Believe It … Or Not: Measuring O’Malley’s March on Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Aug. 27, 2003

IMG_7645

Good news is never hard to find when mayors seek re-election. Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke’s last political campaign in 1995 published a whole book of good news about his administration’s then-ongoing efforts in Baltimore. As is now widely recognized, though, the bad news far outweighed the good during the Schmoke years, which were marked by a cerebral approach to governance that produced paltry results and left the city’s psyche stigmatized by failure.

Schmoke’s charismatic successor, Martin O’Malley, was elected in 1999 on an ambitious anti-crime platform and a promising slogan, “For Reform and Change.” He won with a strong mandate that created high expectations and a refreshing sense of hope for the city. As he now runs for re-election as the distinct favorite in the six-way Democratic primary, O’Malley croons earnestly about the upturn Baltimore has seen during his four years in office. While his new campaign slogan–“Because Better Isn’t Good Enough”–suggests that his record has shortcomings he is willing to acknowledge, he’s still found plenty to boast about. Here’s a taste of some of the O’Malley campaign’s bragging points, lifted from its promotional materials:

  • “Baltimore has, in just a few years, achieved the largest [violent-crime] reduction of any major city in America.
  • “Baltimore’s per pupil spending increased by 15 percent [since 1999] . . . improving from 6th to 2nd highest in the state.
  • “In 2002 alone, the Baltimore Development Corporation’s efforts brought 6,000 jobs to Baltimore.”

Also available to help boost civic optimism during this election season is the Believe campaign, a multimillion-dollar advertising effort underwritten largely by the nonprofit Baltimore Police Foundation. The campaign aims to empower Baltimoreans to overcome the ravages of illegal drugs, and its most visible impact has been the thousands of images of the word “believe” that have placarded the city since last year. Believe’s latest media blitz, which started this summer and is ongoing, charts and celebrates the city’s progress since 1999. That’s the year before O’Malley took the reins of City Hall. Thus, Believe’s current feel-good message is not only about Baltimore’s efforts to tamp down its violent drug culture but also about O’Malley’s record as mayor.

Amid this propaganda, it’s hard to know what to trust. Critical thinking, after all, demands an innate skepticism of messages in advertising, because campaigns, whether political or commercial, are designed to make use of advantageous information rather than present a balanced picture.

IMG_7656

For instance, one could reason that Baltimore’s chart-topping reduction in violent crime is less remarkable than it sounds because, as the most violent city in the United States in 1999 (now the second most violent, behind Detroit), positive trends here have a greater statistical impact than in other, less violent cities. And while per-pupil spending increased 15 percent overall between 1999 and 2002, school enrollment during that period declined by almost 9 percent. With fewer students entering the system each year, per-student spending would increase naturally with a flat budget–and dramatically so with the modest budget increases that have been secured during O’Malley’s tenure in City Hall.

As for the 6,000 new jobs in 2002, attributed to the work of the city’s quasi-public economic development agency, that’s a lot of slots in a city where the number of unemployed people hovers around 25,000. The fact remains, though, that there were nearly 2,000 more unemployed people in the city’s labor force this June than there were in the beginning of 2002. And the unemployment rate has risen slightly rather than dropped during the same period. These facts strongly suggest that those 6,000 jobs were not filled predominantly by city residents but by commuters from surrounding areas.

Thus, the O’Malley camp’s upbeat take on the last four years begs other relevant ways to plumb Baltimore’s progress–different gauges than O’Malley’s people are emphasizing, ones that instead look at facets of city life not necessarily found in the campaign leaflets. The following results are mixed, and thus will please O’Malley supporters and detractors alike. And they show that O’Malley’s assertion that “better isn’t good enough” is dead-on in summing up his first term. The city’s stock has risen, but there’s room for improvement.

IMG_7646

On election day 1999, Martin O’Malley was the beneficiary of a very important statistic when he chalked up 53 percent of the votes in what had shaken down to be a three-way, racially charged Democratic Primary pitting him, a white guy, against former City Councilman Carl Stokes and then-City Council President Lawrence Bell, both of whom are black. “There is more that unites us than divides us,” O’Malley often said that summer–a sentiment that, along with his bold promises to reduce crime using New York City’s successful approach as a model, resonated with an electorate that seemed exhausted from years of decline, violence, and divisiveness.

After the votes were counted, even some of those who worked against him were ebullient. “Martin O’Malley has a clear mandate from the entire city,” said former City Council president, 1995 mayoral candidate, and current 14th District City Council candidate Mary Pat Clarke, who supported Bell in the 1999 race. “This city, black and white, voted for Martin O’Malley. And it was not marginal. It was resounding. He has a mandate to lead the whole city. It’s a wondrous thing to behold.”

IMG_7647

O’Malley’s votes in that race, nonetheless, reflected the realities of the city’s stark divide between poor African-Americans and everyone else. The precincts that supported O’Malley–including many predominantly black precincts–were spread thickly across the city, with the exception of two, hard-to-ignore areas: the blighted, poverty-stricken swaths on the east and west sides, which form a butterfly-wing pattern with midtown at the center. These neighborhoods–Upton, Druid Heights, Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park, Rosemont, Poppleton, Edmondson Village, and others on the west side, and Middle East, Berea, Clifton Park, Jonestown, Greenmount West, and others on the east side–did not buy into the O’Malley agenda as it was spelled out during the ’99 campaign. Stokes or Bell won most of the votes in these butterfly wings, which are overwhelmingly black and are home to about a third of the city’s population.

These neighborhoods, more than any others in the city, have the most to gain from City Hall’s policies since they suffer most from Baltimore’s famous ills. Here, according to data published by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (www. bnia. org), a Charles Village-based nonprofit that has taken on the Herculean task of collecting and analyzing myriad measures of Baltimore’s communities, a fifth of all serious crime is violent, vs. a 10th in the rest of the city. Here, more than a third of family households are headed by single mothers, vs. a fifth in the rest of the city. Here, about 60 percent of mothers receive first-trimester pre-natal care, vs. three-quarters of the mothers in the rest of the city. Here, nearly 40 percent of working people don’t use cars to get to their jobs, vs. less than 25 percent in the rest of the city. And here, out of every 1,000 juveniles, an average of 124 were arrested in 2001, vs. 95 in the rest of the city; the rate of juvenile arrests in these neighborhoods jumped to 142 per 1,000 juveniles in 2002. The list of disparities is long and poignant.

If, as his 1999 campaign materials noted, New York City was O’Malley’s model for success, then Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods would benefit most from his policies, as happened during New York’s renaissance in the 1990s. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s approach–while widely vilified, largely because of the man’s brusque personality and a few horrific incidents involving his police force–was to commit resources where they were most needed, and thus he helped spur revival in Gotham’s most hard-pressed areas as well as its most prosperous. And, despite opinions to the contrary, Giuliani achieved these gains while reducing the number of police-involved shootings compared to his predecessor. So, has the approach worked in Baltimore under O’Malley’s guiding hand? Yes and no.

IMG_7648

There’s just no arguing the gains made in the critical early grades of the Baltimore City public schools during the last five years. Scores in the nationwide TerraNova standardized tests rose dramatically across the board between the 1998-’99 and 2002-’03 school years in the city’s elementary-school grades. And those gains, reflected in a recently released school system report, have been greatest in schools serving the city’s poorest neighborhoods–though the situation is reversed in scores for sixth-graders. The greatest climb in average percentile rankings was in poor areas’ second-grade reading scores, which jumped an average of 23.2 points in the five-year period, while the scores rose 17.1 points for second-graders in the rest of the city’s schools. Sixth-graders scores in the poor schools, though, climbed an average of 9.6 points, compared to 19.6 at all the other city schools.

IMG_7655

O’Malley attributes this overall success in part to expanding programs that target kids before they enter first grade. “We have gone from 109 full-day kindergarten classes to 297, reaching that mandate five years ahead of when the state wanted us to,” he cited during a recent interview with City Paper in his City Hall office. “And we’ve gone from one full-day pre-K program to 91.” He also pointed out that the school system’s efforts to standardize course content have helped, too, given that “a lot of kids are in three or four or five different schools in the course of a year, [and are faced] with a different curriculum every time.”

Kids living in poverty, O’Malley observes, have to prevail over more severe obstacles in order to learn well, so the greater improvements in test scores at schools serving poor children are that much more impressive. “The neighborhood environment from which our poor children are drawn have a lot bigger societal problems . . . [such as] violent crime, drug addiction, and the sort of societal abandonment, familial abandonment, that those things fuel, than in other areas of our city,” he said. “Unfortunately, [these students] have to overcome a lot more of the baggage that we as a society still allow to be heaped upon them through no fault of their own.

“So I don’t think it’s accidental that our kids are doing better in school as the city’s becoming safer and as more parents are getting into drug treatment,” he continued. “I think all of this works together. And the expectations for their success I think are greater than maybe they’ve been in years past.”

Of any single area under city government’s bailiwick, though, the school system is the one over which the mayor has the least direct influence. This is the result of a partial state takeover of city schools during Schmoke’s last term–a negotiated outcome to settle a long-litigated lawsuit. Thus, while O’Malley has some say over schools policy by virtue of his control over nine appointments to the 18-member school board and the city’s 23.5 percent contribution to the system’s 2002 budget, he can’t take full credit for its success or failure. Nonetheless, his limited clout in the schools arena means he can tout–with a measure of modesty–the remarkable rise in test scores as part of his record as mayor.

IMG_7649

By and large, the city’s poorest neighborhoods fall in two of the city’s nine police districts, the Eastern and the Western. Examining the crime numbers in these two districts in 1999 and 2002, vs. the other seven districts, turns up mixed results. According to police department data, overall violent crime in the Eastern and Western districts combined has dropped 31 percent from 1999 to 2002, while nonfatal shootings have dropped almost 38 percent. But murders rose nearly 15 percent in 2002 compared to 1999–and the two districts’ share of the city’s total number of homicides has increased from nearly 30 percent in 1999 to more than 41 percent in 2002.

Running the same analysis on 2003’s year-to-date figures in the Eastern and Western districts as of Aug. 9, vs. 1999’s numbers on the same date, show that the disparity is even greater this year. Murders are up 50 percent from 1999, while violent crime has dropped more than 42 percent and shootings more than 18 percent. According to the police department’s own statistics, the Eastern and Western districts have become less violent but far more deadly.

IMG_7653

“I had never seen these murder numbers broken down like this before,” O’Malley commented while reviewing these statistics. “It’s an interesting way to break them down.” But his response was to repeat Giuliani’s mantra: “We apply our resources to where the problems are.” And then he opened his crime-numbers notebook and recited figures showing that violent crime is down dramatically in every district, including the Eastern and Western.

“You know,” he added, “all of this is a work in progress. I’m not happy with 253.” That’s the number of murders committed citywide in 2002–a far cry from the 175 he had promised by that date during the 1999 campaign and during the first two years of his administration. “We’re going to continue to go down from there.”

IMG_7654

And the mayor got exercised over projections of this year’s final murder tally, which as of press time is on track to reach about 285 by the end of December. “Everybody always wants to project that year-end number,” he said with palpable disgust. “I mean, they want to do it in July. And a half a year’s left. And it is awful and it’s morbid and it’s cold to talk statistics. One homicide is one homicide too many.

“But we deploy our resources to where the problems are,” O’Malley continued, getting back to the disproportionate violence in the Eastern and Western districts. “And all of this, it is still young. The open-air drug trade in this city was allowed to grow and flourish and develop and become as acute as it did over a 25-year slide. And so we are going to continue to hammer it.”

Another area that O’Malley has targeted is police corruption. It’s a ticklish subject, and one on which he mounted his bully pulpit starting in 1993, when he was a young councilman. “The few bad apples are just that–the few,” he said in an impassioned speech on the council floor 10 years ago. “But there is not a single knowledgeable person in federal, state, or local law enforcement today who will deny that we have a growing problem with street-level corruption.”

During the 1999 campaign, O’Malley repeatedly stressed the importance of “policing the police,” and continued to fuel the perception that the corruption problem in the department was acute. And he asserted that the problem had been swept under the rug for years. After he was elected, he hired a consulting firm, the Maple/Linder Group of New York City, to do a full assessment of the police department, including an internal survey of sworn officers. The findings on corruption were eye-popping. “While 48.7 percent of respondents believe that five percent or less of . . . officers are stealing money or drugs from drug dealers,” the report reads, “23.2 percent believe the number is greater than a quarter of the department.” Based on the buzz O’Malley sounded, many in Baltimore expected to see heads starting to roll.

It never really happened. There was one infamous case–Agent Brian Sewell, who was accused of planting drugs on an innocent suspect as a result of a sting operation. But the case tanked when the alleged evidence against him was pilfered by the lead investigator in the case from a secret internal-investigations office in Essex around Christmas 2000. (The department used its administrative procedures to fire Sewell. He appealed successfully, winning the right to a new trial-board hearing, but agreed to leave the force rather than go through another proceeding. Sewell recently died in an accident at Andrews Air force Base, where he had been assigned for duty with the Maryland National Guard.)

Other than Sewell, police department spokesman Matt Jablow says only three other officers–Jacqueline Folio, Scott Fullwood, and an unnamed member of the force–failed the 217 drug-related integrity stings staged by the department’s Internal Affairs Division since the beginning of 2000. The unnamed officer, Jablow explained, “struck a deal” and retired, so the department is unwilling to reveal his name.

“We’ve been doing 100 integrity stings a year for the last few years,” O’Malley explained, somewhat apologetically. “Some of them are targeted, a lot of them are random. Like everything else we do in this department, there is plenty of room for improvement as far as how we police our police. We’re doing more of it than we ever have. We have not come across that sort of beehive’s nest of every officer on a shift in a particular precinct [involved in corruption], like they had in New York, where they had a couple of celebrated cases. But [police Commissioner Kevin] Clark believes that we can do those targeted stings even more effectively than we have done them in the past.

“You don’t start a new effort like that and have it perfect overnight,” he continued. “And obviously from some of the problems that we had in some of those prosecutions [e.g., the Sewell case], it was pretty apparent that this was something new for us. But I had been somewhat surprised not to find more of that, given the way the drug trade took over big swaths of the city. But we’ll continue to be on the lookout for it and to improve the effectiveness of the investigations.”

IMG_7650

In 1999, as O’Malley was running for mayor on an anti-crime platform, critics sometimes complained that he was a one-trick pony. Even his economic development ideas were built on crime-fighting. When asked during an interview that summer what the government’s role is in creating jobs and improving the business climate, for instance, he responded that “you do both of those things by first accomplishing job one of any organized government, which is public safety. I think there is no way to create jobs or to improve the business environment if the only businesses expanding are these open-air drug markets.”

But there was more to his plan than boosting law-enforcement. It also involved “having a mayor more actively involved with our lending institutions and letting them know where opportunities exist in this city,” he continued, “where they can make a dollar and where they can help build this city again. Businesses, their knock on city government isn’t a whole helluva lot different than citizens. Nobody returns their phone calls and nobody listens. So that’s what it’s all about.”

Today, O’Malley likes to talk about the $1.6 billion in new construction that he says is underway in Baltimore. Apparently, by that measure, his one-two punch of crime-fighting and massaging the investing class has worked pretty well. While unemployment remains high–the June figure for the city was 8.8 percent, compared to 5.2 percent for the metro region and 4.3 percent for Maryland overall–that’s largely out of his control, given the national economic recession that took hold in 2000, just as he was getting traction as the new mayor.

“We haven’t taken as severe a hit to our overall job base [during this recession] as other cities,” says Anirban Basu, an economist who heads the Fells Point-based consulting firm Optimal Solutions. “And that’s a radical departure from the recession of the early 1990s, when Baltimore was a laggard in recovering compared to other cities, which tended to come out strong during the rest of the decade. A lot of people expected a repeat performance this time, and that never materialized.” Basu attributes that in part to the wealth in the region, which means more businesses and individuals qualify to take advantage of the historically low interest rates on bank loans: “That’s why we have had such a terrific housing market in Baltimore City, which has the cheapest housing stock in the region, so it is likely people are going to look there first for deals. And many would-be renters have been empowered to buy homes.”

Baltimore’s relative prosperity amid a recession is hard to attribute directly to O’Malley’s efforts. But his efforts have certainly helped. While several formal economic-development strategies have been conceived during O’Malley’s four years in office, two were much ballyhooed early on. First, and the one that was promised often during his 1999 campaign, was to leverage the power of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), the federal law requiring banks to make loans in poorer neighborhoods from which they draw depositors. And the second, adopted after he gained office, was to grow the local technology industry in a drive that was dubbed “The Digital Harbor.”

It’s hard to quantify how effectively O’Malley has wielded the CRA to bring new investment to Baltimore. But the extent to which he’s succeeded at all is an achievement, because the CRA has become an increasingly impotent tool in recent years. The main trend that has weakened the CRA is the fact that national mortgage-lending companies have increasingly become the lender of choice for many homebuyers and for those refinancing their mortgages. Such companies generally do not have local branches where consumers make deposits, and thus are not subject to the CRA’s provisions.

So, while O’Malley talked a big CRA game during the 1999 campaign–saying, for instance, that he would use “that hammer of monitoring the banks and the threat that you’ll mess up their business and their ability to merge and do what banks like to do in this era”–his tone has been much more conciliatory toward the banks since he took office. “A lot more of our banks were more savvy [on the CRA front] than we had anticipated,” he explained recently.

Despite the CRA’s increasingly limited reach, several local banks that do take deposits from Baltimore have outstanding CRA ratings, and they’ve stepped up to the plate with sizable CRA-eligible loans for local development efforts. Most impressive has been the Bank of America, which, by O’Malley’s tally, has financed or invested in ongoing local projects to the tune of approximately $170 million.

And O’Malley can take credit for getting banks to help underwrite the efforts of the Community Development Finance Corp., a quasi-public lending institution that makes risky loans for redevelopment in low-income areas and that was riddled with scandal under Schmoke. “Quite frankly,” he explained, “many of [the banks] were very reluctant to do it unless we put better checks and balances in place to safeguard the value of their loans. But I had several one-on-one meetings with them and lots of phone calls, lots of lobbying, begging, arm-twisting. We changed the rules at CDFC in terms of giving the banks some greater voice in the loans that we make and some greater oversight. But we got the banks to re-up, and that was to the tune of $26 million that they put into the CDFC.”

In the heady early days of his administration, Digital Harbor quickly became the most heralded piece of O’Malley’s economic-development package. “Our working waterfront,” O’Malley proclaimed in an early-2000 speech before a large gathering of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, a national group that promotes results-oriented governance, “once again has become our port to a new economy with dozens of Digital Harbor companies filling revitalized space formerly occupied by manufacturing and warehouse equipment. We have made recruiting, supporting, and growing tech companies our highest economic-development priority because the Digital Harbor is Baltimore’s future.”

Digital Harbor was just getting up and running in 2000 when the tech-industry bubble burst. While little positive news has been heard about it since the tech collapse, local tech-industry leaders remain upbeat. “Baltimore City has done extraordinarily well” given the industry’s downturn, says Penny Lewandowski, who directs the Greater Baltimore Technology Council, a trade group based in the American Can Company complex in Canton. “I can name only three companies that did not survive–Cycle Shark, Gr8, and Tide Point LLC.” Her rosy take has required a slight shift in perspective. “Digital Harbor,” she explains, “is not just about companies that are exclusively technology, but how technology affects traditional businesses as well. So, did the mayor make the right bet? Absolutely.”

Basu gives a less optimistic appraisal of the tech industry’s status in the city today, but he backs Lewandowski’s basic conclusions. “The collapse hasn’t been quite the bloodbath it’s been nationally,” he says, pointing out that the large infusion of federal research dollars into the local economy and regional tech industry’s reliance on those federal contracts have helped. “Federal-government contracts account for about 40 percent of the state’s tech-industry revenues, versus about 10 percent in Silicon Valley.”

The main reason for tech’s resilience in Baltimore in the face of a national downturn, Basu says, is that Baltimore had less to lose than other cities. “Baltimore has not been a hotbed of private-sector technology in much of its history,” he explains. “It was late in coming to the table–and then, just as the momentum was building, the tech industry goes bust.”

O’Malley’s focus in the tech arena also has shifted since the tech collapse–from information technology and telecommunications, which were the hardest hit areas, to biotechnology, which is a less mercurial beast. “What we are trying to do,” he explained, “is to create the expectation that in our already fairly diverse economy, that we are ready and have the natural resources–the colleges and universities and research institutions–to be able to grow that sector of the economy which could be called the new economy. And I think our area, where we have greater strengths than others, is going to be in biotech.” To that end, the city is soon to become home to two biotechnology parks–one on the east side and affiliated with Johns Hopkins University; the other on the west side, being developed by the University of Maryland.

City government’s role in all of this is not so much “the bricks-and-mortar visibility,” O’Malley said, but work-force development–investing in programs that will prepare city residents to participate in the new economy. And he’s more than happy, along with his technology coordinator, Mario Armstrong, to recite a list of new initiatives. First and foremost, O’Malley and Armstrong explain, is the radical gain in the ratio of students to computers in the classroom. “We used to be at 10 to 1, now we’re at three-and-a-half to one,” Armstrong said enthusiastically. “That was us making it a priority,” O’Malley continues, “Carmen [Russo, the outgoing city schools chief] not fighting us on being involved in it, a million dollars of general funds, and 6,000 computers from the Social Security Administration, which we paid to have retrofitted.”

Armstrong’s list of other programs and accomplishments is long and sounds impressive. The Hewlett-Packard Digital Village program aims to train teachers to use computers and incorporate them into class curriculum so students learn in a tech-savvy environment. Digital Village Hubs, which are after-school centers that provide public access to computers, have been established at three locations on the east side. Many of the city’s public-housing projects now have computer centers, and about 1,200 people a month are using them. Five computer-oriented Youth Opportunity Centers have been opened around the city, giving children more occasions to use computers after school. And three Digital Learning Labs have opened, which provide computer-training courses that, in June, taught almost 500 people how to use the technology.

Whether all of this activity actually results in a more job-ready work force for the city’s still-fledgling new economy is the question. As Basu says of the city’s work force-development initiatives, “it will be interesting to see how well it works, but it’s good to see they’re trying.”

It’s less clear that the O’malley administration has been trying on another front where he promised progress when he first ran for mayor: maximizing budget efficiency by reducing the amount of money granted to contractors for “extra work” on city contracts. “I think there are areas where we spend too much [city] money,” he said during a campaign interview four years ago. “One of those is in the letting of public-works contracts through the Board of Estimates. I think that the additional work orders and the inflation on those contracts really needs to be checked.”

Just to be clear, we’ll call what O’Malley was talking about “contract add-ons.” They are routinely passed by the city’s five-member Board of Estimates, which approves much of the city’s spending on a weekly basis and which is controlled by O’Malley by virtue of his seat on the board, plus two mayoral appointees. When the board approves a contract add-on, they are granting city contractors payments in addition to the amount of the original contract. The payments were the subject of occasional controversy during Schmoke’s tenure at City Hall, based on suspicions that some such payments were unnecessary and wasteful. After O’Malley came into office, City Councilman Nicholas D’Adamo Jr. in 2000 announced that, based on numbers he had obtained, the city had spent $99 million on such additional work in the previous five years–though he never completed his promised report on the problem.

Board of Estimates records of two three-year periods of city spending–1994-’96 under Schmoke, and 2000-’02 under O’Malley–reveal a mixed bag of progress on this front. While the board has granted fewer add-ons under O’Malley than they did under Schmoke and has reduced the number of contracts receiving additional work, the amounts granted have grown–especially when measured as a share of the total value of city contracts receiving additional payments. While the city spent $24.2 million on add-ons during the three-year period under Schmoke, it spent $27.4 million on such additional payments under O’Malley–and the add-ons’ share of the total value of contracts rose from 3.3 percent to 6.5 percent.

IMG_7652

The mayor’s office provided alternative figures to City Paper, but they don’t square with the records of the Board of Estimates, which were the basis for City Paper‘s analysis and which are the only source available for the public to independently research city spending patterns. Raquel Guillory, the mayor’s chief spokeswoman, told City Paper the total value of contracts from 1994 through ’96 was $323,649,981, with add-ons comprising 8.4 percent of that total, while the figures for 2000 through ’02 were $379,340,369 and 7.2 percent, respectively. Thus, the O’Malley administration’s numbers show efficiency–add-ons as a percentage of total contract amounts–has increased under O’Malley, while City Paper shows greatly increased inefficiency under O’Malley.

City Paper asked Guillory to explain how city government arrived at their figures. She said that the city’s numbers were derived from the sum total of construction contracts that came before the Board of Estimates for contract add-ons. City Paper based its figures on the sum total of all city contracts–including everything from waste-water treatment improvements to consulting work to digital mapping of the city.

Guillory also explains that two projects worked on under the O’Malley administration–extensive and glitch-riddled contracts on the police headquarters building and Hopkins Plaza downtown–were held over from the Schmoke administration and made up for a large amount of the extra work passed by the Board of Estimates during O’Malley’s term. Also, O’Malley adds, city managers have “been trying to do a better job in terms of the degree of detail that’s in the contracts to begin with, when they go out for bid,” explaining that “if we put out better contracts, we might get the job done for less, without these expensive overages.” So far, the Board of Estimate records don’t reflect the improvements O’Malley suggested have had a money-saving effect, because both the amount and the share of additional work have risen markedly compared to the Schmoke administration in the mid-1990s.

IMG_7651

In the heady days after winning the 1999 primary, O’Malley sat down with a reporter to discuss his victory. One of the many interesting facets of the story was the demise of the once-famous friendship between O’Malley and his longtime partner in politics, Lawrence Bell, whom he trounced at the ballot boxes. Bell, O’Malley believed, had messed up his electoral fortunes with a variety of missteps, but primarily by ditching his long-established political persona as an independent rebel and choosing instead to align himself with the established political forces behind Schmoke.

“I said,” O’Malley recalled in 1999, “‘Even if you are lucky enough to stumble into this thing backwards, you are not going to be able to usher in the sort of change the city needs by relying on the old warhorses. It won’t be possible.’ I said, ‘How you win also dictates how you are able to govern.’ I said, ‘If you win this way, you won’t be able to govern.'”

O’Malley’s 1999 mayoral campaign, in contrast to Bell’s, was marked by efficient fund-raising and spending, a hard-working and diverse cadre of workers, a focus on a few key issues, backing from a panoply of state leaders, and support from an energized public. Like Bell, though, he relied on old warhorses–even older than Bell’s. Not Schmoke’s people (though many of them have since come into the O’Malley fold), but those of his father-in-law, state Attorney General Joseph Curran Jr., and those of State Comptroller (and former mayor and governor) William Donald Schaefer, whose long-loyal cronies turned up in thick numbers in O’Malley’s 1999 campaign and have been well represented in O’Malley’s brain trust. Among them are lawyer-advisor Richard Berndt and former deputy mayor Laurie Schwartz, who left O’Malley’s cabinet last winter after serving since he was elected.

If O’Malley’s advice to Bell was accurate–that “how you win also dictates how you are able to govern”–then O’Malley’s admirably well-run 1999 campaign would lead to overall good governance with fundamental reform limited by his reliance on “old warhorses.” Either way, O’Malley now sums up his first four years in office with the half-apologetic campaign slogan “Because Better Isn’t Good Enough.” And now it’s up to the voters to decide whether–given his record of improved school-test scores, more deadly violence in poor neighborhoods, limited success fighting police corruption, greater private investment and work-force development efforts, and inefficient city contracts–better was in fact good enough. We’ll find out when the votes are tallied.

Mainstream Extremism

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, July 30, 2014

IMG_7593

Anne Arundel County’s Fifth Councilmanic District is the whitest, most educated, and richest of the county’s seven districts, and its voters lean heavily in favor of Republicans. If that pattern holds true in November’s general election for the council seat, the district’s 75,000 residents — 87 percent white, 97 percent with a high-school diploma, and about half with a college degree or higher, and with a median household income of $111,000, higher than any Maryland county — will be turning for constituent services and leadership on local issues to the GOP candidate, Michael Peroutka.

Peroutka, a highly successful debt-collection attorney whose brother and law partner Stephen Peroutka is a board member of the Babe Ruth Museum, also is white, smart, and rich, but it’s doubtful that many of his potential constituents have used their advantages in the way he long has: to advance a militant theocratic agenda.

A decade ago, Peroutka already had a record of supporting the formation of local militias when he ran for U.S. president under the Constitution Party banner, with a campaign slogan — “God-Family-Republic” — that dressed up his extremism with rhetoric that run-of-the-mill patriotic Christians might find innocuously attractive. Similarly, the name of Peroutka’s Institute on the Constitution (IOTC) fails to communicate its actual mission: creating theocratic governance based on both testaments of the Bible, similar to how extremist Muslims would like to establish states based on sharia law derived from the Quran.

Peroutka has now hit on a more pragmatic approach: run for something winnable, like a local race where the outcome is relatively malleable for someone like Peroutka, whose fundraising capabilities are virtually limitless within the usual legal constraints. He has more than a quarter-million dollars in his campaign chest as of late June, and surely much more has come in since. Top supporters include Roy Moore, the Bible-thumping chief judge of the Alabama Supreme Court who believes the separation of church and state is an attack on Christianity and to whom Peroutka has dedicated a field and monument at his 40-acre Prince George’s County property called Gladway Farm; prominent Christian evangelical lawyers William Olson and Herbert Titus, a former Constitution Party vice-presidential candidate; and ex-con Franklin Sanders, a Tennessee metals-trader with secessionist sympathies.

Peroutka’s campaign treasurer is Tom Pavlinic, a sex-crimes defense attorney who specializes in defending clients accused by very young victims. Pavlinic was Peroutka’s attorney when he unsuccessfully sued a social worker who had helped Peroutka’s step-daughters when Peroutka and his then-wife, Diane Peroutka, despite his strongly voiced belief that the state should not be in the parenting business, had placed them in the care of the government’s foster-care system after one of them had accused Peroutka of sexual abuse and then recanted.

Though the Fifth District is a pretty solid GOP stronghold, most of its voters recently came out in support of something that Peroutka is stridently against: same-sex marriage. When the Maryland General Assembly in 2012 passed the law extending the right to marry to same-sex couples, Peroutka reacted by stating that “no earthly government body can redefine marriage any more than it can redefine the law of gravity” and that therefore “there is no reason to consider this a valid legislature or this a legitimate governor. Other than fear, I can think of no reason to further obey their dictates.” Yet when the law went up for referendum that fall, nearly 55 percent of the Fifth District’s voters supported it. Only in four of the district’s 34 precincts, clustered in its far northern reaches near where Peroutka lives in Millersville, did majorities oppose same-sex marriage.

Even if he loses the council race to Democratic contender Patrick Armstrong, Peroutka still won an elected position in the June 24 primary election: he’s now a member of the Republican State Central Committee in his district, making him a leader of the local GOP faithful — whether they like it or not.

And clearly, some of the drivers of mainstream GOP thinking find Peroutka to be a philosophical pariah. In February, when Peroutka’s name was being bandied about as a possible GOP candidate for Maryland attorney general, Mark Newgent penned a blog at Red Maryland pointing out that Peroutka is an avowed Christian Reconstructionist. This God’s-law-reigns-supreme approach was birthed by Rousas Rushdoony, and Newgent summed up its goal: “a civil government whose first duty is to carry out a religious mandate to do what God requires as written in the Old Testament, including executions for adulterers and homosexuals.”

Cato Institute senior fellow Walter Olson has called Peroutka a “wackypants anti-gay crusader,” and on his Free State Notes blog in June he wrote that Peroutka’s IOTC “promotes a deeply erroneous view of the U.S. Constitution as an essentially religious document.” And in pointing out that the man is stridently anti-Republican, Olson quoted a Peroutka screed from last fall imploring “anyone, including those who identify with the ‘Tea Party,’ who loves America and desires real reform” to “disengage themselves from the Republican Party and their brand of worthless, Godless, unprincipled conservatism.”

In 2012, Peroutka, a prodigious donor to deeply conservative causes, gave $10,000 to the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which was working to defeat marriage-equality referendum question that ultimately passed muster with the voters. The donation drew the attention of the Human Rights Campaign, a pro-marriage-equality group, which promptly broadcast Peroutka’s strong ties to the League of the South, a Southern secessionist outfit that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a racist hate group. Today, Peroutka’s ties to the League have become a serious concern for Maryland GOP leaders, including gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan, who disavowed Peroutka after the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, played up Peroutka’s extremism.

On July 30, Peroutka held a press conference at a Glen Burnie hotel to try to manage the fallout. He was flanked by two African-American men who support him and his candidacy: Republican state-senate candidate Eric Knowles (who lost in the primary, and has previously run as the Constitution Party’s candidate for governor) and Robert Broadus, who ran as a Republican for U.S. Senate in 2012. Peroutka refused to back down from his support for the League, which he called a “Christian, free-market group,” and, in response to a question, said he’d made no mistake when he sang “I Wish I Was In Dixie” and called it “the national anthem” at a League event in 2012, a YouTube video of which has drawn attention since his primary win. Peroutka sought to cast doubt on the SPLC, referring to “the dangers” of its endeavors, in which he said it engages in “smearing together obvious hatred, such as Neo Nazis or the Klan, with groups,” like the League, “where the SPLC simply doesn’t like their politics.”

Peroutka’s effort to separate the League from neo-Nazis is a blurry endeavor itself, though. As the Huffington Post’s coverage of Peroutka’s press conference pointed out, the YouTube video of Peroutka singing “Dixie” in 2012 “was shot by Michael Cushman, a former member of the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group, who now leads the League’s South Carolina chapter.”

Newgent, meanwhile, saw all this coming when Peroutka was being discussed as a candidate for attorney general. “Imagine the field day the media, not to mention Democrats, would have” with a Peroutka GOP candidacy, he wrote, adding that it would be an “embarrassment and drag on other candidates.”

Some of the most intelligent analysis of Peroutka, though, is coming from the left.

On Huffington Post, Jonathan Hutson has chronicled Peroutka’s ongoing alliance with the League of the South, and quotes its president, Michael Hill, promoting guerrilla warfare and the deployment of “death squads” to obtain the League’s goals. “The primary targets will not be enemy soldiers,” Hill wrote on July 15. “Instead, they will be political leaders, members of the hostile media, cultural icons, bureaucrats, and other of the managerial elite without whom the engines of tyranny don’t run.”

Political Research Associates‘ Frederick Clarkson, meanwhile, writes that Peroutka’s run, as well as that of the GOP candidate for Anne Arundel County Sheriff, Peroutka and League of the South ally Joseph “Joe” Delimater III, “may signal a small, but significant, national trend in applied theocratic theory.”

Peroutka and his followers and allies “believe that holding local office empowers them to defy state and federal law under the rubric of an ancient concept called The Doctrine of the Lower Civil Magistrate,” Clarkson continues. He explains that this doctrine “has been adopted by conservative Christian leaders who are opposed to religious pluralism and separation of church and state, as well as such matters as abortion, LGBTQ rights, taxes, public education and gun control laws,” saying it empowers them “to overthrow ‘tyrannical government.'”

In an earlier post in June, Clarkson recalls an interview he had with Peroutka donor Titus in 1996, when Titus was running for vice president. Titus “told me at a press conference that lower-level government officials (called ‘lesser magistrates’ in the archaic language of the ideas on which his views are based), may refuse to enforce ungodly laws and policies of the government, and rise up against a government that has become corrupt or tyrannical.”

Given Peroutka’s attraction to militias and overthrowing the government, the highly educated voters of Anne Arundel County’s Fifth District could be forgiven if they worry that his candidacy presents a potential threat to civil society. If they happen to fall into debt that Peroutka’s firm tries to collect, though, they might also worry about his tactics.

Consider the case of Antonietta Serruto, who, after gaining bankruptcy protection in 2012, was still illegally targeted for collection by Peroutka’s firm, which took court action against her in 2013, despite her alerting the firm that the debt they sought to collect had been discharged. She ended up suing the firm (and quickly winning a $20,000 settlement, plus costs, expenses, and attorneys fees), after a processor server showed up at her home, where she lives alone, on Thanksgiving night last fall to pound on her door and demand she “open up,” according to her lawsuit. Serruto “was terrified by the pounding and the demands of the unknown male at her door,” the lawsuit states.

As Peroutka’s county-council campaign continues, gaining the attention it deserves, at least the district’s voters won’t be casting votes for or against an unknown male anymore. He is what he is: an extremist dressed up for mainstream appeal.

The High Seas: Baltimore’s narcotic history dates back to the 19th-century shipping-driven boom, quietly aided by bringing Turkish opium to China

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 21, 2014

Image-1-10

With its longstanding reputation as a high-volume heroin town, Baltimore’s modern black-market economy is openly opiated, driving sizeable budgets for maintaining the criminal-justice apparatus to combat it. Far less appreciated, and only opaquely understood, is the role another poppy-derived narcotic—opium—had in forming Baltimore’s 19th-century fortunes, when trade with China helped fuel the city’s shipping boom.  In fact, merchant John O’Donnell was the first to bring goods from the Chinese city Canton to Baltimore and it was such a boon that he named his waterfront plantation Canton, and the name for the area persists today (along with its O’Donnell Square).

Despite Baltimore ships being central to several historic events in America’s opium trade to China, Baltimore merchants’ overall piece of the trade seems to have paled in comparison to the quick fortunes made by famous merchant families from Philadelphia to New England. So, when historians eventually pieced together what such towering American capitalist families as the Astors, Forbes, Perkins, Delanos, Peabodys, and Girards had actually been up to in China—selling Turkish opium, competing with the enormous British supplies brought there from India—Baltimore’s role got little attention.

At the time, “all of this was able to occur really under the radar,” says Towson University history professor Elizabeth Kelly Gray, “because there were no reporters, and if someone came back with a huge fortune and said, ‘Oh, I was in the China trade,’ people wouldn’t necessarily assume that opium was involved. People seem to have kind of kept their mouths shut about what they did, and even though I found a couple of published comments where someone would say, ‘Don’t you know that Americans are involved?’ it didn’t seem to catch anyone’s attention. We can dig back and find it now, but it wasn’t known then.

“There was a recognition that this was disreputable, this was smuggling,” Gray continues, since China outlawed opium in 1799. So merchants tended to justify it by saying “‘we couldn’t make a profit if they wouldn’t buy it,’ or ‘if we don’t do it someone else would,’” while arguing that “we’re not actually breaking the law because the opium we’re bringing is 12 miles” away from the Chinese port of Canton, in ships anchored in Whampoa Reach or Macoa Roads, “and then it’s brought in by others.” Given the controversial nature of the trade, she adds, “some of the merchants were able to cover their tracks,” since “they’re thousands of miles from home, everyone that they’re hanging out with is fine with this, and they’re making lots of money. So we don’t have the smoking gun with some of them that we have with others.”

The secrecy surrounding America’s China opium trade came out when the first Opium War between Britain and China broke out in 1839, after China, dismayed at the damage addiction was causing among its people, started to seriously enforce its opium ban and seized sizeable British cargoes. The war prompted Congress to get interested in the American involvement, and “then you have this sort of sheepish admission to Congress that, well, we are involved in the opium trade,” Gray says, “which some of the congressmen already knew, but it wasn’t public.

“We definitely know that Baltimore was involved,” Gray adds, but details are elusive, and more northern American cities appear to have been more deeply entrenched. While “the British were earning tens of millions of dollars” from opium in China, historian Eric Jay Dolin told China Business Review last year, “the Americans were earning millions of dollars,” and the late historian Kenneth LaTourrette concluded that, “although she began early,” Baltimore “was never as actively engaged in the trade as were the more northern ports.” Historian Dael Norwood of Yale University, sums it up in an email to City Paper: While “the New Englanders and New Yorkers were (for the most part) running the show alongside the Brits, “you might say that the Baltimore money was keeping its hand in.”

One smoking gun linking Baltimore to the China opium trade is the Eutaw, a Baltimore ship owned by John Worthington and captained by Christopher Gantt. The history books credit the Eutaw with bringing the very first delivery of Turkish opium by an American ship to China. It left Smyrna, Turkey (pictured above), in November 1805 with several tons of opium, and arrived in Canton in 1806. Sussing out Worthington’s significance in Maryland society has proven elusive, but Gantt later became a member of the Maryland House of Delegates and served as a customs clerk in Baltimore for the U.S. Department of Treasury.

A second smoking gun is the Wabash, another Baltimore ship captained by Gantt, which in 1817 suffered an attack that became known as “the Wabash incident.” While anchored in the Macao Roads near Canton, Chinese pirates boarded the ship, murdered some of its crew, and took its cargo, including opium. The American consul at Canton—Benjamin Wilcocks, himself an opium smuggler—wrote to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams about the incident, explaining that he’d reported it to the Chinese authorities, but “was careful not to mention the opium.” The Chinese, after they later found the pirates with a large quantity of opium, expressed “not a little disgust” over the contraband, Wilcocks explained, and shortly thereafter announced a crackdown on Americans trying to bring opium into China.

In 1821, the Terranova incident involved a Baltimore opium ship at Canton, and produced “lingering bad memories” which, the late Sino-American historian Jacques Downs wrote, “would help shape the first U.S. treaty with China” in the 1840s. It involved an Italian sailor, Francis Terranova, on the Baltimore ship Emily, owned by John Donnell and captained by William Cowpland. The Emily was “anchored peacefully in Whampoa Reach,” Downs recounted, “gradually selling off its cargo of opium,” when Terranova somehow caused a woman who’d approached the Emily to fall into the water and drown—and for this, China convicted and sentenced the sailor to execution, which shocked the community of Western traders there.

 

Downs described Donnell as “the great Baltimore China merchant” who was “among the largest shippers of the drug” in the period after the War of 1812. After the Bostonians led by the Perkins family, Donnell was “probably the most important of all” the “very substantial merchants who sent opium cargoes to Canton.” After Donnell’s death in 1827, his nephew Griffin Stith—who had served as agent for the Emily—formed another American firm in the China opium trade, Issaverdes, Stith & Co., a partnership  of Stith and John B. and George Issaverdes. Stith’s papers, describing his experiences in the opium trade in China and Jakarta, are held in the collections of the Maryland Historical Society.

Donnell in 1800 purchased Willow Brook, an estate where West Baltimore’s Union Square neighborhood now stands that was built by his wife’s uncle, Thorowgood Smith, who served as Baltimore’s mayor from 1804 to 1808. Today, a complete replica of Brook’s Oval Room is on permanent display at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Another famous Baltimore-China trade merchant, Isaac McKim, served in the Maryland Senate and served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and also was a director of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. His part in the American opium trade is described in “Tidewater Triumphs,” a book by naval historian Geoffrey Footner. “McKim developed an ingenuous plan which began with the purchase of Turkish opium for resale to other traders, mostly Baltimore merchants,” Footner wrote, “then used the proceeds to buy copper and other products.” In 1816, McKim’s ship the Plattsburgh left Fells Point with cargo bound for Smyrna, where the captain was instructed to “sell the cargo and use the proceeds to buy opium,” but the crew mutinied, and the resulting legal wrangling “revealed Isaac McKim’s plan for broadening his narrow export base.” While there is “no record of any McKim ships sailing in the China trade,” Footner explained, “there is circumstantial evidence that McKim resold opium acquired in Turkey to other Baltimore and Philadelphia merchants doing business in China.”

Evidence of Baltimore ships being involved with shipments of Turkish opium also come from the U.S. Senate, which in 1838, on the eve of the First Opium War, made records of American ships entering and leaving Smyrna over the years, including McKim’s schooner, the Yellat, picking up 45 cases of opium and Donnell’s brig, Midas, taking on 111 cases of opium in 1824, part of their proceedings. Another entry mentions the brig Torpedo, owned by William Patterson (one of the founders of the B&O Railroad) and his son George Patterson.  Finally, an English translation of the geneology of a prominent Dutch family says that Jacob van Lennep & Co., based in Smyrna, made “large shipments of opium” to “a company in Baltimore for onward shipment” to China. And, last year at the Smithsonian Institutions, an intern uncovered historical documents of a shipment of 10 tons of opium arriving in Canton in 1821 on the Baltimore brig Ea.

While Baltimore’s role in Smyrna-to-Canton opium smuggling may have been less robust than those of more northern American cities, it made a mark because its opium-laden ships, explains Norwood, “attracted the harsh attention of Chinese authorities” thanks to the sacking of the Wabash and the Terranova affair. Still, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the drug trade quietly drove significant creation of wealth in Mobtown’s early economy—as it still does today.

Meltdown: What Happens to Dead Animals at Baltimore’s Only Rendering Plant

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 25, 1995

Consider these items: Bozman, the Baltimore City Police Department quarter horse who died last summer in the line of duty. The grill grease and used frying oil from Camden Yards, the city’s summer ethnic festivals, and nearly all Baltimore-area and Ocean City restaurants and hotels. A baby circus elephant who died while in Baltimore this summer. Millions of tons of waste meat and inedible animal parts from the region’s supermarkets and slaughterhouses. Carcasses from the Baltimore Zoo. The thousands of dead dogs, cats, raccoons, possums, deer, foxes, snakes, and the rest that local animal shelters and road-kill patrols must dispose of each month.

These are the raw materials of Baltimore’s fat-and-protein economy, which are processed into remarketable products for high profit at the region’s only rendering plant, in Curtis Bay. In a gruesomely ironic twist, most inedible dead-animal parts, including dead pets, end up in feed used to fatten up future generations of their kind. Others are transmogrified into paint, car wax, rubber, and industrial lubricants. Until the mid-1980s, some of the plant’s products were used in soap and cosmetics as well.

Like the use of human placenta in cosmetics and eating Rocky Mountain oysters, rendering is a phenomenon that many have heard of but few are tempted to ponder. Unlike those odd human practices, though, rendering answers a vital societal question: What to do with the prodigious amounts of carrion, offal, and fat that our society leaves in its dietary wake? Rather than classifying it as foul waste and incinerating it or burying it in a landfill, why not cook it into its constituent parts – fat and protein – and make a pretty penny doing it?

Valley Proteins does. The Winchester, Virginia-based company owns and runs Baltimore’s only rendering plant, tucked along the grassy shores of Cabin Branch, a tributary of Curtis Bay in the extreme southern tip of the city. Although a few out-of-state rendering plants attempt to compete in Baltimore, Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant has a regional lock on the profitable recycling of dead animal matter and kitchen grease into ingredients for feed and industrial products.

Based on estimates from Neil Gagnon, general manager of the Curtis Bay plant, about 150 million pounds of rotting flesh and used kitchen grease from around Baltimore are fed into the plant’s grinders and cookers each year, resulting in about 80 million pounds of the plant’s three products:  meat and bone meal, tallow, and yellow grease. Most is reconstituted as chicken feed for North Carolina and Eastern Shore poultry farmers. Some goes for dry pet food. And some of the tallow is used by chemical “splitters,” who turn the fat into fatty acids, which in turn are used in thousands of products.

 

During a midsummer day’s visit to the plant, I gag upon first contact with the hot, putrescent air. My throat immediately becomes coated with the suety taste of decayed, frying flesh.

“You picked a bad day to visit a rendering plant,” Gagnon says, emphasizing the effect of the summer heat by describing the typical state of the “deadstock” picked up from Pimlico Race Course, which is delivered to Valley Proteins’ pet-food operations in Pennsylvania. “By the time we get them, they’re soup,” he says. “Summertime is bad around here.”

Gagnon himself is far from offended by the overwhelming miasma, though. “It smells like money to me,” he likes to say. Later in the visit, back in his office, he estimates Valley Proteins’ profit margin at somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent.

A load of guts, heads, and legs, recently retrieved from a local slaughterhouse, sits stewing in one of the raw-materials bins at the plant’s receiving bay. “That’s very fresh offal,” Gagnon says. He explains how it will be fed into “the hogger,” a shredder that grinds up the tissues and filters out trash, before it is deep-fried in cookers charged with spent restaurant grease and blood.

After being thoroughly fried, the solid protein is centrifuged, pressed, run through a magnet to remove metals, ground up, sifted, cooled, and stored in a silo. Today mid-way through the process, cooker operator Bud Kellner smiles, grabs a warm, brown, fibrous thatch of cooked tissues out of the production line in the cook room and shouts out above the mechanical din: “That’s all protein material! I could eat that right now!”

The liquid fat is cleaned, filtered, cooled, and stored in five tanks – two for tallow, a higher-grade fat product, and three for yellow grease. Kellner doesn’t mention whether he considers the fat potable.

The rendering processes at Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant create three byproducts:  waste water, which goes into the city’ Patapsco Waste Water Treatment Plant at nearby Wagners Point; the stray fat and protein molecules in the air that generate the plant’s horrid stench; and reclaimed dirt, metal, plastics, and other trash, which go to the nearby Quarantine Road Landfill. Two boilers, which jointly generate 2,000 horsepower, run the whole operation.

While waiting at the receiving bay to watch another truckload of offal (this one from Baltimore County slaughterer J.W. Treuth & Sons, Inc.) tumble into a raw-materials bin, Kellner sums up why rendering is important. “If it don’t go here, it’d be laying on the side of the street somewhere.”

Blood and body fluids leak out from under the trailer gate. “Cranberry juice,” Gagnon remarks as we gaze at the repulsive pale-red effluvium. Suddenly a hot gust of wind blows droplets of it on our bare legs. As the bloated stomachs and broken body parts slide en masse from the trailer bed to the bin, Bud shouts out, “Watch out for the splatter!” After the load is delivered, a single jawbone rest on the pavement amid the bloody-liquid. Bud adds a final piece of sage advice, “Make sure you take a shower.”

 

Valley Proteins didn’t always have a virtual monopoly over the rendering business in Baltimore. In 1927, The National Provisioner, a meat-industry newsletter, published a map and list showing the geographical distribution of the nation’s renderers and slaughterhouses. At that time, Baltimore had 15 of Maryland’s 21 rendering plants, and there were 913 plants in the nation.

Today, according to Gagnon, Baltimore has one of the state’s six to 10 plants, which are concentrated on the Eastern Shore to serve the poultry industry. The nationwide figure has dropped to 286, according to Gary G. Pearl of the Fats and Oils Research Foundation. (Affiliated with the National Renderers Association, the foundation supports “increased utilization and new uses for products that are produced with the 50 percent of the animal that is not acceptable for human consumption,” Pearl says.)

Valley Proteins’ eight plants draw raw materials from the entire mid-Atlantic region, according to J.J. Smith, president of the company.  Smith describes the company’s territory as “from Newark [New Jersey] to Savannah [Georgia], and 300 miles inland.”  Its three-generation mini empire began in 1949 with company patriarch Clyde Smith’s buyout of an existing plant in Winchester, Virginia.

According to Baltimore City land records, Valley Proteins purchased the Curtis Bay plant in 1984 for $2 million from Benedict K. Hudson, president of another rendering company, Kavanaugh Products, which had purchased the property in the 1960s. Five of Valley Proteins’ eight plants were originally owned by other renderers, Gagnon says.

J.J. Smith says the industry’s trend toward concentration of ownership picked up momentum about 20 or 30 years ago with the creation of a market for “boxed beef.”

“Whereas cattle used to be sent to market in halves or quarters, and every community had its own slaughter facilities,” the company president explains, “now the slaughtering is consolidated in the Midwest, and they ship [the meat] out in boxes of 20- or 25-pound chunks.”

Boxed beef reduced the need for the neighborhood slaughterhouse, or abattoir.  According to Smith, “a new movement toward close-trim meat and tray-ready beef” similarly is eliminating the need for butchers and meat cutters in supermarkets because even more of the meat preparation occurs in Midwest slaughter plants.

“Baltimore used to have abattoirs all over the place,” Smith says.  Now Baltimore City has only one, a kosher slaughterhouse in the Penn-North area.  The 1927 Biennial Census of Manufactures, cited in the 1929 industry classic Inedible Animal Fats in the United Statesby Food Research Institute economist L.B. Zapoleon, indicates there were 40 slaughterers and meat packers in Baltimore at that time.

The decline of Baltimore’s slaughterers and butchers has meant less raw material for rendering.

“In 1965, at any given supermarket, we used to pick up [waste meat] three to five times a week at 1,000 pounds each.  Now we do it once a week at 600 pounds,” Smith says.  That’s an 80 to 90 percent drop in volume, and, as Smith often points out, “volume is what we thrive on in this business.”

Thirty years ago, according to Smith, 85 to 90 percent of renderers’ materials came from supermarkets and slaughterhouses.  Today, he estimates that a little more than half of the raw material for the Curtis Bay plant is from those sources.  The other half is kitchen grease and frying oils from restaurants, the proliferation of which he believes has made up for about a third of the loss resulting from the boxed-beef phenomenon.

“People used to eat at home more often,” Smith says.  “But now there are many, many restaurants, and people eat out all the time, so there has been an explosive growth at that level over the last 30 or 40 years.”

During this same period, the industry also underwent a technology shift.  In 1965, Dupps, a Germantown, Ohio, equipment manufacturer, started to make “continuous cookers,” which quickly replaced “batch cookers’” as the industry standard.

Batch cookers restricted the rate of processing because after each batch was cooked the cookers had to be emptied and prepared for the next load.  Continuous cookers made nonstop rendering possible, and the quantities the plants could handle grew greater over the ensuing years.  Today Dupps makes a continuous cooker that can handle the equivalent of 22 batch cookers, according to Smith.

“The change in technology was not a matter of new ways to cook,” Smith explains.  “It was a matter of bigger and bigger scales.  It was more efficient, but it was also more competitive for raw material.”

In Baltimore’s rendering industry, lower volumes of meat-packing and supermarket waste and higher production capacities combined with another factor – the dramatic rise of the poultry industry – to spell an end to all but one plant in the region.  Baltimore was a red-meat-packing town caught completely off guard by the continuing surge in chicken consumption, which began about 20 years ago.

“There were very few poultry-eviscerating plants in the 1960s,” Smith says.  But as the poultry industry expanded in the South and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, those regions’ need for rendering increased. Baltimore City, meanwhile, was left with closed-down meat-packing plants, slaughterhouses, and rendering plants.  Only one of each remains.

Finally, the proliferation of environmental regulations has further encouraged ownership concentration in the rendering business. “Environmental requirements got expensive, so it became a trend to sell out to competitors who can handle the changes,” Smith explains. For the remaining firms, he says, increased regulation “was a two-edged sword.  It was expensive because it required high capital investments, but it was also a barrier for a startup company to compete with you.”

The changes amount to a classic case of “the bigger fish swallows the smaller fish,” Smith says. Pearl of the Fats and Oils Research Foundation agrees: “The general rule has been fewer and larger, with individual plants covering larger geographic areas and the investment per plant becoming much greater in order to meet environmental and water-quality standards.”

 

The use of dead pets, work animals, and wildlife as raw material is an aspect of the rendering business that neither Gagnon, Smith, nor Pearl likes to discuss. When they do address it, they emphasize its limited role and contend it is more a public service than a profitable practice.

“This is a very small part of the business that we don’t like to advertise,” Smith says. His main worry is bad publicity from animal-rights activists, who complain about the use of animal corpses for profit.

“We provide that as a service, not for profit, he says, pointing out that “there is not a lot of protein and fat” in dead pets and wildlife, “just a lot of hair you have to deal with somehow.” Smith believes that “shaming the American public into taking care of their pets is the way to combat the problem the animal-rights people talk about, not hassling the companies that manage the waste the pet industry produces in terms of dead animals.”

Smith says that while Valley Proteins sells inedible animal parts and rendered material to Alpo, Heinz, and Ralston-Purina, among other pet-food makers, dead-pet products are not among the products sold to these companies. “They are all very sensitive to the recycled-pet potential,” he explains. “They want no pets in the food they sell.  We guarantee them that the product we sell to them does not come from the pets we collect.  We handle them separately.”

A tiny amount of pet byproducts does get into the material sold to pet-food makers, however, according to plant general manager, Gagnon. Valley Proteins does have two production lines: one that uses only clean, fresh fat and bones from supermarkets and butcher shops and another that includes the use of dead pets and wildlife. However, the protein material is a mix from both production lines. Thus the meat and bone meal made at the plant includes materials from pets and wildlife, and about five percent of that product goes to dry-pet-food manufacturers, Gagnon says.

The higher end production line – the one without pets – makes tallow, fats whose “light colors give good consumer appeal,” Smith says. The low-end line makes yellow grease, which goes mostly for poultry and swine feed; as Smith notes, “the chicken doesn’t give a shit what it’s eating.”  Local feed makers that buy Valley Proteins’ products include Southern States in Locust Point. Gagnon says there are no longer any local purchasers of the plant’s tallow products.

 

Most of the dead pets that end up in Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant originate from the city animal shelter in Southwest Baltimore. Earl Watson, administrator of the city Health Department’s Animal Control Division, is very aware of the use of dead pets and wildlife in Baltimore’s fat-and-protein economy, and he knows Valley Proteins’ overarching role in it. “Anywhere there are dead animals, they pick them up,” he says.  “They have a monopoly on that because no one else does it.  That means they can charge what they want for the service.”

An average of 1,824 dead animals per month pass through the freezer at the city animal shelter and onto trucks bound for Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant, according to shelter statistics for April, May, and June of this year. Most of them were euthanized (three-month average: 1,339), though many were DOAs (three month average:  485). (DOA’s went up significantly in July and August, with 655 and 815 respectively, because of the hot weather and the city’s Clean Sweep program that targeted specific areas for cleanup.)

Here at the animal shelter, a staff of 10 wardens works every day but Sunday, picking up animals and bringing them to the shelter, while the shelter’s two veterinary technicians euthanize animals to make room for the newcomers.

“Having to euthanize animals all day is not pleasant,” Watson says, “especially if you like animals.”  He and shelter attendant Edward Rigney lead the way to Room 162 – Euthanasia – and Watson bows out after Rigney pulls open the door to the freezer, in which a dead fox lies stretched out on a table surrounded by barrels filled mostly with dead dogs and cats.  Fleas leap among the carcasses.

“Ten or 12 were euthanized this morning,” Rigney says. “Sometimes it’s thirtysome that get it. “Things get backed up over the holidays.”

Outside the freezer, atop another table, lie a bottle of the poison product Fatal-Plus, several syringes, a medical-waste container, and a hacksaw resting on a towel.  The hacksaw is for rabies testing:  “When people get bit, we have to cut the dogs’ heads off and test their brains,” Rigney explains, adding that the veterinary technician “never uses that – she just twists them off.”  Fatal-Plus is sodium pentobarbital; the warning label reads:  “Do not use in animals intended for food.”  This warning apparently does not apply for animals intended for pet food which is where the protein from these euthanized animals ends up.

 

Following Valley Proteins route driver Milton McCroy on his rounds is a colorful tour of Baltimore’s fat and protein sources.  Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, McCroy enters the STAFF & DELIVERIES entrance of the city animal shelter and loads dead animals into his truck. He then continues his rounds to Parks Sausage, the city’s lone remaining meat-packing plant, where he picks up waste meat, and to the slaughterhouse in Penn-North, where he loads up with offal, before taking the shipment back to the Curtis Bay plant and dumping it in the raw materials bin.

“It’s a dirty, smelly job, yeah – but that’s all it is, dirty and smelly,” he say philosophically, leaving someone wondering what could be worse.

At the animal shelter, McCroy hefts two dogs stiffened by rigor mortis into the trailer of his truck, which is rigged for the rendering business with a lift, a catwalk, and a barrel cleaner. He then empties and cleans 11 barrels of assorted animals.  As he works, he describes where his load is bound. “Chicken feed, cosmetics, fertilizer, dog food, whatever – the way they cook that bad boy [the Curtis Bay plant] up, it don’t make no difference what’s in there,” he says, then pauses and adds: “When they start putting human bodies in there, that’s when I quit.”

After a brief stop at Parks Sausage, where McCroy empties 10 or so barrels of rancid meat and grease, he heads off to the slaughterhouse, next to a long-defunct animal-hospital building. He backs the truck up to a storage shed, hauls a bloated sheep carcass onto the lift, and dumps it in the trailer, then starts preparing to empty many barrels full of heads, legs, hides, and guts. Joking, he starts to make the jaws of a cow’s head clack, then gives up on the puppet how. He hoists two sheep’s heads in the air, one in each hand, and asks, “Which one do you want?” He punctures a stomach with a pocket knife and squeezes out the brown ooze inside.

The jocularity ends when the plant’s owner catches wind that the press has entered the property. As we explain that we are following McCroy on his run for a story on rendering, he ushers us off to the adjacent sidewalk. “With all our problems with OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], MOSHA [Maryland OSHA], EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and the rest, there just is no good publicity for us right now,” he explains.

A plant employee explained later that tightening environmental regulations and concerns about the bacteria E. coli are coming down hard on slaughterhouses; any attention would just mean more problems. (A subsequent check with state and local regulators did not reveal any outstanding cases or suspected violations at the city slaughterhouse.) Disappointed in being shunted from the property, we leave without a proper good-bye to the good-natured McCroy.

 

Baltimore’s fat-and-protein economy has changed dramatically over the decades, but it remains essentially a profitable form of recycling.  The National Renderers Association sums up the industry nicely in its 12-minute video, Food for Life:

The rendering industry provides many needed services to the community at large; it safely recycles materials that otherwise would be a nightmare to dispose of; it creates products that are essential to modern life; it provides the needed to nutrition for our livestock and fisheries, so that a hungry world can be efficiently fed; and it supplies our pets with a healthy diet for longer, better lives.

So the next time you munch on fast-food fries (often cooked in grease the restaurants subsequently sell to Valley Proteins) or let your unfettered pet roam the city streets and backyards, or apply a little makeup to your face, or wax your car, or barbecue some chicken breasts, pause a second to think: Is this somehow connected to the Valley Proteins rendering plant in Curtis Bay, either on the donating or receiving end? Chances are it is.

 

The Diary of Doc Watkins

By Van Smith

Published in New York Press, Oct. 28, 1998

IMG_7502

Until recently, New York City wasn’t on my life’s itinerary. So far as I expected, I would stay in Baltimore, where my mother’s father’s family had settled in the early part of the century and where I had lived (other than a few short forays and travels) since I was a four-year-old in 1970. I was quite comfortable with the idea of riding a lifelong learning curve as an obscure observer and chronicler of a waning, eccentric city. But, alas, 1998 has so far proven a pivotal year for me, and suddenly I’m living in Queens.

IMG_7501

The first 10 months of this year took a lot out of me. I started out by purchasing a charming Civil War-era house in a forsaken Baltimore neighborhood, then flew to Amarillo, TX, to testify as the lead defense witness in Oprah Winfrey’s libel trial over disparaging statements made on her show about the poor eating habits of cows. What landed me in Amarillo was a piece I wrote about what goes on inside a rendering plant, where animal tissues are boiled into their constituent parts of fats and proteins and some of the proteins were (until the feds stepped in with new regulations in 1997) used in cattle feed. I was the only reporter Oprah’s attorneys could find who had actually observed the workings of a rendering plant, and my firsthand observations, it turns out, substantially supported alleged false statements made on Oprah’s show.

This was followed in May by my own libel trial, in which a consultant for Baltimore city tried unsuccessfully to convince a jury that I had written false facts about him in my investigative coverage of a contracting scandal at the city landfill. Over the summer, between filing stories (at City Paper, Baltimore’s weekly) about the state elections, I helped my parents move from Baltimore to an island in Maine. Then I succumbed to the lure of a job at NYPress, abandoned my newly purchased home to a fellow Baltimore writer and shacked up with my girlfriend in Sunnyside.

The breakneck pace of these events proved quite stressful – so, after unloading and unpacking our vanload of belongings, my girlfriend and I were ripe for an extended fall-foliage trip through New England in my 1981 piss-yellow Dodge Diplomat.

Properly stocked with food, music and vices, the Diplomat made for a comfortable ride. While hopelessly passe, especially when chugging up 95 in Connecticut and Rhode Island amid the Volvos and the Land Rovers, the vehicle to me remains esthetically pleasing, particularly when outfitted as it was on this trip with two bikes and a large plastic trunk attached to the roof rack. Being in no hurry, and acutely aware that our gypsy boat was a powerful cop magnet, we went the speed limit and conscientiously avoided road Cokes in an effort to prevent legal trouble – or a dose of wood shampoo from New England’s finest.

The first leg of the trip ended in Manomet, MA, between Plymouth and Cape Cod on the south shore of the Massachusetts Bay. The town is a few coves east of the Pilgrim Station nuclear power plant and, due to its existence, the entire region is ominously served by an antiquated emergency-warning system consisting of huge air-raid sirens.

In Manomet, my great-aunt, the late Agnes Watkins, a classics teacher at Windsor School in Boston who never married and whose exceptional frugality allowed her to travel the world, had owned a small cottage – perfect size for one or two people – near some bluffs leading down to the ocean. On her death some years ago, the cottage came into the possession of my father and his sister and it is now enjoyed by family and friends throughout the summer season as a quiet, phoneless getaway. We spent our first night of vacation there and were off for the Maine coast in the morning.

After staying a few days with my parents and observing their somewhat hyperactive efforts to get their waterfront home in a proper state of readiness before the coming winter storms, we headed inland to Andover, ME, for some outdoor recreation and backwoods relaxation at my girlfriend’s family’s ancestral camp in the woods of the White Mountains. This was the shank of the trip, and it effectively assuaged our nerves and restored our shrunken bellies to fullness.

It was back at Manomet, however, on the last few days of our 12-day New England junket, that we were treated unexpectedly to the most noteworthy discovery of the trip: the memoirs of my great-great-uncle, Robert Lincoln Watkins, as typed, single-space, by his niece Agnes in 1972. The document, found in a bookcase containing numerous family archives, was in a green three-ring binder and was titled: A Story of His Life, by a man who has never gotten anywhere. The cover page indicates it was written in 1927 in New York City.

IMG_7502

As we learned on reading the memoirs, Robert Watkins, a medical doctor and inventor who died in 1934 at the age of 71, was a curious, stubborn man who was inexorably attracted to charismatic characters and con men and who tragically coveted elusive fame and fortune, for which he strove with opportunistic abandon, but to no avail. In the process, he racked up a riotous collection of anecdotes, a large number of which ended in a description of the deaths of those involved. The glimpses of his life were made all the more interesting by the fact that, though I had heard mention of him in family dinner conversations, I had no idea such an engrossing, romantic figure inhabited my family’s history or that his involvement in turn-of-the-century New York life was so fascinating.

We found ourselves completely absorbed in Watkins’ memoirs, belly-laughing at his fantastic misadventures and touched by his loneliness late in life. Born in 1863 in Proctorsville, VT, of an inventor/capitalist who was financially ruined by a Black River flood that washed out his factory and a school teacher from the Berkshires, he was raised, he wrote, in “a puritanical environment” in which regular prayer and strict observance of the sabbath were practiced. A terrible book-learner, he turned instead to experimentation, building a boyhood chemistry lab in the basement where he blew up a jug of hydrogen, constructed a photophone (“to talk over distances without a wire by means of a ray of light”) and tried to make diamonds by heating in a sealed tube iron filings, carbon and nickel.

Rather than become a chemist (“my father said, and induced me to believe, that there was only $900 a year in it”), Watkins graduated from New York University’s medical college. He interned in Newark Hospital, where he and his inexperienced colleagues treated a passed-out saloon keeper “by pouring hot and cold water alternately on him, and by flagellation.” The drunkard died in the process and when the newspapers ran with the story, they all found themselves “arrested for killing, or for assisting a man into the next world,” but after several months were absolved of the alleged crime.

Apparently unsated by this small taste of fame, Watkins found another angle to get his name in the papers: self-inoculation. Fancying himself a player in the day’s scientific debate over the causes of disease, Watkins opposed the view that germs themselves are infectious agents, believing instead that they are the “result of degenerated tissue” in the course of disease progression. So he set out to prove his point by injecting himself with “the pure cultured tubercle bacillus,” believed to be the disease agent in tuberculosis. He was proven wrong, but didn’t die, though his reputation suffered. The experiment got “into the papers [and] caused a furor and much worry and innumerable letters.”

But Watkins’ determination to serve as an experimental subject didn’t stop there. While in Paris with his uncle during a cholera outbreak, he read in the papers that a “Dr. Hafkin at the Pasteur Institute had discovered a serum for the cure of cholera, had tried it out successfully on rats and guinea pigs, and wanted to try it on humans beings, I decided to lend myself for the purpose immediately.” After being injected with live cholera germs, Watkins fell unconscious in a doctor’s office and was already being called a martyr for science when he came to.

He quickly recovered from the self-inflicted cholera and proceeded to urge his uncle, who was suffering jittery nerves, to take a substance called “Testicular Juice, good for nervous diseases and especially Locomotor Ataxia; the name implies the source of the remedy,” which was bull testicles. I can only presume the “juice” was sperm. For $20 an injection, Watkins’ uncle took the juice and “used it till he got the chills and could not see that it was doing any good. He remarked that he was sick of having that stuff stuck in his backside.”

A few years after his hijinks in Paris with his uncle, Watkins returned there with a  Southerner named Brodnax, an NYU classmate whose medical career was floundering but whose social charms Watkins believed would help scare up Parisian interest in Watkins’ inventions and theories for studying blood. It turned out Brodnax was a complete fraud, and the six-week Paris trip a $600 loss. Later Brodnax, who had contracted syphilis, looked Watkins up in New York. “The last time I saw him was on the corner of Broadway and 34th St. He was crossing with a fine looking woman who he introduced to me as his wife … I never saw him again, but understand he gave the disease to his wife and both died in the insane asylum.”

When typhoid fever raged through New York, Watkins went to live on North Brother Island, next to Rikers Island, to study and treat victims of the disease. “I did not learn much of practical value, but the fact that I saw the dead being carried away in cart-loads, and learned to identify the peculiar sweetness of the smell of all who had the disease.”

Considering himself a social klutz, Watkins sought to  improve matters with dance lessons. He found an instructor named McGregor on 55th St. near 5th Ave., who “gave me a cane which he told me to put across my back, hooking my arms over it at the elbow to hold it, standing perfectly erect and by myself. With a circus whip in his hand he went to the other end of the hall, giving me orders how to step with the snap of his whip. I got it in about three lessons.”

He also tried makeshift experiments in his office, using animals, like when he tried “to make Siamese twins with guinea pigs by cutting out the flesh on the sides of two and sewing them together to see if they would grow. They never stayed bandaged together for more than ten days at the most, and then on taking off the bandage I found that the wound had sloughed … I experimented with that considerably and concluded it was not for me.”

As an inventor, he found a measure of success, but nothing at all in the way of financial returns. He obtained patents for a storage battery, a bullet probe (to help locate metal missiles lodged inside the body), a type of rheostat (for regulating electrical currents), a “micromotoscope” (which he called his “little moving picture camera, the first small one ever constructed up to that time, I think, 4X5X6 inches”) and a device he called a migraf – his greatest invention, into which he sank much of his savings to produce, but of which he only managed to sell four. The migraf was “a machine to photograph microscopic objects” that he eventually sold to “the Brewer’s Academy at 23rd and 9th Ave.,” to “the Norwegian Hospital” and to “the Mayo Brothers in Rochester, Minn.” He also donated a goldplated migraf to “the Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie.”

To help manage Watkins’ affairs as an inventor, he formed a partnership with a man named Heinson, who Watkins believed to be “a natural-born executive.” Heinson did nothing once the contracts were signed, but demanded a share of the money nevertheless. Heinson, Watkins points out, later “died of tuberculosis in Philadelphia.”

In publishing, Watkins also tried hard, but without much success. His motives were good (“My mind was always on the idea of driving my views [on medicine] down the throats of the profession whether they wanted them or not”), but his methods faulty. After Harper & Brothers (among others) rejected his manuscript, he self-published 1000 copies and claimed to have gotten rid of the whole batch, some of them sent as far as China and Malta.

Watkins’ delusions of grandeur in medical research once led him to the door of the Carnegie household on 54th St. near 5th Ave. A reporter friend named St. Clair, of the New York Herald, was off to interview the rich man, and Watkins asked St. Clair to ask Carnegie if he would meet with him; “perhaps I can get him to build me an institution.” When St. Clair failed at the request, Watkins knocked on the door himself, and persisted when his petition was declined until it appeared he would have to be forcibly removed.

His private practice consistently failed to bring him much business, especially later in life, but some of his patients were fascinating folks. He treated an old sot, a prominent (or once so) lawyer from DC who claimed to have been a confidential messenger for top military brass during the Civil War and, afterward, an assistant U.S. treasurer under President Grant. A binge drinker and sometimes chloroform addict, the fellow, named A.A. Brooke, was an impeccable dresser, drunk or sober, and slowly deteriorated over the years until dying in Bellevue at the age of 75, which he said he dreaded because they treated him with morphine. “Never give a drunken man morphine, it makes him crazy,” Watkins remembers Brooke telling him.

One of Watkins’ friends was Joe Norcross, an aging vaudeville actor and singer who performed with his wife and who had started out in minstrel shows. Norcross had Watkins (whose obsession with music was insatiable) onstage to sing with him at the Bushwick Theater in Brooklyn. The performer’s wife “came from a nervous, erratic family, and while he watched her closely … she managed to cut her throat one day and died before his eyes in their home in Springfield, Mass. That broke the old man all up. He acted one year alone, and then passed away with the asthma which he had been fighting all his life.”

Watkins’ interest in studying blood brought him in contact with other such researchers including one Ephraim Cutter. “The Cutter family were erratic geniuses and good musicians: the doctor played the bass viol, his wife the piano. They had a son who was a musician to the court of the Emperor of Japan; another son, a boy of 21 with bright red hair, was an expert electrician. One day he stood before his mother, exclaimed ‘I’m no good and father’s a crank,’ took a drop of Prussic acid on his tongue, and dropped dead at his mother’s feet.”

Watkins’ tales are populated by a magician, an idiot-savant cripple and Charles Ottman, the Fulton Market butcher. While in his 50s, he tried to “get in the game” of World War I and went to Washington, where he met Charles Scrivener, the chief of that city’s detectives who, in 1926, was mysteriously murdered along with his fiancee on the eve of their nuptials. He went to work for the DuPont Powder Works, where he “was dumped into a camp of 4000 workmen of all nationalities making black powder and nitro-glycerine.” He then, under government orders, went to another powdermaking plant in Penniman, VA, where, on his second day on the job, there was an explosion. “We found only pieces of clothing and flesh parts. 25 men had been blown to nothing … It was kept out of print.”

IMG_7503

While reading Watkins’ unpolished prose, so rich with facts and innuendo, I happened upon a short anecdote that jerked me quickly back to the present day. “I had been treating for three or four years,” Watkins wrote, “a man named Clinton, for syphilis … He acquired the disease in the usual manner when on a political spree, had given it to the girl he loved …” Somehow, it sounded hauntingly like an item on the Drudge Report.

My girlfriend and I read aloud to each other much of the memoirs, then made a copy of it at the Manomet library and brought it home to Sunnyside, where we continued reading it late into the night. Watkins’ profound loneliness, excruciatingly communicated in a short essay entitled “The Man with the Bulldog Jaw” by one “Wayne Sniktaw” (Watkins spelled backwards), perplexes me. Given his remarkable experiences and acquaintances, I find it acutely ironic that he felt oppressive solitude amid the New York bustle. Watkins solution to his affliction? “Stick to your job,” he wrote.

And that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Reversal of Fortune: Two Years Ago, Martin O’Malley Was Lawrence Bell’s Political Sidekick. This Year, O’Malley Broke With Bell, Challenged Him for Mayor – and Won the Nomination. What Really Happened Between the Two That Led to Bell’s Downfall?

By Van Smith

Published in Baltimore magazine, Nov. 1999

It’s a June day in 1995, and Batman and Robin are doing what they do best: grandstanding.

As anti-administration members of a pro-administration City Council, Lawrence Bell III (a.k.a. Batman) and Martin O’Malley (a.k.a. Robin) have few weapons in their political arsenal. So when the duo has a bone to pick with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, they call a press conference. Today, they’re in front of City Hall, decrying Schmoke’s racially tinged re-election campaign.

“We’re disturbed about the escalating racial and religious tensions that plague our city,” proclaims Bell, a slim black man who swims in his too-large suit. “What good is victory if what you’ve won is destroyed in the process?” At 33, Bell’s looks belie his experience: He has represented the largely black and poor Fourth District for eight years, and he’s running for City Council president.

Now it’s O’Malley’s turn. “One of the things people say to me often s that they like the way Lawrence and I work together,” the lanky white man muses. “That is where the future of this city lies.” O’Malley is finishing his first four years representing Northeast Baltimore’s racially integrated, middle-class Third District; he’s running for re-election.

The bond that earned these two men their nicknames does seem extraordinary, given the race-tinged minefield that is Baltimore politics. No wonder the duo’s other joint tags are “Salt’n’Pepa” and “Miami Vice.”

O’Malley plays clear second fiddle to Bell at this event. But some believe that it is he, not Bell, who is driving the Batmobile.

IMG_7430

Today, “Batman and Robin” is no more. On June 22 of this year, O’Malley drove the final nail in the team’s coffin by announcing that he would run for mayor against his long-time ally.

One brutal primary campaign later, O’Malley is the Democratic nominee, a near sure thing to win in this Democratic town. And Bell – once the front-runner – is a distant third-place finisher, packing up his things to move out of City Hall.

In the aftermath of O’Malley’s victory, some questions remain. What really happened to the Bell/O’Malley team? How did their years-long friendship erode into political and personal rancor? And how did O’Malley rise so fast while Bell fell so hard?

Lawrence A. Bell is a career politician. The son of a prominent dentist and a public-school teacher, Bell grew up at a coveted address – Auchentoroly Terrace, a tree-lined stretch of beautiful porchfront rowhouses near Druid Hill Park. He went to the University of Maryland, College Park, majoring in government and politics and becoming the president of the Black Student Union. When Bell was elected to the City Council in 1987, he was 25, the youngest member ever. Bell was proud to follow in the footsteps of his mother’s first cousin, Kweisi Mfume, who had been Fourth District councilman before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986.

The 1987 elections also ushered Kurt Schmoke into the mayor’s office. Schmoke’s victory was seen as the end of the William Donald Schaefer machine, which for 14 years had overseen a nationally recognized downtown revival. Schmoke cast himself as the anti-Schaefer, promising to bring prosperity to neighborhoods untouched by the waterfront renaissance.

But instead, many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods underwent shocking deterioration. A crisis in the city’s public schools combined with a national crack-cocaine epidemic to overwhelm the administration’s attempts at revival. By the early 1990s, the annual murder rate had topped 300. The city’s police commissioner, Edward V. Woods, refused to acknowledge the role of vicious New York-based drug dealers in the bloodletting. Faith in law enforcement plummeted.

During Schmoke’s 1991 re-election campaign against former state’s attorney William Swisher, the mayor’s effectiveness was questioned, but there were few Democratic voices of open opposition. Schmoke was re-elected. But on the City Council, the stage was set for an organized anti-Schmoke faction.

IMG_7431

Martin O’Malley first took his seat in the City Council in 1992, supplanting Bell as its youngest member. Then 29, O’Malley was steeped in politics. His suburban Montgomery County upbringing, education at Catholic University, and experience as an assistant state’s attorney for Baltimore City had been peppered with political involvement. He had worked on Gary Hart’s presidential bids in 1984 and 1988 and on Barbara Mikulski’s 1986 election to the U.S. Senate. And O’Malley himself nearly denied state Senator John Pica Jr. re-elction in 1990; Pica won by only a few dozen votes. Even O’Malley’s 1990 marriage to Catherine Curran, the daughter of Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, strengthened his political connections.

O’Malley found Bell harder to get to know than some of his other new colleagues on the council. But he saw that Bell was a courageous legislator, never ducking a rough vote. Plus, Bell was black, and in a majority black city, a white politician needs all the black friends he can get.

To Bell, who was entering his second term, O’Malley was a political comrade. He was only one year younger than Bell and shared Bell’s taste for grandstanding. O’Malley also had friends in high places. Each saw a political opportunity in the other.

O’Malley got the alliance going by helping Bell gain the chairmanship of the council’s public-safety subcommittee, giving Bell a bully pulpit from which to denounce Commissioner Woods.

IMG_7432

It’s January, 1993, and Bell is ready to issue a public ultimatum to Woods. O’Malley and councilman Anthony Ambridge are on board.

The three meet at City Hall to discuss how to proceed. Ambridge, who is white, says the city’s racial realities dictate how it must go: “This should be put by you, Lawrence, rather than us, because of the politics.” If the white councilmen take the lead in denouncing a black mayor’s black police chief, it might look racially motivated.

So Bell pulls the event together solo and gives the men 10 minutes’ notice. When O’Malley gets the call, he drops what he’s doing and runs to City Hall.

Bell calls for Woods’ resignation if he fails to reduce the violent crime rate within six months. Then he protests “the near-total silence emanating from the leadership of our city” when it comes to crime. O’Malley chimes in: “I’d just like to see a little progress,” he declares.

The announcement makes headlines in The Sun for two days running. And when the six months are up, Bell and O’Malley are in the newspaper again. Woods resigns shortly thereafter.

Score one for the dynamic duo.

IMG_7433

After the Eddie Woods victory, Bell and O’Malley applied themselves to opposing the mayor. Together, they fought tax increases and pushed for tax cuts. They scrutinized police spending, tried to attract talent to the police commissioner’s post by increasing its salary, criticized the private management of public schools, helped to push through a curfew for juveniles, and decried the housing department’s awarding of no-bid repair contracts. In spring of 1995, council president Mary Pat Clarke reactivated the dormant Legislative Investigations Committee and made O’Malley its chair.

When campaign season 1995 rolled around, O’Malley again helped Bell, who was running for City Council President against fellow City Councilmembers Carl Stokes, Vera Hall, and Joe DiBlasi. Bell’s West Side base would support him, but he needed significant backing in other parts of the city.

He found it in the Third District, where O’Malley was running for re-election on a ticket with first-time council candidates Joan Carter Conway and Robert Curran, the uncle of O’Malley’s wife. Their ticket oversaw the Third District’s effort to get Bell elected. Of the city’s six districts, Bell led in only two: his own and O’Malley’s. In a crowded field, that was the margin he needed.

So it was no surprise when the new City Council president treated O’Malley well, handing him the chairmanships of the Taxation and Finance and Legislative Investigations committees. These two key assignments gave O’Malley the watchdog role he relished. Using the platform Bell gave him, O’Malley was able to broaden his reputation as a reform-minded, populist outsider.

Bell also treated O’Malley’s Northeast Baltimore neighbors well: First District Councilwoman Lois Garey became head of the Land Use Committee, while First District Councilman Nick D’Adamo was named chair of the Budget Committee.

Within Schmoke’s inner circle, this preferential treatment made it look like O’Malley was controlling Bell. At one point, Daniel P. Henson III, Schmoke’s housing commissioner – and no friend of the dynamic duo – tried to warn Bell to watch his back.

“Don’t be so sure everybody who says they’re your friend is your friend,” Henson told Bell outside City Hall.

“What do you mean?” the president asked.

“O’Malley – he’s running your show,” Henson said.

“No,” Bell responded, “I’m calling the shots.”

IMG_7434

But if Schmoke’s friends worried about O’Malley’s influence on the new president, they weren’t above trying for some of that influence themselves. The city’s political rainmakers started making overtures. Baker-developer John Paterakis, a strong and dependable financial backer of Schmoke, bought a table at the Congressional Black Caucus’s Annapolis gala in the fall of 1995. In an augur of things to come, Bell sat at Paterakis’ table.

On Paterakis’ agenda was how to capitalize on his land holdings at Inner Harbor East, along the waterfront next to Little Italy. (Baltimore magazine’s offices are located in one of these properties.) A 50-story hotel at Inner Harbor East – though nearly a mile away from the newly expanded Convention Center – could help meet a growing demand for hotel rooms and also generate tremendous revenue for Paterakis. But such a large building was out of keeping with the community-developed plan for the area. Also, opponents of gambling feared that the hotel would one day be turned into a casino. To construct the building, Paterakis would need support from the mayor, approval from the Board of Estimates of which Bell was chair, and legislation from the Bell-led City Council.

Bell, meanwhile, had been left with a campaign debt of $111,000, so he kept his fundraising machine in gear. And Paterakis’ pro-hotel crowd ponied up. Between February 1996 and November 1997, more than $16,000 was contributed to the fund by Paterakis companies, members of the hotel-development team, or known supporters of Paterakis’s project.

“I’m in the big leagues now,” Bell told City Paper at the time. The donations, he said, represented his desire to garner support not only from his grass-roots base, but also from heavy-hitters.

The legislative battle was enormously controversial. The Sun played the hotel as a sweetheart deal for a privileged few. And while Little Italy residents were generally in favor of Paterakis’ project, Southeast Baltimore community leaders were adamantly opposed to it.

Ultimately, Bell and virtually all of the council, O’Malley included, approved the hotel project, though its height was reduced along the way to 31 stories. While it cannot be said that Bell sold his votes, the cash infusion into his coffers did signal the start of an inexorable process: his wooing by (and of) the city’s political moneybags.

Through all of this, Batman and Robin battled on. They opened 1996 with an attempt to derail the reconfirmation of Henson as housing chief, moved to stop Schmoke’s attempt to raise taxes, then devised a way the city could save money by offering workers retirement incentives. Bell sent O’Malley’s Legislative Investigations Committee to New York to study the city’s strict, “zero-tolerance” style of policing.

By 1997, O’Malley and then Bell turned on Commissioner Woods’ replacement, Thomas Frazier, and called for his dismissal over racial discrimination on the force.

Still, Bell seemed to be softening his stance against the mayor. “Bell, Schmoke Forge ‘Refreshing’ Relationship,” read a Sun headline from September of 1996. Many saw this as a detente – an agreement between superpowers to leave well enough alone.

IMG_7435

It’s spring of 1998. As usual, the council is faced with a budget proposal that cuts funding for city programs. The council cannot increase the mayor’s budget, but it can save programs by making cuts elsewhere. Ordinarily, the president takes the initiative, pushing individual amendments.

This time around, though, O’Malley suspects Bell isn’t with the program. It looks as if Bell has made a deal not to embarrass the mayor. O’Malley feels unsure about Bell, not knowing until the roll is called which way he will vote.

From Bell’s perspective, it feels like any other budget battle, with the president taking his share of the heat. The difference, if there is one, is that Bell has grown more presidential, compromising with the pro-Schmoke majority in order to gain ground. He isn’t just a councilman any longer; he is responsible for the work of the whole council. Lawrence thinks his friend Martin understands this.

The last day of the council session, after the final budget votes, O’Malley stays late in his city council office. Then he trundles under the City Hall dome.

He sees Bell walking his way. “Well, I think we did the best we could,” Bell says.

“No, Lawrence, I think I did the best I could,” O’Malley replies.

Bells seems incredulous. “What does that mean?” he asks.

“I really don’t f—in’ know,” O’Malley says before walking away. “Why don’t you take the summer and think about it?”

IMG_7436

During the summer of 1998, Bell’s list of backers started to look more like Schmoke’s. A prime example was attorney Claude Edward Hitchcock, who tried to protect the housing department during the no-bid repair scandal and later became executive director of the Empower Baltimore Management Corporation, which administers a $100 million federal project.

In 1998, Hitchcock lobbied for two main clients: Phipps Construction Contractors, which wanted permission to use a Northeast Baltimore site for a rubble-crushing operation, and Baltimore Entertainment Center, which wanted bars on The Block on East Baltimore Street to be allowed to serve liquor past 2 a.m. Hitchcock and these clients began donating to the Bell campaign fund that summer.

Another name to appear on Bell campaign finance reports then was Gia Blatterman, a Little Italy power broker who has long been a staunch supporter and energetic fundraiser for Schmoke. As word spread of Hitchcock’s and Blatterman’s donations, some O’Malley allies got nervous.

“It just appeared that he was surrounding himself with individuals that some of us believe weren’t in the best interests of the city – and/or Lawrence,” recalls Third District councilman Robert Curran. “And it just seemed that Lawrence was much, much less accessible to Martin.”

O’Malley agrees. In fact, he says Bell flat-out told him he’d been advised to distance himself from his old partner. “[Bell] said African-American opinion leaders would say to him things like, ‘You can’t appear to be controlled by people like Martin O’Malley and [former Bell aide] Jody Landers and Mary Pat Clarke,” he recalls. O’Malley remembers understanding this, telling himself, “He’s doing what he needs to do.”

Bell doesn’t remember it that way; in fact, he seems amazed at the suggestion. “He’s making that up,” says Bell. “Nobody ever said that.” As for his shutting O’Malley out, Bell says “it was always an open-door policy. He could call me at home whenever he wanted.”

Adds Bell’s brother Marshall, who worked on the campaign: “Martin wanted to think he could control Lawrence Bell in the presidency. Martin has a certain arrogance about him, a kind of paternalistic feel: ‘Sure, you’re my brother on the one hand, but I’m smarter than you, so do what I say.'”

 

Meanwhile, people close to O’Malley began to lose faith in Bell. “I broke camp probably July or August of last year,” recalls O’Malley’s old running mate Joan Carter Conway, who was appointed to the state Senate in 1997. “I knew something wasn’t right.” Conway warned O’Malley in the fall: “He’s gone, Martin, he’s sold out.”

With Bell seeming destined for a shot at the mayor’s office, O’Malley had his eye on the City Council presidency. He wanted to run on a ticket with Bell and suggested to Conway that the three of them sit down to work out their differences. But their meetings in November and December did not go well.

As O’Malley recalls it, “[Bell] said, ‘No, I don’t want you running for council president. Maybe some sort of public-safety liaison person.’ And I thought it was very strange that all of a sudden he wants me to take over some sort of middle-management duties.”

Bell recalls the meetings very differently. He never denied O’Malley a spot on his ticket, Bell says, because O’Malley never asked for one: “On many occasions, he was asked what he wanted, and he never would say.”

According to Marshall Bell, it would have been foolish for Bell to join forces with O’Malley so early, especially with city councilwoman Sheila Dixon contemplating a run for president of Bell’s West Side home base. Marshall says his brother told O’Malley, “Whatever you want, Martin, but as far as an endorsement goes, it would be political suicide.”

 

Then, Bell was buffeted by major changes in the political landscape. Schmoke announced in December that he would not run for re-election. Shortly afterward, Bell’s former colleague Carl Stokes entered the race, as did crusader A. Robert Kaufmann. Bell’s cousin Kweisi Mfume, rumored to be considering a run, announced that he would remain as head of the national NAACP. Almost immediately, important politicians began pleading with Mfume to reconsider. And it seemed like Mfume was doing so.

The impact of the “draft Mfume” effort on Bell was huge, says Mary Pat Clarke, who knows both men well: “This is a hero to Lawrence Bell, and a member of the family. And instead of helping Lawrence Bell, it turns out that he may run for the job du jour. That was the wound that would not heal for Lawrence Bell. He was never the same after that.”

Bell got caught up in legislative wrangling over whether to amend the city charter to allow an Mfume candidacy. (The NAACP chief had not lived within city limits for the required year.) Bell took heat first for failing to introduce the amendment and then for introducing it.

As Mfume mulled, Bell reeled, and his reputation for independence frayed. Word spread that Bell’s father was fielding political advice from his longtime friend Larry Gibson, an advisor to Schmoke, and that Bell himself was spotted at lunch with housing commissioner Henson, another Schmoke intimate. A look at Bell’s campaign-finance reports shows evidence that Schmoke’s Department of Public Works director George Balog, who made his name as a rainmaker by steering DPW contractor donations to political candidates, was actively raising funds on Bell’s behalf.

In March, before either man had announced his candidacy, O’Malley organized a fundraiser for himself at the Fraternal Order of Police headquarters in Hampden. As FOP president Gary McLhinney understood it, O’Malley was planning to run for city council president on a ticket with Bell and incumbent City Comptroller Joan Pratt.

But Bell’s personal relations with O’Malley continued to cool. O’Malley suspected that the Schmoke crowd was supporting Bell on the condition that he ditch his old friend.

The issue of Bell’s closeness to a Schmoke ally came to a head in April. The Phipps rubble-crusher proposal had been winding through the council process for more than a year. Expected to be a noisy and dusty enterprise in a residential area, the proposal angered environmentalists an Northeast Baltimore community groups – both important constituencies for O’Malley and his colleagues in the First and Third districts. On the other side was Phipps, a black-owned firm seeking to operate a business on its own land. In the end, the council split on the matter, and Bell cast the deciding vote. He voted in favor of Phipps – a stinging blow to some of his long-term allies.

“[Bell] was trying to be too much to too many people,” says city real-estate officer Anthony Ambridge, who supported Bell in the mayor’s race. “He called it the ‘big tent theory.’ He was trying to bring everybody into the tent. And by doing that he was excluding some of his closest friends.”

City Councilwoman Lois Garey describes her disappointment more pointedly: “[Bell] kicked every friend he had in the head.”

Marshall Bell says that his brother’s Phipps vote involved issues broader than the wishes of O’Malley and his neighbors. That it came to be seen as a breaking point between Bell and O’Malley reveals the assumptions behind the friendship, he adds: “These kind of people, if you don’t agree with them 100 percent of the time, they start saying you sold out.”

 

The day after Bell’s tie-breaking vote, Bell and O’Malley sit down to lunch at Chiapparelli’s Restaurant in Little Italy with the FOP’s McLhinney and Marshall Bell. Lawrence Bell is just about to announce his candidacy, and McLhinney has brokered a summit, hoping to mend the breach between them.

It’s the first time in about a year that McLhinney has seen to two men in a room together, and he senses major problems between them. Nevertheless, he lays out the case for a Bell-O’Malley-Pratt ticket. Then, he turns to Bell. “What do you think, Lawrence?” he asks.

“I don’t want to make any commitment until after the filing deadline,” Bell responds.

O’Malley goes on the offensive, asking Bell to explain his ties to Schmoke’s “old warhorses.” “How you win also dictates how you are able to govern,” he says, “and if you win this way, you won’t be able to govern.”

Bell gets defensive, asking why he’s not getting more support from O’Malley’s allies. Then he cuts to the chase. “What are you going to do?” Bell asks.

“Well, my sense is that you are dropping like a rock,” O’Malley says.

Marshall Bell chimes in: “See, there you go again, you’re always negative.”

Lawrence Bell agrees, saying O’Malley’s negativity is what cooled the friendship.

“I’ve always told you the truth, whether you wanted to hear it or not,” O’Malley retorts. “If you were my friend, you’d always tell me the truth.”

“It was how you said it,” Bell says. “I don’t need my friends being negative. All this stuff puts me under a lot of pressure.”

“Well, what do you think it will be like when you’re mayor?” O’Malley asks.

“I don’t need a lecture from you about what it’s going to be like to be mayor,” Bell shoots back.

At the end of the lunch, Bell asks O’Malley what office he’s planning to seek.

O’Malley says he doesn’t know. He’ll do a poll to see if he has a chance of winning the mayor’s race. If he can win, he’ll run; otherwise, he’ll run for City Council president if the polls show a win is possible. “And if I can’t win either of those things, then I’m going to get out altogether,” O’Malley says. “And I’ll let you know.”

 

In late May, cousin Kweisi finally announced that he definitely would not run. The Annapolis powers who had pursued him immediately switched their attentions to former city Police Commissioner Bishop Robinson. And a score of other candidates joined the Democratic race.

Meantime, O’Malley’s poll showed him at 7 percent in a mayor’s race, compared to Bell’s 36 and Stokes’s 27. It also indicated that most of Stokes’s supporters could also support Bell and vice versa. O’Malley concluded that voters weren’t committed to either one of them, meaning he could cut into their bases. O’Malley announced his candidacy in late June.

Even without an O’Malley candidacy to contend with, though, Bell’s campaign was in crisis. Powerful friends could fill his coffers, but they could not dictate how he ran his race. In the first three months of 1999, the Bell campaign took in nearly $200,000 and spent more than $130,000, paying out half that amount to five costly advisers: Marshall Bell, Tammy Hawley, Julius Henson, and fundraisers Lona Rhoades-Ba and James Cauley, who was on loan from O’Malley. Another $10,000 was spent on debt from his 1995 campaign.

O’Malley, by comparison, raised $45,000 and spent $35,000 from late March through late June. During these months of campaign-building, O’Malley had no paid advisors except for his long-time fundraiser Cauley, who received $4,096.

Matters other than money hurt Bell. His campaign was marked by missteps, such as the candidate’s propensity to arrive late to forums or not show up at all; his workers’ attempt to disrupt a rally at which Mfume’s Annapolis suitors endorsed O’Malley; and his workers’ copying racist flyers attributed to white supremacists. Every time Bell was embarrassed in the media – for example, by reports that he left his wrecked Mustang at the body shop until it was repossessed and that he failed to pay his Belvedere condo fees – he would disappear from the campaign trail. He seemed to take each setback to heart rather than letting it go.

When Bell did appear, he made race an issue in a way his opponents did not, explicitly offering himself as a role model for young African Americans. More than once, Bell attacked O’Malley for refusing the censure Baltimore-based Crown Central Petroleum, which had been accused of racist practices in Texas. (O’Malley’s response was that Crown had not been invited to defend itself.)

As if to symbolize how far he had traveled from his partnership with O’Malley, Bell spent election day with Marion Barry, the disgraced and redeemed former mayor of Washington, D.C.

 

In the end, O’Malley won 53 percent of the vote to Bell’s 17 percent. Carl Stokes came in second, with 28 percent of the vote.

If it’s true, as O’Malley said, that how you win also dictates how you govern, then an O’Malley administration would be marked by efficient fundraising and spending, a motivated and diverse cadre of workers, a focus on a few key issues, backing from state leaders, and support from an energized public.

But these aren’t the only factors that propelled O’Malley to victory.

Though he ran on the campaign pledge “for change and reform,” O’Malley’s campaign also relied on old warhorses, and his horses were even older than Bell’s. Some of O’Malley’s key change agents hail from the days of once-mayor, now state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, whose endorsement also brought many Schaefer cronies into the O’Malley camp. Even the head of O’Malley’s transition team, Downtown Partnership’s Laurie Schwartz, began her career as one of Schaefer’s best and brightest.

Another old-fashioned factor in O’Malley’s win may have been the use of “walk-around money” – money paid to get “volunteers” to electioneer near polling places. It is against state law to pay workers on election day, and O’Malley denies that anyone was paid to electioneer for him on that day. Nevertheless, polling places throughout the city seemed to have multiple O’Malley workers for every Stokes or Bell worker, and word on the street was that they were being paid. One O’Malley poll worker said he received $35 to stand on the corner wearing an O’Malley T-shirt and handing out literature. Another worker, who said he had not been paid, said he’d heard that other were receiving $35 to $60 for their efforts, depending on the neighborhood. Whoever funds such payments funds them directly, without reporting them, so if O’Malley’s campaign did benefit from such largesse, persons unknown did him a big favor.

But if O’Malley needed old-time backers to win the primary, he also needed Bell. Without the high-profile alliance of Salt’n’Pepa, O’Malley might have been just another white Northeast Baltimore politician, not one of a new, race-blind generation of leaders. After his partnership with Bell crumbled, O’Malley used its rubble as the launching pad for his own ambitious campaign.

This month, O’Malley faces Republican underdog David Tufaro, a millionaire developer with strong credentials as a community builder. Unless Tufaro pulls off an upset immeasurably more stunning than O’Malley’s primary victory, Baltimore can look forward to Mayor O’Malley.

But can O’Malley govern independently? Is he more resistant than he thinks Bell was to the siren song of the city’s moneyed players?

When these questions are put to him, O’Malley’s answer is nearly identical to one of Bell’s stock campaign lines: “All I can say is, look at my record,” he says. “Look at what I’ve done on the council; look at my politics.”

The High Life: Ex-Con Has High-Powered Help in Opening Nightclub

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 3, 1996

IMG_7492

Kenneth Antonio Jackson, Jr., aka “Kenny Bird,” is out to become a leader in minority enterprise in the downtown entertainment market. By opening a big new nightclub, he and his supporters – including state Senator Larry Young and City Council President Lawrence Bell – hope to make “the region’s neighborhood” more inviting to the city’s prominent black middle class.

On December 22, Jackson’s lawyer, former Circuit Court judge and city solicitor George Russell of the law firm Piper and Marbury, received word that the liquor board had approved a liquor license and floor plans for the Sons of Italy building at 410 West Fayette Street, where Jackson has started renovations to open a jazz club/restaurant called the Royal Café. Jackson envisions the club as an upscale venue for national acts such as Lou Rawls and Aretha Franklin, which will attract middle-class and wealthy blacks over 30 years old.

Jackson’s initial plan for the large three-story building was to house a high-end/multistage strip club. Land records show KAJ Enterprises, a company owned by Jackson’s mother, Rosalie Jackson, purchased the building in April 1995 for $250,000 from the Sons of Italy, a fraternal order. (Jackson manages his mother’s strip club, the Eldorado Lounge, at 322 West Baltimore Street.) But when word of his plan circulated among the neighborhood’s main institutions – Lexington Market, the University of Maryland, and the Downtown Partnership – the resulting outcry led him to change his proposal to something more palatable: a reputable jazz and supper club. At a September 28th liquor-board hearing about the proposal, Russell explained that “at first [Jackson] was thinking about adult entertainment; that is gone. … This is going to be legitimate. … Even I would go there.”

The focus of the hearing was concerns that the Royal Café will exacerbate existing security problems in the neighborhood, which on weekend nights already attracts as many as 2,000 rowdy young adults cruising the streets until the wee hours. Shootings, stabbings, and many arrests have occurred in the area over the past year or so. But Russell suggested that the resistance to this new club is really due to the fact that the owners and operators are black. “It is time for people … downtown to be willing to embrace others different from them, others whose culture may be different from them, to demonstrate to the community that we can get along here.”

Young also testified on Jackson’s behalf at the hearing, saying that the venture is a positive example of minority entrepreneurship. “When it comes to downtown business,” Young declared, “blacks to not have a fair share. And I’m here to say that minorities who come up with the right qualifications, follow the laws, and [do] all that they should do should be given the opportunity to participate. And this is an entrepreneur that I strongly support.”

Unaddressed at the hearing, though, were the issues of Jackson’s criminal past and the financing of his new venture.

Jackson’s rap sheet extends back to 1974, when at age 16 he was charged with murder and acquitted by a jury. In 1977 he was again charged with murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a 10-year suspended sentence with five years’ probation. From then until the end of 1984, Jackson faced 47 other criminal charges in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County, New York, and Falls Church, Virginia, involving narcotics, handguns, murder, theft, bribery, and harboring a fugitive. These included charges stemming from allegations that Jackson was involved in a drug war for control of the Lafayette Courts public-housing project, but those charges were dismissed in 1982, according to a 1989 Sun article.

Federal-court affidavits in 1985 named Jackson as a lieutenant in the drug ring headed by Melvin D. “Little Melvin” Williams, who was sentenced that year to 34 years in prison. Also in 1985, Jackson pleaded guilty to narcotics and handgun-possession charges and accepted a five-year suspended sentence and five years’ probation. When he violated probation by leaving the state without permission – he and two companions were pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike with $91,000 and a large amount of lidocaine, which is used to dilute cocaine, in their car – Circuit Court Judge Elsbethe Bothe gave him two years’ incarceration. Jackson appealed the case in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which overturned the probation-violation conviction in September 1988.

In June 1988, Jackson was again pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike, this time with nearly $700,000 in cash in the trunk of his car. He was charged with attempting to bribe his arresting officer with $200,000 and received probation before judgement. In April 1989, Jackson and two other Baltimore men were arrested by federal agents and charged with the 1984 murder in New York of cocaine wholesaler Felix Gonzalez. At the time of his arrest, federal agents also raided the Eldorado Lounge. He was acquitted of the murder charge by a New York State Supreme Court jury in May 1991.

Since returning the Baltimore after his acquittal in New York, Jackson has avoided new charges while making friends in high places. In last year’s elections, for instance, the Eldorado Lounge or Jackson himself gave $1,000 to the Schmoke re-election campaign and $3,500 to Bell’s successful bid for City Council president. When Jackson was seeking liquor-board approval for his new club, Bell submitted a letter to the board expressing his familiarity with Jackson and his support for Jackson’s venture. Both Young and Bell say they did not know of Jackson’s criminal past until asked about it by a reporter.

George Russell would not comment for this article, but Jackson says of his criminal history, “I’m trying hard to put my past in the past.” As indication of his efforts to do so, Jackson points out several public-service awards he has received in recent years, including a 1994 Mayor’s Citation from Kurt Schmoke and a 1990 Congressional Achievement Award from Kweisi Mfume. He is active in the newly formed political-action committee, A Piece of JUICE, which works to get African American men involved in the political process.

Shortly before the April 1995 purchase of the Sons of Italy building, however, Jackson and the building both figured in an undercover FBI investigation into the drug-money-laundering operations of businessman Gregory Scroggins and attorney Zell Margolis, who were convicted in December 1995. First assistant United States attorney Gary Jordan, who prosecuted the case, says that in March 1995, Scroggins introduced Jackson to Edward Dickson, a man he though was a drug dealer but was actually an undercover FBI agent. The purpose was to convince Jackson to let Dickson in on the purchase as a “silent partner,” Jordan says. FBI transcripts of wiretapped conversations in the case document Scroggins’ opinion of Jackson, a childhood friend, as very wealthy, highly intelligent, and “the nicest guy in the world, but he’s a killer and he has killed.”

As for the nightclub’s financing, land records indicate that KAJ Enterprises obtained a $200,000 mortgage from Maryland Permanent Bank and Trust of Owings Mills to finance the $250,000 purchase of the Sons of Italy building. The mortgage calls for monthly payments of more than $2,300.

Meanwhile, court records indicate that Jackson’s employment at the Eldorado Lounge paid $325 a week in 1988, although he says he now makes substantially more than that. Since Jackson is a convicted felon, he cannot apply for a liquor license; Mary Collins, who refused interview requests, applied instead. She is a guidance counselor for Baltimore City Public Schools.

Regarding the financing for the new club, Jackson explains that all expenses not covered by the $200,000 mortgage so far have been covered by revenue from the Eldorado Lounge. The extensive renovations to the Sons of Italy building ultimately will require a sizable bank loan, he says, adding that the Eldorado Lounge has applied for a $500,000 loan from Nationsbank.

Asked why the liquor board did not inquire during the September 28th hearing about the club’s financing or whether Collins has the money to fund such a major investment, liquor-board executive secretary Aaron Stansbury explained that the board simply chose not to. He also stated that it is “obviously illegal” for a straw person to hold a liquor license on behalf of the actual owner of the club, but his understanding is that Collins is the club owner, while KAJ Enterprises is merely the landlord; Stansbury says that it is legal for a landlord to fund the building renovations on the club’s behalf. “It is presumed by the board that [the money for the club] comes from Mary Collins,” Stansbury said. Of Jackson’s criminal background, Stansbury said the board was not aware of it “to the extent that [Jackson] couldn’t manage the club.”

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

henrietta-lacks

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.