical analysis to determine exactly what went on in the 2002 Georgia Senate race, Bullock agrees that the vote swings are acute and intuitively don’t make sense, especially since they occurred in county after county.

How would a programmer bent on throwing the Georgia Senate election go about using software code to create this outcome? Jason Kitcat, a British programmer who recently abandoned his long-pursued goal of designing a secure Internet-voting system because he now feels it is an impossibility, considered the question and explained his reasoning in an e-mail to City Paper:

“Where the system is entirely DRE [like Georgia’s], then you have many problems and potential points of failure. The system could be compromised at the ballot station by informing voters that they have voted Republican and storing Democrat,” Kitcat writes. “This can be done quite intelligently with randomisers, statistical analysers, etc., so that only a useful but hard-to-detect portion of the votes are manipulated. Depending on the system of transferring the sub-totals from each DRE ‘ballot box’ to intermediary and final counting systems, there are an incredible number of opportunities to compromise the vote.”

Using Kitcat’s suggested methods, theoretically it would be possible to, say, select counties where the outcome is expected to favor the Democrats by wide margins and target them for vote manipulation in favor of the GOP. That way, the outcome would still favor the Democrats, the Republicans would pick up the necessary votes, and no one would be the wiser.

“While computer audit tools allow you to track down changes to hard disks even after they have been erased, they would be useless in systems of the scale used for any serious public election,” he continues. “If a few votes are changed here and there, it would be basically undetectable. This could be done at operating system, database, communications, or applications level. The final counting system can also modify the results in a huge number of clever ways using techniques mentioned above.”

Given the potential for breaching DRE systems and manipulating codes, Kitcat, like Neumann and Mercuri, cannot comprehend why states are buying them. “While the technologies will always be flawed to some extent, the amount of trust election administrators put in the suppliers of DRE systems is shocking,” he writes. “They provide closed, proprietary systems which have never been assessed by independent third parties–we have no reliable assurances of the security or privacy they claim to provide!”

And are the vendors worthy of the level of trust they get from election officials? That, like the integrity of the Georgia Senate election, is a matter of perspective. Maryland Secretary of State Willis says he trusts Diebold, in part, because it is experienced with this technology in the ATM market, which requires a very high level of security. But other observers point to ethics scandals involving the industry and wonder whether private companies should be entrusted with the voting process.

Taken as a whole, the voting-machine industry is tightly knit and has a decidedly right-wing flavor, according to well-documented research by public-relations executive Bev Harris and Philadelphia journalist Lynn Landes, who question the soundness of putting private-sector partisans in charge of secretive vote counts.

Harris and Landes point to a bribery scheme involving the purchase of Sequoia machines in Louisiana, which was uncovered in 1999 and netted convictions against state elections commissioner Jerry Fowler and Sequoia’s exclusive agent there, David Philpot. A vice president of Election Systems, which makes absentee-ballot-counting machines in use in Maryland, received immunity in exchange for his cooperation in a successful corruption case against the Arkansas secretary of state in 1995. Given the taint of bribery surrounding voting-machine companies, Mercuri says, “you have to wonder what’s going on” as more and more states purchase DRE systems.


Whether or not you believe computer elections have already been tampered with, the risk remains. As long as there is no voter-verified audit trail, results that seem bizarre can be questioned only in theory. Mercuri sees an opportunity to close this credibility gap as regulations are written pursuant to HAVA, Congress’ new voting-system legislation.

“The legislation calls for an audit trail,” Mercuri says. “But it’s clear that the computer-voting companies interpret that as meaning ballot images–the post-election printouts of how each vote was recorded. Ballot images don’t prove anything. The voter never sees it, never checks it for accuracy. This can be fixed, though, as the regulations are written by making sure the words ‘voter-verified audit trail’ are included. So we’ll see if that makes it in there.”

Either way, Mercuri is not impressed with the new technology–voter-verified audit trail or not. As she monitored the Election Day performance of DRE voting systems in states across the country, she noted problems cropping up. “These things are programmed incorrectly, or the screens and push-buttons are misaligned,” she says, pointing out cases in Texas, Florida, and Georgia where voters selected one candidate and the computer screen kept indicating they had selected a different candidate. “And then it’s reported that a programmer came in and fixed the problem,” Mercuri says. “How do we know he fixed it? Why should we trust these results? No one’s going to notice that mistakes were made unless the outcome is completely weird.

“Everyone was saying it was fine, it went well on Election Day for new computer-voting machines, and I don’t understand why the news covered it that way,” she continues. “It didn’t go well. There were major news reports about these problems, yet the whole thing was spun as if they never happened. We don’t accept this level of bad performance in other products that are time-critical and have to be accurate, but we accept it when it’s voting machines.”

Diebold’s Radke says voters “have accepted the new technology,” pointing to Georgia, where polling for “positive remarks” found a 97 percent acceptance rate. “It went very, very smoothly in Georgia, ” he concludes. “People accepted the new technology.”

In Maryland on Election Day, software problems did occur in Montgomery County with the new DRE units. One Washington Post reporter summed it up by writing that “confusion reigned” in the use of the new machines. Despite the fact that the two main parties don’t have separate ballots in a general election, programming errors caused the word “Democrat” to be displayed at the top of some ballots, “Republican” on others. One voter, a Silver Spring computer consultant, told the Post reporter, “there something wrong. I could check ‘Ehrlich’ and I could check ‘Morella,’ but I’m not sure those answers went into the database. . . . It’s hard for me to believe.”

Despite these problems, Maryland Secretary of State Willis says the state studied voter acceptance of the new technology and found it to be very high. “Most of the voters adapted to it pretty well,” he says. As for whether or not the problems in Montgomery may have altered outcomes, Willis is confident that they didn’t. “We have looked hard at the results, and we know that they comport with historical voting patterns,” he says. “So if anyone’s rigging computer elections, they didn’t mess with Maryland.”

Given the risks of undetected manipulation, though, voters will have to trust computer elections won’t be messed with in the future.

Wonder Woman: The Life, Death, and Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks, Unwitting Heroine of Modern Medical Science

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 17, 2002


On Feb. 1, 1951, Henrietta Lacks–mother of five, native of rural southern Virginia, resident of the Turner Station neighborhood in Dundalk–went to Johns Hopkins Hospital with a worrisome symptom: spotting on her underwear. She was quickly diagnosed with cervical cancer. Eight months later, despite surgery and radiation treatment, the Sparrows Point shipyard worker’s wife died at age 31 as she lay in the hospital’s segregated ward for blacks.

Not all of Henrietta Lacks died that October morning, though. She unwittingly left behind a piece of herself that still lives today.

While she was in Hopkins’ care, researchers took a fragment of Lacks’ tumor and sliced it into little cubes, which they bathed in nutrients and placed in an incubator. The cells, dubbed “HeLa” for Henrietta Lacks, multiplied as no other cells outside the human body had before, doubling their numbers daily. Their dogged growth spawned a breakthrough in cell research; never before could investigators reliably experiment on such cell cultures because they would weaken and die before meaningful results could be obtained. On the day of Henrietta’s death, the head of Hopkins’ tissue-culture research lab, Dr. George Gey, went before TV cameras, held up a tube of HeLa cells, and announced that a new age of medical research had begun–one that, someday, could produce a cure for cancer.

When he discovered HeLa could survive even shipping via U.S. mail, Gey sent his prize culture to colleagues around the country. They allowed HeLa to grow a little, and then sent some to their colleagues. Demand quickly rose, so the cells were put into mass production and traveled around the globe–even into space, on an unmanned satellite to determine whether human tissues could survive zero gravity.

In the half-century since Henrietta Lacks’ death, her tumor cells–whose combined mass is probably much larger than Lacks was when she was alive–have continually been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits. Dr. Jonas Salk used HeLa to help develop his polio vaccine in the early ’50s. The cells are so hardy that they took over other tissue cultures, researchers discovered in the 1970s, leading to reforms in how such cultures are handled. In the biomedical world, HeLa cells are as famous as lab rats and petri dishes.

Yet Henrietta Lacks herself remains shrouded in obscurity. Gey, of course, knew HeLa’s origins, but he believed confidentiality was paramount–so for years, Henrietta’s family didn’t know her cells still lived, much less how important they had become. After Gey died in 1970, the secret came out. But it was not until 1975, when a scientifically savvy fellow dinner-party guest asked family members if they were related to the mother of the HeLa cell, that Lacks’ descendants came to understand her critical role in medical research.

The concept was mind-blowing–in a sense, it seemed to Lacks’ family, she was being kept alive in the service of science. “It just kills me,” says Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks-Pullum, now 52 and still living in Baltimore, “to know my mother’s cells are all over the world.”

In the 27 years since the Lacks family serendipitously learned of Henrietta’s unwitting contribution, little has been done to honor her. “Henrietta Lacks Day” is celebrated in Turner Station each year on Feb. 1. In 1996, prompted by Atlanta’s Morehouse College, that city’s mayor proclaimed Oct. 11 Henrietta Lacks Day. The following year, Congress passed a resolution in her memory sponsored by Rep. Robert Ehrlich (R-Md.), whose 2nd District includes Turner Station, and the British Broadcasting Corp. produced a documentary on her remarkable story. Beyond that, however, virtually nothing has been done to celebrate Lacks’ contribution–not even by Hopkins, which gained immeasurable prestige from Gey’s work with her cells.

Lacks-Pullum is bitter about this. “We never knew they took her cells, and people done got filthy rich [from HeLa-based research], but we don’t get a dime,” she says. The family can’t afford a reputable lawyer to press its case for some financial stake in the work. She says she has appealed to Hopkins for help, and “all they do is pat me on my shoulder and put me out the door.”

Hopkins spokesperson Gary Stephenson is quick to point out that Hopkins never sold HeLa, so it didn’t make money from Henrietta’s contribution. Still, he says, “there are people here who would like something done, and I’m hoping that at some point something will be done in a formal way to note her very, very important contribution.”

Lacks-Pullum shares those hopes, but she is pessimistic. “Hopkins,” she says, “they don’t care.”

Lost in the acrimony over ethical and financial issues stemming from Henrietta Lacks’ cells, though, is Henrietta Lacks herself. A descendant of slaves and slaveholders, she grew up farming the same land on which her forebears toiled–and that her relatives still farm today. As part of an aspiring black middle class with rural roots, she left her childhood home to join a migration to Baltimore, where Bethlehem Steel was eager to hire hard workers from the country. She was in the midst of realizing an American dream when her life was cut short. And her cells helped realize society’s larger dreams for health and knowledge. As such, she’s been called a hero, a martyr, even a saint. But during her life, as Ehrlich said to his colleagues in Congress, Henrietta Lacks “was known as pleasant and smiling, and always willing the lend a helping hand.” That she did, in more ways than she ever knew.


Trying to find Henrietta Lacks’ grave is a lesson in irony. She is now a world-famous woman, yet her body rests in an unmarked plot in a family burial ground next to her childhood house, now long abandoned and close to falling down. No one, not even her relatives, knows precisely which grave plot is hers.

The search starts in Clover, Va., where Henrietta grew up farming tobacco on her family’s land. It’s a small town of about 200 people in a region southwest of Richmond known as Southside. The first stop–Clover Cemetery, on the outskirts of town–is fruitless; plenty of Lackses but no Henrietta. A quick visit to the post office yields a clue, offered with matter-of-fact bluntness by a man at the copy machine.

“What did you say her name was? Henrietta Lacks? Was she black or white?”

Hearing the answer, he continues: “The cemeteries you can see from the road, they’re mostly for whites. You got to go back off the road to get to the black cemetery. So go back up that road and make a right on Lacks Town Road. A lot of blacks live up there. You can’t see the cemetery from the road, so you’ll have to ask people. But someone up there should be able to help you.”

Lacks Town is not really a town but a tiny community of relatives living along a one-mile dead-end road. Trailers, shacks, old log homes, and a ranch house or two are surrounded by small plots of farmland, barns, and machinery, with woods filling in the gaps. It’s part of Clover, but Lacks Town clearly has a distinct identity. “They stick together down there,” a local woman from the other side of Clover explains later.

In short order, someone helps me out: Otis Ferrell Jr., a young man, probably in his 30s, who immediately recognizes the proffered name.

“Oh, the lady with the cancer cells,” he exclaims. “Yeah, she’s buried up there.” Ferrell points to the top of a hill in a tree-cluttered cow pasture, gesturing toward two downed trees, clearly visible from the road, giant gray hulks lying on their sides next to a large rusty-roofed abandoned building.

“That’s where they whupped the slaves,” he says candidly (though falsely, his elders later explain). “And one day the trees just came down. The cemetery is just past them and that old house. Yeah, she’s up there, but the grave’s unmarked. Uncle Clifton knows which one it is.”

Clifton Garrett is Henrietta Lacks’ cousin, now in his 80s. He lives nearby, about a quarter mile down from Lacks Town Road, and he’s burning the leaves in his yard while heating up the barbecue grill. “What, you going to build a memorial?” he retorts when asked if he knows which grave is Henrietta’s, in a tone that suggests it’s high time someone did. As smoke and embers billow around, he says he’s not exactly sure which grave is hers. “I know where her mother is buried,” he says. “She must be close by.”

Garrett gives a poignant tour of the land where Henrietta Lacks is buried. The property, he says, belonged to Tommy Lacks, who, along with his two brothers, was a patriarch of Clover’s African-American Lackses. Tommy was Henrietta’s grandfather, and he cared for her and her siblings after their mother died.

“Henrietta was raised up in that house, and her mother was born in it,” Garrett says as he strolls past the dilapidated building. “It’s called the Old Home House. It was built in slave times. Hadn’t nobody lived in this house in many years. Ain’t nobody to take care of it, and it just started falling down. But back then, they kept everything clean. When we was children, we played together here. There was a henhouse, an icehouse, a corn silo, a stable. But now there’s nothing left of anything.”

It’s hard to say how many ancestors are laid to rest in the burial ground; many of the graves are unmarked, and the sites have long been trampled by cows. “They knocked the rocks away when they came in and cleaned up with a bulldozer,” Garrett explains. “This was a big family,” he continues. “Everybody in this cemetery is related one way or another. When they die, they bring them here because this is the family cemetery.”

Henrietta’s mother, Eliza Pleasant, was buried here in 1924 after she died in Roanoke, Va., giving birth to her 10th child. “I remember when they brought her here,” Garrett says. “I was only about 2 or 3 years old, but I remember it. She had a coffin and they opened it, and a little light in the coffin came on. My memory’s good.”

Eliza’s husband, John Randall Pleasant, worked for the railroad in Roanoke, where Henrietta was born in 1920. When Eliza passed away, John moved their children back to the Old Home House to be raised by their grandfather, Tommy. Eliza’s grave has a headstone: eliza, wife of j.r. pleasant. jul 12, 1886.-oct. 28, 1924. gone but not forgotten. Indentations in the earth indicate five other unmarked graves in two rows behind the headstone. One of them is John’s. One of them is Henrietta’s. Neither Garrett nor any other family members I was able to find in Clover or in Baltimore knows which is which.

Clifton Garrett did know Henrietta, though, and remembers her fondly. “She was just an average child. A nice friendly girl and everything. That’s all I can tell you. We would play out in the yard, go to school.” Going to Clover School, which was for black children and offered instruction through seventh grade, meant a two-mile walk, taking shortcuts through fields, forests, and backyards–and right past Clover Elementary School, then white-only. Garrett still remembers the names of his teachers and the school’s principal, and that the principal’s son was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Henrietta helped on the farm until she went up to Baltimore,” Garrett says. That happened in 1943, a short while after her husband moved there for work for Beth Steel. Garrett moved north too, for a job at Beth Steel making nails in the wire mill. “After I got grown, then I went up there. A lot of people from around here did. There were company barracks to stay in, so we used to live in Sparrows Point until we moved to Turner Station. Henrietta’s husband, David, worked on the shipyard. He was a hard worker. And Henrietta, she was a nice lady. Nice as she could be. Very friendly. Very friendly, she was.”

The dredged-up memories lead Garrett to muse aloud, about how some part of his cousin still thrives. “Her cells are still living,” he says, gazing at the ground near her grave. He shakes his head. “She’s dead, but her cells are still living,” he says again, and then is silent.


Gary Lacks, Henrietta’s nephew, cares for his elderly mother, Gladys Lacks, in Lacks Town. Like many in Clover, he’s a religious man, which gives him a unique perspective on his aunt’s story.

“I go back to the Book of Genesis when God created man,” he says, his voice quickly rising in a crescendo of fervor. “He created him to live forever, really, but man ate up what God told him he couldn’t eat, and a process of death took over his body. But the possibility was in man that he could live–and if he could live, then his parts could live.” In Gary Lacks’ eyes, his aunt’s immortal cells are realizing God’s original intent for the human race.

Roberta Brooks’ view of Henrietta is more down to earth. “I worked in the field with Henrietta and Tommy and most of the Lacks Town folks when I was young,” recalls Brooks, another relative who lives near Clover. “I used to hang around more at the Old Home House than at my own house. We’d walk six miles to play together. We used to play on the creek, be teenagers together. Singing, playing horseshoes and ball games, shucking corn. There was lots to do. Children today come home and watch TV, but we had everything to do.”

As Brooks’ contemporaries got older, many took jobs in Baltimore. “A bunch of them in Lacks Town were working at Sparrows Point,” she says. “They were good jobs, about the best jobs paying, and they hired you quick there. They’d stay at the barracks, work all week, then return back to Clover for the weekend. And a lot of them stayed–and are living there still.”

Then Brooks touches on a sensitive subject–how Clover’s black Lackses and white Lackses are related. “When you get over in Lacks Town, oh, you don’t know who’s who,” she says. “It’s a big screwed-up thing. All the white Lackses and all the black Lackses, they’re all the same people. We all came up like family together, worked together and everything. And nobody married. Had bunches of children here and there and never married. It’s how it is. It’s a mess. And it’s just so deep, you can’t separate it.”

The family history informs Brooks’ perspective on race relations: “That why I say, we’re all just human beings. Not black, not white. Just human beings. So it’s all about respect. That’s it. Respect.”

Gladys Lacks suffered a stroke last year. Her mind and eyes are as clear as day, but she has difficulty communicating. When it comes to the family’s tangled history, though, her two words speak volumes. “Master Ben,” she says, and leaves it at that.

Records at the Halifax County courthouse offer further explanation. Ben Lacks and Albert Lacks, who were white (and related, although the African-American Lackses no longer recall how), owned the land Henrietta’s family worked and her descendants work still. When her grandfather, Tommy, married in 1903, he listed his parents as “Albert and Maria.” Tommy’s brother, James Lacks, married twice; the first time, he lists “Ben and Maria” as his parents, but the second time his parents are listed as “Albert and Maria.” Both white Lacks willed land to their black children. Albert’s 1888 will gave 10 acres each “from what is known as the Home Tract” to Tommy, James, and their brother Peter; Ben’s will of 1907 gave more land to Tommy and James.

“All of them hooked up together. They’re kin,” says William Morton, Peter Lacks’ grandson. Morton lives near Clover, having moved back after several decades in Baltimore, working at Sparrows Point (“Practically all of these fellows around here worked on the Point,” he says) and later for Morgan State University. Although records do not indicate Peter’s parentage, Morton says his grandfather “got land because he was kin to the owners.” Among Clover’s Lackses, he says, echoing his cousin Roberta Brooks, “that’s just the way it is.”


In Deborah Lacks-Pullum’s estimation, her parent’s middle-class aspirations in coming to Baltimore were realized. “We weren’t poor,” she says. “We were living comfortably.”

Henrietta held down the home on New Pittsburgh Avenue in Turner Station while her husband, David, earned decent wages at the shipyard. Folks from Clover, in town to start jobs on the Point, would stay over until they could find their own housing. Before he came to Baltimore, David Lacks “was the hardest working man in Clover, working 15 acres by himself,” Lacks-Pullum says. Once here, he and Henrietta enjoyed a sterling reputation in the community as gracious, generous people.

“The door was always open for new arrivals from Clover,” says Barbara Wyche, a Morgan State lecturer who has dedicated much time and effort to studying Henrietta Lacks. The link to the family’s Virginia roots stayed strong, Wyche says–“Henrietta went home every summer and farmed.” It’s still strong: Deborah Lacks-Pullum frequently visits relatives in Clover.

After Henrietta died, David Lacks raised the children–Lawrence, Elsie (who died at the age of 15, a few years after Henrietta passed away), David Jr., Deborah, and Zakariyya–by himself, just as Henrietta’s grandfather had done after his wife died. They remained a happy family, though they missed their mother.

The news that Henrietta’s cells had been taken and used for research without their knowledge, though, cast a cloud over the family. David Lacks, Henrietta’s husband, doesn’t even like to talk about it. “He’s tired of talking–it’s the same thing, over and over,” she says. By default, Lacks-Pullum has become the family spokesperson when it comes to Henrietta–and she herself is getting weary. “I’m just tired of my family getting walked over,” she says. “It hurts.”

Recognition has been slow in coming, but the future holds some promise. Rebecca Skloot, a Pittsburgh-based science writer, has spent the last three years researching and writing a comprehensive book, HeLa: The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks, that’s due to be published by Times Books next year. And Charlene Gilbert, a Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker, is hard at work on a documentary titled Colored Bodies: Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells.

Back in Clover, Gary Lacks is roaming the Old Home House, trying to avoid the holes in the floorboards. He’s explaining how the house and the family burial ground have fallen into disrepair. “There’s no one to keep it up,” he says. “People only think about it when they come up here to bury someone, then they forget about it until the next time. They let the cows come in, and the cows keep it clean, keep the bushes down.”

It wouldn’t take much money to save the Old Home House, he says, and even less to keep up the cemetery, find Henrietta’s grave, give it a headstone. But people don’t have much money in Lacks Town. He hopes that with the attention generated by the book and the film–and with all the millions of dollars at Johns Hopkins’ disposal–resources will become available to give his aunt’s final resting place the honor it deserves. He’s hopeful, but he isn’t holding his breath.

Odd Man Out: Meet Spear Lancaster–Maryland’s Libertarian Candidate for Governor

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 23, 2002


For many months now, since long before the September primary elections, Maryland voters have been sizing up two candidates for governor: Republican Robert Ehrlich and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Few voters, though, are even aware that a third candidate’s name and party affiliation will be printed on November’s ballot: Spear Lancaster of the Libertarian Party. He was not included in the only televised gubernatorial debate; pollsters ignored him until mid-October, when they found he attracted 1 percent of voters; and a near absence of news coverage has relegated him to electoral obscurity.

Lancaster, though, harbors no resentment over the blackout. “I understand it,” he explains genially at a recent gathering of a couple dozen of the party faithful at Mike’s Crab House in Riva, near Annapolis. “I knew that coming out of the gate. From a pure business standpoint, I see why the media isn’t going to cover the guy who isn’t spending $15 million to get a $200,000 job.”

As of the last set of state campaign-finance reports filed in late August, Lancaster’s campaign had spent only $37,000–nearly two-thirds of it on a drive to gather the 27,000 valid signatures needed to meet the state’s stringent ballot-access requirements. “We just about ran through our money” to get on the ballot, he says, stretching the resources of his “hand-to-mouth organization” in the process. Still, Lancaster puts a positive spin on the effort: “A real camaraderie has been established,” he explains, which will help as the party grows in the future. And besides, he made history.

The last third-party candidate for Maryland’s governorship, Robert Woods Merkle of George Wallace’s segregationist American Party, ran in 1970 and received nearly 20,000 votes. His candidacy was so distasteful to the state’s political establishment that new laws were passed to make it harder for such candidates to make the ballot. The restrictions, though eased since, are still considered among the toughest in the nation. Third-party candidates in Maryland, once their party has gained state recognition by gathering 10,000 signatures of registered voters, must also collect the John Hancocks of at least 1 percent of the voters where they hope to run. According to Richard Winger, a Libertarian and publisher of the Ballot Access News newsletter, which covers such laws across the nation, two-thirds of states have less restrictive ballot-access laws than Maryland’s.

Today, about 6,300 Marylanders are registered as Libertarians–more than the three other state-recognized third parties (Green, Constitution, and Reform) combined–and 170 are dues-paying members. And Lancaster expects to attract many more voters to the Libertarian fold in the coming years, not just in Maryland but nationwide.

“We’ve become the center party,” he contends. “Believe it or not, we’ve become more of the old pragmatic, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done party than the two major parties. And I think this is why we are going to start getting a lot of our pull, especially among young people. The young people, they are not about to go into the real radical right, and they are not too keen on going real radical left. I think they see our program as being pretty realistic and pretty functional.”

Lancaster’s claim that his party is a get-it-done outfit is belied by a glaring fact–the Libertarian Party has precious little experience in governance. Only one Libertarian currently holds elective office in Maryland–Joseph Harrington, a longtime city council member in Brunswick, a town of 5,000 in Frederick County. Three others hold appointed positions on various local boards and commissions. Nationwide, Libertarians have been elected state representatives and small-town mayors, but higher offices have been elusive. What they do best, so far, is sell their ideas by running for office. And for Lancaster–who at 69 is retired from a long career in sales–selling ideas is second nature. All he needs is an audience, be it of one or a thousand, and he’s more than happy to explain the party line.

Over chili and beer at Fuddrucker’s in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Spear Lancaster and his running mate, Lorenzo Gaztanaga, hold forth about libertarianism. The party’s bottom line, they explain, is right there in the Declaration of Independence: equal rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and self-determination over governance. And these rights, Lancaster explains, must be protected for every individual. “That’s the key,” he explains. “You can’t protect selectively. You have to protect everybody–all the time, every time, no exceptions. The weak, the people you even detest, the people whose lifestyle you wouldn’t engage in for a million bucks–you have to protect their rights. This is the thing that the Founding Fathers signed onto. It is not what either of the major parties sign onto today. They have selective rights.”

Picking up on Lancaster’s train of thought, Gaztanaga declares, “They selectively apply which rights are important to them, and then they try to promote bills and laws and regulations selectively based on those rights they like.

“A real government would actually make it its business to apply equality under the law, number one, and number two, to protect individuals from the abuses of other individuals,” Gaztanaga says. “That’s the true role of government, that’s what it is supposed to do–and can do very well, if it sticks to it. The problem with government today is that it steps into arenas that it is not equipped for and becomes intrusive, restricting freedom and reducing personal responsibility.”

Libertarians, Lancaster explains, take the best ideas of both major parties and combine them under the overarching rubric of liberty.

“Most Republicans,” he says, “agree with us on the importance of maintaining free markets, but they just don’t think people’s personal rights are all that important. The Democrats, just the opposite. They are all for personal rights, but they don’t think people should have as much liberty in economic areas. We want economic liberty and personal liberty, both, and the responsibilities that go with them.”

The libertarian philosophy of individual liberty and personal responsibility, Gaztanaga explains, leads many people to think that libertarianism “means you can do whatever you want to do. And I stop them right there and say, yeah, as long as you are not hurting anybody else. You have to have ethics. If you hurt anybody else, the game’s up.” An axiom of this moral guidepost, Lancaster continues, is never to initiate violence in any form.

Maryland’s Libertarian Party was formed in 1972, shortly after the national party’s founding in 1971, says longtime party member Dean Ahmad, an astronomer and expert on Islam from the Washington suburbs. In 1980 the party first achieved official recognition by the state, and “a Libertarian presidential candidate has been on the Maryland ballot in every election since,” Ahmad explains. Due to Maryland’s restrictive ballot-access laws, the party has often resorted to the courts–with mixed success–in order to win places on ballots. Other than Brunswick City Councilman Harrington, only one other Libertarian has ever won elective office in Maryland: Steve Ziegler, who earned a seat on the Charles County school board in 1996 and served one four-year term, Ahmad recalls.

Applying libertarianism to some of the big issues of the current campaign season leads to some interesting platform planks. Income tax? Get rid of it. The war on drugs? It’s a failure, so end prohibition and stop unfairly criminalizing a large segment of society. Social Security? Privatize it. Homosexuality? Keep the government out of people’s sex lives. Abortion? It’s up to the individual. Guns? Citizens have a right to keep and bear arms.

“When we get into the gun issue,” Lancaster says of his stump speech, “I ask everybody in the audience, do you have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? ‘Yeah,’ they say. Then I say, ‘Well, then you have the right to defend them any way you can.'”

On taxes, Lancaster believes a national sales tax should replace income tax–the more you spend, the more taxes you pay, and no income tax would mean no Internal Revenue Service and no cumbersome tax law full of loopholes for the rich. On illegal drugs, Lancaster believes drug criminalization is what makes them so profitable and so prone to violence; legalize drugs, he says, and “you take the money out of it. If you don’t take the money out of it, you’re not going to have a choice to stop” the violence.

If he should win the governorship, Lancaster says he’ll immediately convene a panel of experts from nationally recognized think tanks, who would form an “efficiency committee” to assess and make recommendations for reducing “the size and redundancy” of state government. In working to get his bureaucracy-shrinking agenda through the Democrat-and-Republican-dominated legislature, Lancaster says he would use the governor’s considerable budgetary powers to persuade oppositionist legislators to back policy measures he supports.

Lancaster sees many, many faults with the way government approaches problems today, but he remains optimistic because he believes politics is opening up to new ideas.

“We need choices, and I’m working with the Greens, the Reforms, and anybody else to make sure that happens here in Maryland,” he says. “The major parties seem to think the public is too dumb, that we just have to walk them through it. But you need choices. And the way they do it here in Maryland, getting permission to get on the ballot once you’ve jumped through all these hoops, we don’t have many. I am free when I don’t have to get anybody’s permission.”

Spear Lancaster’s life story helps explain his do-it-yourself attitude. The grandson of a Maryland state senator, he was born on a small tobacco farm during the Great Depression in Leonardtown, St. Mary’s County; attended a one-room schoolhouse in Rock Point; and survived a typhoid epidemic that struck his community when he was 6 years old. After high school in La Plata, he attended the University of Maryland, started a small construction business with some colleagues, and met and married his wife, Doris (who’s affectionately known as “Dee”). He then embarked on a career in sales, working from 1961 to 1993 for Rubbermaid Corp. Since 1966, he and Doris have lived in Crownsville, near Annapolis, where they raised two sons in a house he built himself. In 1990 he started his own company, 4 Seasons Flooring, which he ran until 2000. All the while, he’s been a voracious reader, soaking up ideas–particularly on politics.

For most of his life, Lancaster was a Democrat–“a Harry Truman Democrat,” he likes to say–and even dabbled in far-left thought. “I stayed a Democrat so long because of the women’s-rights and civil-rights movements, and the fact that they claimed to be helping the poor people,” he says. “And for a while, I think they did.”

Eventually, in the late 1980s, he grew disillusioned with the failure of Democratic policies and switched to the Republican Party. This was a temporary home. In the mid-1990s he found the Libertarian Party and studied its ideas. “I said to Dee, ‘You know, I’ve been a libertarian all my life,'” he recalls. He officially joined the Libertarian Party in 1996 and has actively participated in the party organization ever since.

Libertarians, he explains, are “very tolerant” of diverse ideas and lifestyles–a quality he cherishes, since “I’ve always been suspicious of sanctimonious, self-righteous people.” As a man who likes his fun, he says, “I actually like to think of myself as a Jeffersonian-Jackson libertarian.” Thomas Jefferson, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, is a libertarian icon, but Andrew Jackson’s appeal to Lancaster lies in his wild ways. For instance, Lancaster says that, if elected, he plans to rent out the Governor’s Mansion on the weekends for parties and weddings: “Dee says, ‘Well, you can’t mess the place up.’ I say, ‘The hell I can’t. Hell, old Jackson had the crowd come in the White House. They stood on the furniture and drank whiskey and had a good time.”

Like Lancaster, Gaztanaga is also a self-made man. Born in Havana in 1949, he arrived in Miami as a 12-year-old, and by the time he was 14 he was sweeping floors and working as a gofer for the Jesuit Seminary Guild in Baltimore. Public schools in Cuba were followed by parochial schools in the States. He graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School and has studied history and psychology at various Baltimore-area colleges. He and his wife of 27 years, Susan Gaztanaga, spent five years teaching English and Spanish in Haiti until 1984, and are very active in their church, Cliftmont Wesleyan Church in Belair-Edison. He’s had many jobs over the years and is currently a security officer at a building near Baltimore/Washington International Airport.

Also like Lancaster, Gaztanaga came to libertarianism from the left-wing side of the political spectrum–drawing from his family’s tradition in Cuba of being social democrats. When he first registered in Maryland, he was Democrat, then became an independent, and finally spent a few years as a Republican before joining the Libertarian fold in 1992, quickly rising through the ranks to become state chair later that year. In 1995, he tried to get on the ballot for the Baltimore City Council’s Third District race but fell short of the signature requirement–at that time, he needed signatures from 3 percent of the district’s voters. In 1999, he successfully made it onto the ballot and garnered 9 percent of the vote (almost 1,500 votes).

“I’m an idealistic pragmatist,” Gaztanaga proclaims. “I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but I’m very strong in my ideals. I understand that I cannot have it now, and that I have to find ways to get there, that I have to always try to persuade people and be willing to be proven wrong when I’m wrong.

“I’d like to serve in office one day. I really would. And it might happen. And then I can really see if all the stuff I’ve been talking about is really good or not.”

And at that, Gaztanaga puts forth a hearty laugh.

The Libertarian Party in Maryland is a big tent, which welcomes both youthful leftists who question authority and aging conservatives disillusioned with the Republican Party. While politically minded people in the midst of their careers who are interested in working within mainstream thought tend toward the major parties, pre- and post-career folks seem more willing to entertain third-party politics and ideas.

“Yep, yep,” confirms Lancaster when presented with these thoughts. “Absolutely right.”

Colin Boxall, a 30-year-old Curtis Bay resident who works as a systems administrator for the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, became a Libertarian after voting as a Republican in the 1992 presidential election. Dissatisfied with the major parties, he “went shopping” for alternatives by doing research at the local public library until he “found the one that more or less matched my political ideas.”

In libertarianism, Boxall found comfort in an ideology that has as its “fundamental idea that people have a right to run their own lives,” a tenet that he says is “not well-expressed or defended by the major parties.” Still, Boxall notes, “there are certainly things I disagree with–some of their economic ideals. There is too much trust in laissez-faire capitalism–some libertarians just don’t understand how ruthless corporations, particularly large corporations, can be.”

After growing up in Catonsville, Boxall got married and moved first to Brooklyn, then to nearby Curtis Bay. “We were looking to move to the city, because we have an alternative lifestyle [an unorthodox marriage, the particulars of which he prefers to keep private],” he explains. “We are not members of the ‘Big Three’ religions, and we did not want to live where these things would be held against us. In Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, there are enough problems that, if you’re not causing problems, people will let you live your own life.”

Boxall’s excitement about Lancaster’s candidacy is palpable. “Spear is a particularly good candidate for the Libertarian Party to put forward. The fact that he was a Democrat for most of his life means that he has values that Maryland Democrats can identify with,” he says. “And he sells the concept of libertarianism very well.” Having a former Republican as a candidate, he says, would “frighten off” the 18- to 25-year-old demographic–a group that Boxall wants “to pull into the party because it has the energy necessary to push a third party forward.”

Ruth Andrasco, a 65-year-old medical receptionist from Bowie, was registered as an independent voter until finding the Libertarian Party several years ago.

“I’m very tired of the one-party system in this state,” she explains. “I don’t feel I belong. And things are not being fixed, but more and more money is being spent to fix them.”

In the early 1990s, when Newt Gingrich was on the rise in Washington, she thought there was hope, “but then he pooped out. And the Republican Party didn’t do what they said they would do. They act like Democrats, supporting farm subsidies and steel tariffs.” She wants “less government, less taxes,” and believes the government should sell off its land to pay down its debt.

Lancaster’s candidacy is “a long shot, but it gives me hope,” Andrasco admits. “He’s a very smart man, and very optimistic.”

She first met him when Gaztanaga was running for Baltimore City Council in 1999, and “he was very friendly and made me feel at home in the party, because it is mostly men. I’m very glad that we have someone like him to fill the candidacy. But it is very hard for him to get publicity. All we basically want is for people to know that there is an option, that you don’t have to vote for the major-party candidates if you don’t like them.”

Rock guitarist Chris Couture, 33, gave $100 to the Lancaster campaign, making him one of the Baltimore area’s biggest contributors. He has since moved away and now lives in New Hampshire, but Couture spent seven years living in Mount Vernon, Reservoir Hill, and Charles Village while performing in bands that played such venues as the 8 x 10 Club, Fletcher’s, and the Hard Rock Café. He got involved with the Libertarian Party of Maryland in the mid-1990s and strongly supported Gaztanaga’s 1999 City Council bid.

Before hooking up with the Libertarians, Couture says he “usually voted Democratic,” but came to believe the major parties were “actually two sides of the same coin” and wanted an alternative. The Libertarian Party, he says, “as a whole mimics my ideals–it is the best party to represent people who have an individualistic ideal. Libertarians respect people.”

Bill Buzzell of Dundalk joined the Libertarian Party in the early 1980s, after retiring from the Air Force. Previously, the 62-year-old Buzzell had been a Republican. Then his sister-in-law introduced him to the writings of Ayn Rand, whose views served as his “entrance point into libertarianism.” The problem with Republicans, he says, is that “they don’t vote the way they talk–as strict constitutionalists.”

In 1994, he worked on Ehrlich’s successful bid for Congress but quickly grew disheartened with him. “Once in office, he seemed to work at getting the government larger and more intrusive, so I never worked on another” Ehrlich campaign, he says.

Buzzell is excited about the Lancaster’s candidacy but is concerned that “we can’t get the word out.” He believes Lancaster can appeal to “both sides of the spectrum,” politically, and take advantage of what Buzzell views as the electorate’s innate libertarianism. “About a quarter of people are libertarian,” he says, “but they don’t know it.”

One of Lancaster’s biggest beefs with the prevailing body politic is what he likes to call its tendency to create “unintended consequences.”

“Politicians talk about doing stuff–they don’t have a clue about what the hell they’re doing,” he says. “They pass laws without any idea what it will cost or who it will cost. They create unrealistic expectations, and the quickest way to fail is to have unrealistic expectations. The politicians want to promise you miracles and talk wonders. And they’ve got to know that they are talking gibberish.”

Lancaster, though, is not prone to such “hogwash,” he says. He doesn’t expect to win the upcoming election and he isn’t holding out libertarianism as the answer to all the world’s problems. He just wants a diversity of views to inform the political debate–be it his, those of other libertarians who don’t share his opinions, or those of other third parties who similarly are shunned by the system. Infusing new voices into politics, Lancaster believes, will help reinvigorate the public’s interest in politics in an era of manifest apathy.

“A third of the voting-age public doesn’t register, and more than half of those who do don’t vote–and that’s in a good year,” he says. He is also quick to point out that more and more Maryland voters opt not to register with the major parties–from 7.8 percent in 1984, to 9.5 percent in 1994, to 13.7 percent in 2001–which indicates to him growing disillusionment with politics as usual. Thus, Lancaster offers himself as an alternative–the first one Maryland voters have been offered in a governor’s race in 32 years. Come election day, we’ll see if anybody’s buying it.