Untestable Waters: A Jones Falls tributary in Robert E. Lee Park spoiled by composting operation

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 24, 2003

Walking in city-owned Robert E. Lee Park, along the east side of Bare Hills in Baltimore County, you’re bound to turn up some deer or maybe scare up a grouse or two. Virginia pines and thick mats of briars and vines dominate the rocky, thin-soiled landscape, which is crisscrossed with streams and trails, some of them used occasionally by humans, most of them blazed faintly by deer that leave scat and hoof-prints on the ground and rub marks from their antlers on tree-trunks.

This pocket of the park, while idyllic, is situated up against the backs of several businesses lining Falls Road, including Hollins Organic Products, a two-acre composting and mulching operation. The company has been located at this Falls Road site for 22 years and, of late, City Paper has discovered, it has been giving Robert E. Lee Park and the Jones Falls, which runs through the park, a nasty dose of pollution.

“This is almost making me puke,” exclaims Darin Crew, a stream monitor for the Herring Run Watershed Association, as he steps carefully around a tree-strewn, briar-choked stream-bed in this rarely traveled area of the park. This particular stream runs alongside Hollins Organic Products, and its water is a murky blackish-brown; it eventually empties into the Jones Falls, less than a mile downstream.

“It smells like a combination of manure and old tobacco chew,” Crew notes. “And the water’s black as English breakfast tea. It’s so full of suspended matter that you can’t see through it at all.”

Robert E. Lee Park’s more high-profile pollution problem, as reported recently in the news, has not been dirty, smelly run-off from Hollins Organic, but rather the tremendous concentration of dog waste that’s accumulated in another, more populated section of the park. City officials are mulling the wholesale replacement of contaminated topsoil near the Jones Falls Dam, which is a hugely popular dog-walking spot.

The pollution from Hollins, discovered by Baltimore County officials on Dec. 12 and stumbled upon by a City Paper reporter walking in the park two days later, has been mostly off the radar. Runoff from Hollins may have been polluting the stream at varying intensities for years, however, though no one has previously noted or reported it.

At City Paper‘s request, Crew agreed to test the water to find out what, if anything, could be polluting the small, unnamed tributary. The test, conducted on Dec. 16, involves adding chemical tablets to vials of samples, causing reactions that change the water’s color to indicate levels of acidity, nitrogen, and phosphates. But because the water was, in Crew’s words, “too dark and turbid to show any color,” it was untestable.

“So at this point I don’t know what’s in it,” Crews says. “But it’s definitely a problem.”

Among other lines of business, Hollins Organic accepts natural wood waste–mostly tree stumps, trunks, branches–and turns it into marketable mulch sold for landscaping and gardening. During the processing, excess water that isn’t soaked up in the compost piles drains to the lowest point of the company’s yard, where it collects in a pool next to a berm separating it from park property. The park side of the berm is a steep slope, and water from the pool is seeping through rapidly, cascading down in black, bubbling rivulets until it collects in a small marsh that drains steadily into the stream, which runs dark from that point on. The side of the berm and the marshy soils are stained black from the effluent.

The day after the test, Crews speculated about what could be in the “black seep overflow” that is making its way to the stream and what impact it could be having on living things in the water.

“We definitely know that there are nutrients, coloring, and fine sediments leaving Hollins,” he says. “The sedimentation within the stream, combined with the coloring, has to be disrupting the aquatic life, suffocating and smothering bugs and fish. I would guess, based on my professional experience, that sediments and color are impairing the stream, if this is occurring year-round.”

Based on anecdotal evidence from dog walkers who frequent these woods, it has been occurring year-round, and for a while.

“It’s been running murky for a couple of years now,” says Chris Toland, who visits the parks regularly on his dog walks–and this time was trying to keep nine dogs from drinking the sullied stream water. “But it appears to have gotten worse fairly recently.”

Following the stream to its mouth at the Jones Falls, one crosses two smaller tributaries, which run clean and clear from the uphill woods until they join the despoiled stream. The stream-side sediments are stained black, and the stream’s banks are lined with downed, dead, and dying trees. In the long-abandoned railroad bed that runs through the park, the stream forms still, black pools. At its entry to the Jones Falls, it spills out in a distinct black ribbon that runs with the current for 20 or so yards before mixing into the much larger river.

Toland (a personal friend of this writer) and his companion, Mary Byrne, always figured authorities knew about the problem, they say, since the stream has been obviously polluted for so long. But then again, they note, this area of the park is so remote that such problems could be missed, or not recognized as problems.

“We never see anybody out here,” Byrne says.

When contacted about the runoff into the stream from his business, Hollins Organic owner Doug Hollins invited City Paper to visit the company’s Falls Road site, with his engineer, Rick Richardson, in tow. The Hollins officials say they are aware of the pollution problem the company is creating, and they are trying to come up with a solution.

The company has tried to contain excess runoff from its mulching operations with a makeshift stone dam built into a low part of the berm that separates the yard from the park. This runoff management system, Hollins says, is designed according to standards required under state and county permits. But this year’s extraordinary amount of rainfall–2003 is heading toward being Baltimore’s wettest year on record–has overwhelmed it, causing runoff to breach the berm and flow into the stream.

“I want to fix this right away,” Hollins says, as a pump-out truck pulls up and prepares to drain the pond. Behind him, a giant grinder is spitting shredded wood, hot and steamy from decomposition, into piles that are being pushed around by bulldozers. “Then I want to engineer something so this won’t happen again. I’ve been here 22 years and I take this seriously.”

Hollins says inspectors from the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management visited the site on Dec. 12, which is when the pollution problem was discovered.

“We went out on a routine inspection,” says Baltimore County spokesman Bill Clark, “and noted that there was a problem with the pond, and they were advised at that time that they were in violation.”

“I don’t think it had been going on very long,” Hollins contends, adding that on Nov. 5 the Maryland Department of the Environment performed a routine inspection and found nothing wrong “that I know of.”

As for the stench of the water, and its dark, turbid quality, Hollins explains that “it’s murky because, in an effort to maintain [run-off] water on the property, we’ve created a stagnant pond. The organic matter [from the composting and mulching operation] gets trapped in the pond and is basically fermented, which is why we have this odor.”

Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Richard McIntire says he has no record of a department inspection at the company on Nov. 5, the date Hollins cites. “We have not been there recently,” he says, noting that the case “has been assigned to an area inspector . . . but we don’t know when we’ll get there” to analyze the seepage and determine the level of pollution it is likely causing.

“We should have heard about this long ago from somewhere,” McIntire says. “We can’t be everywhere all the time, but taking care of the environment is everyone’s responsibility.”

Christel Cothran, who runs the nonprofit Jones Falls Watershed Association, was notified by City Paper about the Hollins Organic situation. She notes that the Jones Falls is already suffering from fecal-coliform contamination, which was revealed most recently in a midsummer sampling her organization did at 26 locations throughout the Jones Falls watershed–23 of them were found to exceed limits for contamination.

Cothran says she is hopeful that a combination of regulatory pressure and Hollins’ ingenuity will fix the leak and allow the stream to take on a semblance of healthfulness. But her hope is tinged with a level of frustration borne of experience: “It’s just amazing, once something like this is spotted, how long it takes to fix.”

Field of Schemes: A cavalcade of Baltimore projects, done and undone

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 12, 2003

It may sound crass, but development is pure and simple speculation. One can dress it up with high-minded jargon–“public-private partnership” or “urban renewal”–but the game remains a tangled, chancy knot of land deals and debt-fueling projects aided or underwritten by taxpayer dollars.

And so it’s been played in Baltimore since Colonial times, when Baltimore Town, Jones Town, and Fells Point were first laid out in the 1730s. As historian Sherry Olson writes at the beginning of her authoritative tome Baltimore, “the city itself was to be the great speculation,” with its growth driven from the start by the overlapping financial affairs of private and public interests.

Similarly, developers today commonly reduce their risks by relying on public money to build on scarce harbor-front land. This business-government alliance, then-Rouse Co. chief executive officer Mathias DeVito told City Paper back in 1995, “is a part of our culture here.”

Sometimes this development dance has worked, sometimes it hasn’t–and sometimes it turned out differently than intended, or was never done at all. The high-end residences of Mount Vernon Place, built in the 19th century, comprise what many say is the most beautiful urban space in the United States. The high-end condo complex Scarlett Place, on the other hand, looks as much like a Lego creation today as it did in the go-go 1980s, when it rose in the footprint of a closed President Street warehouse. The 6-year-old Columbus Center sits forlornly at the Inner Harbor, an unmitigated failure as a science-based tourist attraction. Next door, though, the brand-name draws at the Power Plant (Barnes and Noble, ESPN Zone, Hard Rock Café) have preserved a striking century-old relic. Harborview Towers along Key Highway broke ground 14 years ago and is only half-built, its lone high-rise bearing a cartoonish resemblance to a lighthouse, but the Howard Street Arts District, meant to revitalize the old west-side shopping district by nurturing the muses, was never built at all.

Successful or not, Baltimore’s drive to build and rebuild has been inexorable, even in the face of the Great Fire of 1904, the Great Depression and other financial disasters, the tenacious flight of jobs and residents to the suburbs, and the riots of 1968. Housing, highways, hotels, industry, office space, public transportation–it’s all gone up, in one way or another, shaped by geography (especially the city’s waterfront and watersheds) and the resolve and resources of the rich and powerful, be they in business or government. And thus we, for better or worse, have places to live, work, play, shop, and travel–places whose stories, sampled below, echo the strains and harmonies of Baltimore’s development.

The Fairfield Ecological Industrial Park 

When Baltimore was awarded a $100 million federal Empowerment Zone grant to boost jobs for poor residents in 1994, city leaders confidently called the proposed Fairfield Ecological Industrial Park the “crown jewel” of the plan. Located on a South Baltimore peninsula far from downtown, the industrial park–a polluting cluster of oil-tank farms, factories, and scrap yards–was to become an economic engine fueled by recycling and reuse; one plant’s waste would be another’s raw material. Residents of the city’s other two Empowerment Zones, one each in East and West Baltimore, were expected to fill the coming jobs, along with the handful of people still living in Fairfield, and businesses would claim tax benefits for hiring them.

Then, nothing really happened. There were planning symposiums, community meetings and strategy sessions–even enrollment in a federal program to make environmental permitting more flexible for businesses there. Much feel-good rhetoric was spun about the eco-industrial park. Then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke and luminaries from Washington used it in speeches as a model for the economy of the future. The city made ambitious promises for capital improvements–new roads, new storm drains, new curbs and lighting. In 1997, the state passed brownfields legislation to make it easier to redevelop abandoned and polluted industrial land, a step that ostensibly would help facilitate the eco-industrial park plan.

Other than the wholesale buyout by the city of the homes of the remaining 300 or so Fairfield residents in 1998, little change came about. In 1999, the eco-industrial park was withdrawn from the flexible-permitting program for inactivity and lack of interest. By 2000, the city was already quieting on the ecological part of the equation, though efforts to bring new business to the area continued. The city has spent about $5.5 million to date on road and drainage improvements in Fairfield. A granite-slab company was enticed with a $150,000 city loan to move there in 2000, the same year that the city forgave $300,000 in debt owed by the Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse development company, which has been trying since 1989 to revive a polluted portion of Fairfield called Port Liberty. In the end, though, the eco-park concept was abandoned, and Fairfield remains the same old petro-chemical industrial park that it’s been for decades.

The Middle Branch Waterfront 

In 1724, just six years before Baltimore Town was founded on the North Branch of the Patapsco River, landowners in the area approached the legislature with plans for a town at Spring Gardens, near where the Gwynns Falls empties into the Patapsco’s Middle Branch in what is now known as South Baltimore. Their efforts were blocked by John Moale, who owned the land and preferred to mine for iron there–which he did until he died in 1740–so a first settlement was chosen instead on the North Branch. Thus, if not for Moale’s self-interest, Middle Branch would be Baltimore’s Inner Harbor today. Instead, it’s Baltimore’s other, overlooked waterfront.

The Middle Branch was committed to industrial purposes during Baltimore’s formative years in the 19th century. The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.’s precursor in the 1850s chose Spring Gardens as the site for a gas-making plant, then later chose Westport, across the river, for a giant coal-fired power plant. The Carr Lowery Glass Co., which closed this year, first set up shop on the Middle Branch’s shores in 1889. Rubble from the 1904 fire was pushed into Middle Branch marshland, as was fill from city subway excavations in the 1970s.

The waterway’s other favorite use was recreation, as city dwellers at the turn of the 20th century chose places like Ferry Bar Park and the various rowing clubs dotting the shoreline as weekend destinations. They were always cheek-to-jowl with the smokestacks, but today the BRESCO trash incinerator is the only stack still belching.

Nascent signs of new investment have started to peek through the industrial detritus of Middle Branch. On the former Port Covington railroad yards sits a new Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club that opened in 2002, thanks in part to tax credits. Nearby, at the dilapidated city-owned marina next to the Hanover Street Bridge, a team of investors is planning extensive renovations, including a new restaurant and entertainment venue. The National Aquarium had been planning a $30 million Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation at a 7-acre city park on the west side of the Hanover Street Bridge, but it recently ran into cleanup problems.

Also poking up from the urban detritus–and the refuse and sewage coming into the Middle Branch from the Gwynns Falls and various storm drains–is an ecology of sorts. Herons, kingfishers, and even beavers frequent its shores and rotted piers, which themselves have become vegetated islands of habitat.

For the last quarter century, city planners and local architects have been calling for the Middle Branch to become the city’s “second waterfront” by creating access and amenities along its shores and promoting recreational uses like fishing, biking, and picnicking. As the city strives to solve its extensive leaky-sewer problems and also installs a debris collector to keep trash from entering Middle Branch in the first place, the degraded waterway may yet become a destination again–this time without the heavy industry.

Coldspring NewTown 

Back in 1970, when Abell Foundation President Robert Embry was the city’s housing commissioner, Moshe Safdie captured his imagination. The young Israeli-born Canadian architect had wowed the crowds at Montreal’s 1967 World Fair with Habitat, a complex of modular, mass-produced housing and retail space arranged as a self-contained community for urban markets. With residents fast abandoning Baltimore for the surrounding suburbs, Embry and other city leaders were willing to commit urban-renewal funds to try new things–even something along the lines of Habitat–in order to keep the city’s dwindling middle class. And try they did with Coldspring NewTown.

Located just south of Cylburn Arboretum between Greenspring Avenue and the Jones Falls, the project was initially designed to straddle Coldspring Lane on 370 acres and comprise 3,700 dwelling units for 12,000 people. Some were to live in “deck houses”–raised concrete, aluminum, and-stucco condominium complexes with parking beneath the homes and walkways and green space throughout–and many more in apartment buildings, including a top-entry high-rise to be built down the face of the old Woodberry Quarry. The price tag was $200 million, with $50 million coming from federal coffers. City voters approved a bond sale to insure condo buyers’ mortgages.

In 1977, the first phase was completed: 252 deck houses. They were snatched up by a mixed bag of professionals–including high-ranking city bureaucrats, architects, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and journalists. More public money was spent to lay the foundation for the project’s next phase–the NewTown part of the concept, with stores and community services–when Ronald Reagan became president and nearly turned off the spigot of federal funds that had fueled Baltimore’s urban-renewal gravy train during the 1970s. The project stalled, only a fraction completed.

Until the 1990s, when construction started on a different tack–a hundred or so suburban-style homes along Coldspring NewTown’s boundary with the Cylburn Arboretum–the isolated development was surrounded by vestiges of its failure. Mounds of earth had been moved, sewers and roads installed, foundation work laid down, but much of it was left eerily idle. Almost 900 people, however, now live in what had been uninhabited woodland. Their combined property taxes contribute approximately $500,000 per year to city coffers. That’s not much return for tens of millions of dollars in public investment–unless, of course, you’re one of the original condo buyers who scored unique urban homes for $30,000 to $60,000 with low-rate, bond-insured mortgages.

Inner Harbor East 

Three or four decades ago, Inner Harbor East–a 20-acre parcel around where the Jones Falls empties into the harbor, right next to Little Italy–was slated for a highway interchange. After that proposal crashed and burned, thanks to an epic political battle that spawned several careers (including that of now-U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski), a decade-long community planning process started to create a vision for the property.

What was ultimately agreed upon, in a plan made official in 1990–a cluster of upscale townhouses, a marina, offices, retail space, and an 18-story hotel–was “to balance all the interests of neighborhood life with the interests of commercial developers,” as then-Mayor Schmoke explained at the time. New buildings, all agreed, were to have low elevations and a street-level orientation, so as not to overshadow the rowhouses and restaurants of nearby Little Italy and Fells Point.

With a hard-fought plan in place, community activists rested easy. The city held up its end of the bargain, building roads and water lines and completing marina renovations, and then started to sweeten the deal for the property’s main owner–H&S; Bakery owner John Paterakis.

The favors started with $1.5 million in federal money, which was chipped in for a $9.2 million office and apartment complex where Sylvan Learning Systems is now based. Then the city subtracted first $1.7 million, then another $1 million, from Paterakis’ $4 million share of the costs for infrastructure (roads, water lines, marina renovations, etc.). Then, in 1995, the city gave Paterakis another $1.8 million in financial breaks, and deferred his $6.5 million obligation to purchase two city-owned parcels in the development area. But that was just for starters.

The real surprise at Inner Harbor East didn’t come until 1997. At that point, the city’s $150 million Convention Center expansion was completed, but the center needed about 1,000 more hotel rooms in order to support the expected growth in bookings. Two-thirds of the Convention Center’s cost had been covered by the state, so legislators all around Maryland were anxious to see it succeed.

To the surprise of many, Inner Harbor East–about a mile from the Convention Center–was chosen as the Convention Center headquarters hotel’s home in 1997 over two other closer sites. What’s more, Paterakis’ proposed hotel blew the Inner Harbor East plan out of the water–as initially approved, his hotel was to be a 48-story behemoth, costing nearly $150 million, with a third of the cost covered by public funds.

Ultimately, Paterakis’ Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel rose 32 stories–not quite twice the height spelled out in the 1990 urban-renewal plan–and vocal critics have tempered their complaints since its construction was completed in 2000. After all, with a significant public stake in the project, its success significantly impacts city coffers. And now it is joined by a proposal for a $130 million Four Seasons hotel and condo complex made up of two 20-story towers, also receiving healthy public subsidies. So much for Inner Harbor East having the scale and feel of the quaint neighborhoods surrounding it.


President Bill Clinton came and went, but Baltimore will bear the mark of $150 million his administration gave to the city’s public-housing program for years to come. The money came in the form of HOPE VI grants, and they were used to demolish and replace antiquated public-housing high-rises with mixed-income townhouse developments for homeowners and public-housing residents alike. Lafayette Courts, Hollander Ridge, Flag House, Murphy Homes, Lexington Terrace, Broadway Homes–for nearly 50 years, these were familiar addresses and home to thousands of Baltimore’s poor. Now they are all gone, some of them replaced with new housing–but for vastly fewer people, and less of them poor, than were living there before.

“When the towers come down, the tenants have to go somewhere, and what they do is fan out to nearby working-class neighborhoods, using federal housing vouchers to pay the rent,” according to an article in the October issue of Governing magazine. “Most of these are aging, fragile communities struggling to stave off dysfunction themselves. A large influx of welfare families brings increased crime and disorder and sometimes threatens a neighborhood’s very survival.” In Baltimore, a study released this year by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies found this effect to be the main problem with the HOPE VI program.

The critics aren’t saying the old high-rises–which Al Gore called “monuments of hopelessness”–were preferable. But they make the argument that big-money, big-impact moves like imploding high-rises and replacing them with mixed-income townhouses fails to address the complex root causes of poverty and all its ills. In fact, some call the program government-funded gentrification and complain that HOPE VI amounts to little more than a massive dereliction of duty for the nation’s giant public-housing system, which is supposed to support the poor. Residents lucky enough to obtain housing at the suburban-style complexes, though, find a lot to like–they’re new, clean, and generally safer than what they replaced.

The Public Rails 

Controversial highway plans to link interstates 70 and 95 near Fells Point, then build a bridge over Locust Point, fell through in the 1970s–but not before a portion of I-70 was constructed through a slice of West Baltimore neighborhoods. East-west traffic in Baltimore and those West Baltimore communities have struggled ever since. But part of the strain was meant to be relieved by rail-based public transportation, an idea that has never fully blossomed in Baltimore, despite its demonstrable boost to economic development in cities that have extensive systems.

Baltimore’s extensive trolley system had been phased out entirely by the early 1960s, thanks in part to the indirect efforts of General Motors to shut it down. The new generation of rails now consists of the 15-mile Baltimore Metro subway between Owings Mills and Johns Hopkins’ East Baltimore medical campus, and the 30-mile light-rail line between Hunt Valley and BWI Airport. Combined, the projects cost nearly $2 billion in public funds, with construction lasting two decades.

That price tag is nothing compared to a current proposal, announced earlier this year, to create a six-line, 109-mile, 122-station system for $12 billion over a period of 40 years. The extensive, expensive scheme, dubbed the Baltimore Regional Rail System, was cooked up by an advisory committee of the Mass Transit Administration and has the backing of heavy hitters like the Greater Baltimore Committee, a large and respected business group. But Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s administration is balking at its lofty ambitions, saying a rapid-bus plan may be a feasible alternative, given the tight state budget.

The chilly reception at the State House suggests Baltimore’s rail future, for now, has much more humble possibilities–such as a monorail to carry tourists around the Inner Harbor’s attractions. The idea has cropped up periodically over the last 25 years, most recently in the late 1990s, when then-Mayor Schmoke proposed a $210 million system that officials likened to the one at Disneyland. Others were reminded of the fictional Springfield, where the Simpsons, in a classic episode of the animated show, saw firsthand where monorails lead you–around and around in a runaway train sold to the public by a passing huckster. So, instead of rails for the Inner Harbor, the Greater Baltimore Committee is backing a $26-million electric tram system with dedicated lanes on existing roads. Either way, it sounds like tourists to Baltimore will have their public-transportation problems solved long before Baltimore as a whole does.

Brown to Green: A South Baltimore brownfield becomes a rezoning test case

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 30, 2003

Race Street in South Baltimore has long been a demarcation line between working-class homes and bygone blue-collar jobs. Classic Baltimore rowhouses, block after tidy block of them, extend to the east of Race Street, while to the west lies the Spring Garden Industrial Area–acres of underutilized industrial land, some still productive, much of it vacant or cleared of structures, and a large hazardous-waste site where hundreds of tons of toxic waste were dumped decades ago.

After an April 24 hearing, the Baltimore City Planning Commission recommended breaching this divide by rezoning a two-acre heavy-industrial tract at Race and Ostend streets for residential development. If all goes as planned, the developers–1300 Race Street LLC–hope a warehouse on the site will be converted to condominiums, and that 18 townhomes with two-car garages will rise along the property’s eastern edge. With the commission’s thumbs-up, the proposal will now go before the City Council for final consideration.

The case is the first application of a developing framework of guidelines the city plans to use evaluate rezoning such brownfields for nonindustrial uses. “It’s an old Baltimore situation where industry and rowhouses come right together,” explained city planner Chris Ryer during the hearing. The quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC), which works to spur economic growth in the city, has “started to develop some criteria for how we would evaluate these parcels” for redevelopment, Ryer continued. Known as the “Industrial Land Use Analysis,” the framework is not yet finalized but is far enough along that it could be applied to the Race Street conversion.

BDC executive vice president Andy Frank, in an interview before the hearing, explained that brownfields such as the Race Street parcel tend to lie fallow until moneymaking uses are found for them–and more money can be made from residential uses than from offices, retail, or industry.

“In many cases,” Frank said, “it is not unlikely that an industrial reuse will generate enough revenue to underwrite the cost of redevelopment. Some sites, though, are so dirty that they would never be anything else than industrial.”

At the Race Street property, the developers are seeing green in the potential for more homes in what has long been a hot market for housing in South Baltimore. Stephen Strohecker, a realtor and partner in 1300 Race Street LLC, says the new townhomes will likely sell for about $350,000, a somewhat higher price tag than the $250,000 or so that nearby rowhouses cost.

“Significant changes have come to South Baltimore since 1971, the last time the city undertook comprehensive rezoning,” Ryer told the commission, “but not enough change in the immediate area to justify” large-scale conversion of industrial land. “But BDC’s new criteria did give justification to extend an existing residential zoning category across the street to this property.”

The criteria, Ryer explained, are meant to evaluate the selection of marginal or historic industrial properties for rezoning “as long as the conversion does not compete with other activities in the area,” and, just as important, that it doesn’t start “a domino effect” in which more and more of Baltimore’s industrial land is converted to other uses, leading to a scarcity of industrial zones which might someday be needed again.

“Generally, the economy of Baltimore is changing, and has been over the last 20 years,” Ryer’s boss, city planner Susan Williams, told City Paper before the hearing. “We still have a manufacturing base, but we have other kinds of demand for land use–mixed-use, offices, commercial space. And the old loft-style structures of the past are no longer as useful for the industrial marketplace–they don’t want to build up, they want to build out. So there has been creative reuse of these older buildings.” As examples of this, she pointed to new or upcoming projects like Brewers Hill in Canton, Tide Point in Locust Point, and Clipper Mill in Woodberry.

Actually, as Frank points out, the trend goes back even further. The city’s tourism-encrusted waterfront all used to be industrial land, from Harborview on the south side all the way around the Inner Harbor East and Harbor Point on the north side, and has been converted to other uses since the early 1970s, by which time industry had largely abandoned the Inner Harbor.

“So it is not a new issue,” Frank said. “But it is new in that we don’t have as much industrial property to convert anymore, and there have been worries that there may be none left if we need it. So, about a year and a half ago, we decided to pause and get a good, comprehensive look at the demand for industrial property and determine what factors we should consider in converting more land.”

BDC hired Bay Area Economics, a San Francisco-based economic consulting firm, to come up with guidelines; the company completed a draft set of criteria last fall. “It’s still an evolving policy,” Frank explained. “But we tested the Race Street property against the criteria and we’re comfortable that it’ll be a better use. The main question was, would nonindustrial use negatively affect adjacent industrial properties? And we decided it wouldn’t.”

The surrounding residential community has voiced its support for the Race Street rezoning in letters to the Planning Commission. “The reaction has been positive,” South Baltimore Improvement Committee President Amy Grace says. “Any time we can turn an old, run-down, vacant property into something positive for the community, it’s a good thing.”

The Idea Man: Creditor says city rehabber is long on vision, short on cash

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 22, 2003

Last September, developer Charles Jeffries was on the cusp of winning historic-district designation for a large swath of East Baltimore (“Prophet or Loss?,” Sept. 25, 2002). He won, so nearly 5,000 structures in the newly dubbed Broadway East/South Clifton Park Historic District are now eligible for tax credits. The new district includes Perlman Place, Jeffries’ long-stalled housing-rehab project that landed him and his company on the losing end of a court judgment in 1999 for bilking three working-class women in a housing scheme. Jeffries hopes the designation will spur a critical mass of investment in the declining neighborhoods and is hard at work attracting new players to this long-decaying part of the town.

The effort, though, has left Jeffries on the wrong end of another lawsuit–this one from Goodwin and Associates of Frederick, the cultural-resources management firm that prepared Jeffries’ historic-district application at a cost of $47,000 but has yet to receive payment.

“He called me literally daily in December to give some reason or another why he hadn’t paid,” recalled the firm’s president, Chris Goodwin, in a recent telephone interview. Then, Goodwin says, “he pulled a disappearing act and dropped off the face of the earth.” When Goodwin couldn’t get a return phone call from Jeffries, and then couldn’t locate him at the Cathedral Street address on record with the state as the principal office of Jeffries’ Center Development Corp., he says he “smelled a rat” and asked his attorney to draft and file the lawsuit. On Jan. 18, Goodwin says, Jeffries was served the lawsuit at his house in Guilford.

Interviewed by phone on Jan. 16 (before being served the papers), Jeffries said he was unaware of the lawsuit and was not trying to avoid payment or evade service–behavior that was noted of Jeffries during the Perlman Place litigation. “I have lines of credit with all sorts of people who pay bills,” he explains, and this one “should have been paid. I think you are trying to paint some picture that I don’t pay my bills. I have never walked away from a debt that I owed, ever.”

Though Goodwin is pursuing payment from Jeffries, he remains a fan of the developer’s core idea: to redevelop long-abandoned urban tracts. “If you look at East Baltimore, the decay is palpable,” he muses. “And, God, what a housing stock–if it only could be brought back. The potential is huge; Charles Jeffries is right about that. But it requires capital, and I’m skeptical he has what it takes.”

Since winning designation for the new historic district, Jeffries has continued to be active on several development fronts. In November, he and several partners, including the Baltimore Cable Access Corp., the Arena Players, and Baltimore developer Jerry Lymas, announced their vision for the Media Arts Network School. The planned $450 million development would create a campus, a theater, and student housing in an area that now contains scores of blocks (including Perlman Place) that resemble post-war Dresden. Jeffries says his company is also “literally on the verge of starting” renovation of the long-abandoned, 115-year-old Lake Clifton gatehouse, a dilapidated city structure where he hopes to house Center Development Corp.’s offices.

Also in the works is what Jeffries calls a “complicated transaction” to transfer ownership of Mount Vernon’s historic Winans mansion from Agora Publishing to an anonymous donor represented by Jeffries, and finally into the hands of the University of Baltimore. The long-pending deal was first announced nearly a year ago. Bill Lynerd, UB’s vice president of university advancement, says that, “at least according to Charles, we are going to nail this thing very shortly.”

Fire Storm: The 2001 Baltimore tunnel fire still smolders

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March 26, 2003

For three days in July 2001, chemical tankers and railroad cars filled with paper burned out of control in a downtown tunnel under Howard Street. As the inferno’s smoke cleared, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) started its work to determine the fire’s origin–an ongoing, secretive investigation whose long-awaited preliminary results, at last word, are expected to be released sometime this spring.

Unbeknownst to most, though, in September 2001 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) also began studying the Baltimore fire and obtained privileged information from the NTSB investigation. The NRC hoped to lay to rest a controversial question: Would a nuclear-waste rail cask, a heavy-duty container designed to move spent nuclear fuel around the country, have leaked any of its deadly contents had it been in the hottest part of the Baltimore tunnel fire? In February, the NRC’s results were released: The agency predicted that a cask would have survived intact. But not everyone is convinced by the study’s findings.

“The NRC’s report is an attempt to downplay the real-world conditions that might actually cause casks to fail and release radioactive materials, as we believe the Baltimore rail-tunnel fire would have done,” Robert Halstead told City Paper after the report was released. Halstead is a consultant for the state of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, which has battled the NRC for years over nuclear-waste transportation issues.

Halstead was one of dozens of nuclear-waste safety experts, nuclear industry officials, engineers, and citizens gathered at a March 6 public meeting at the NRC headquarters in Rockville to debate the protocol the NRC will use to determine transportation-cask safety and durability. The Baltimore tunnel fire was very much on the agenda.

Views on the risks posed to nuclear-waste transportation casks by an event like the Baltimore fire have been divided since news of the fire spread across the country in the summer of 2001 (“Hot Line,” Sept. 12, 2001). At the time, President George W. Bush had yet to sign off on a plan–which he did approve last year–to ship the nation’s 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel to a central repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. Opponents–primarily anti-nuclear activists and the state of Nevada–saw in the tunnel fire a real-life episode that could be used to fight the Yucca plan.

Critics pointed out that the Howard Street tunnel was initially on the NRC’s proposed waste route from Constellation Energy’s Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland–where a growing inventory of more than 930 metric tons of spent fuel is stored– to Yucca Mountain. They said that if the tunnel fire had burned hot enough and long enough to damage a cask carrying spent fuel, there would be reasonable grounds for concern that potentially deadly radioactive material might be released. Though scale-model tests and computers have been used to gauge the casks’ strength, critics argued, the casks have never been tested on a full-scale basis. So who can say for sure that a real cask could have survived this very real fire?

Yucca proponents, primarily the nuclear industry and its regulators, dismissed such notions as fear-mongering. They stressed the strength of the casks, asserting that the computer models and scale testing provide enough assurance that a 130-ton rail cask will meet the regulatory standards. They also touted the industry’s long record of safety in nuclear-waste transportation: about 3,000 spent-fuel shipments over nearly 40 years, and only eight accidents, none involving a release of radioactivity.

Right around the time the NRC started to gather data about the Baltimore fire, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred, ushering in a new era of heightened security around the nation’s nuclear-power complex. A video of a 1998 Aberdeen Proving Ground test was obtained by City Paper in February 2002, showing the impact a portable missile warhead would have on a rail cask–it would blow a hole right through the cask wall to possibly catastrophic effect (“Hot Load,” Feb. 20, 2002).

Subsequent concern over the safety of nuclear waste shipments have led to some changes. The Howard Street tunnel has been removed from NRC’s maps of proposed routes for nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain; new maps show that Calvert Cliffs’ shipments may instead move by barge up the Chesapeake Bay to the Port of Baltimore. And more significantly for nuclear-waste safety advocates nationwide, the NRC now plans to conduct full-scale transportation-cask testing. As a result, the March 6 NRC hearing was devoted to debate over how to conduct testing, including much heated discussion of the Baltimore tunnel fire.

“St. Patrick’s Day will mark 25 years since the first time that I got involved with the full-scale cask testing issue,” Halstead said by way of introducing himself to attendees. “And in all that time I can’t ever remember the NRC holding a meeting solely for the purpose of discussing full-scale testing. So this is a special occasion.”

Halstead handed out a paper he’d presented a week earlier at a conference in Tucson, Ariz., that recommended comprehensive full-scale cask tests in light of the Baltimore fire’s intensity. “Analyses of that accident by Nevada consultants and by the NRC both conclude that fire temperatures in the Baltimore rail tunnel reached or exceeded 1,500 degrees F,” the paper points out, “although estimates of the fire duration at this temperature vary from seven hours to more than 24 hours.” The regulatory test a cask must pass for certification, meanwhile, is 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit for a half an hour. The difference between the estimated conditions in the Baltimore fire and those in the regulatory standard is so great that Halstead proposes a cask simply be destroyed by fire to see how much heat one can take for how long before it breaks.

Halstead cited a study released in September 2001, conducted for the state of Nevada by Radioactive Waste Management Associates of New York, that predicted that a cask would have failed in the Baltimore fire, causing a release of radioactive cesium gas and the contamination of downtown Baltimore.

As for the NRC’s study, which was a computer simulation conducted by the federal National Institutes of Standards Technology (NIST) based on privileged NTSB information about the fire and data from a staged tunnel fire in West Virginia a few years ago, Halstead said, “We dispute the assumptions and the findings.

“Nevada consultants were barred from attending NRC meetings regarding that report, which sure as hell undermined our confidence in the proceeding,” he said of the February report (which was actually completed last August). He went on to say that the only way to gain “confidence in this report is for the NRC to bring the authors” from NIST in for “a very detailed technical review.” A few heads nodded at Halstead’s suggestion, but otherwise his call to haul in the NIST team for questioning went unheeded.

“The Baltimore fire ought to be the standard that we look at to see if the thermal test reflects what can happen in the real world,” Halstead said. “Unfortunately, instead of having a technically objective and unbiased [NRC] report that captures to the best of our ability what happened in that tunnel, we now have a report that we believe is seriously deficient both technically and in terms of public confidence.”

Kevin Kamps, head of the Nuclear Information Research Service, a non-profit organization that also opposes the Yucca project, picked up on Halstead’s criticism when his turn at the microphone arrived. “I was amazed,” he said of the NRC report, “that the impact of the fire on the radiation shield in the container was beyond the scope of the analysis.” The radiation shield is an inner layer of material, which usually includes lead, that surrounds the packages of spent fuel cells and is a key protective element in a cask.

But Chris Bajwa, the author of the NRC report on the Baltimore fire and an engineer with the NRC’s Spent Fuel Project Office, explained that his study “assumed that after the fire the [radiation] shield was gone, and the dose rates they calculated [from the resulting release] were within the regulatory limits.” Thus, he said, the study shows that “the consequences of a spent-fuel cask being involved in a fire such as the one that occurred in the Howard Street tunnel are minimal. Our conclusion is that there would be no radioactive release.”

At this, Halstead dug in his heels. “It’s clear we’ve got a situation here where two different parties evaluated this fire using different sets of assumptions, and both stand by their findings,” Halstead said in his closing remarks. “As is so often the case in these kinds of disputes, the question is in the assumptions.”

One reasonable assumption, Halstead joked to a reporter as he gathered his papers and prepared to leave, is that the dispute over the Baltimore tunnel fire isn’t likely to let up soon.

Moscow Nights: Getting Down With Baltimore’s Burgeoning Eastern Bloc

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 13, 2002

“No, no, it’s not possible,” says Mark, a music promoter from New York. A short middle-aged man with brown hair and mustache, he looks exhausted and harried as he explains in a Russian accent, his English slightly broken: “I’m sorry, but she’s very, very big pop star, you understand. It’s not possible. It has been a very tough tour. We just drove from Boston–nine hours straight here. Very tough.”

Mark is politely declining a request to interview Larisa Dolina–an unknown in the United States but a household name in the 15 countries that formerly made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As her Web site proudly proclaims, Dolina has been dubbed “Woman of the Year” in Russia, won the Russian equivalent of the Tony Award, performed with Ray Charles at the Kremlin, and sold 10 million albums. And on this Friday night in February, she’s performing at Randallstown High School.

Over the course of more than two hours in this suburban auditorium, Dolina and her troupe of 13 dancers, musicians, and backup singers perform 21 songs and change costumes time and again–from Rent-style baggy getups to disco-era spandex suits to traditional Hasidic attire. It’s an elaborate extravaganza, and by the end of the show the crowd of about 700 people is ecstatic, in a subdued, Russian sort of way; every man, woman, and child is standing up and singing along. The fans’ appreciation is expressed not only with ovations, but also with elaborate, expensive-looking flower arrangements, which scores of people carry to the stage and place before Dolina.

With the exception of one song–“I Will Survive,” made famous by American pop star Gloria Gaynor, who has recorded a version with Dolina–every number is performed in Russian. The announcements over the PA system before and after the show are in Russian, as are the conversations among the ticket holders as they mill about the school entrance, where Russian-speaking travel agents pass around handbills advertising tour packages–all printed in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.

There’s a scene in the movie Diner in which Boogie, the Mickey Rourke character, and Fenwick, played by Kevin Bacon, are driving in the aristocratic horse country north of Baltimore. A woman on horseback is riding along, and Boogie flags her down, asks her name. “Jane Chisholm,” she says, before abruptly riding off, “as in the Chisholm Trail.” Boogie turns to Fenwick and asks, “What fuckin’ Chisholm Trail?”

“You ever get the feeling,” Fenwick replies, “there’s something going on we don’t know about?”

The Dolina concert is part of something most of us don’t know about–Baltimore’s parallel Russian universe, a place inhabited by tens of thousands of local residents who commune in their native tongue, dine and dance at their own banquet halls, read their own newspapers, and shop at their own businesses. For an outsider, entering this sizable enclave is like crossing an invisible border. Once inside, it’s easy to forget you’re still in Baltimore.

It seems like any other Tuesday afternoon along Reisterstown Road, just over the city line: Shops are open for business, people are waiting for buses, delivery trucks are unloading their merchandise. Suddenly, there’s a blast of Jewish music, bringing a festive air to the bustling corridor. It’s coming from speakers mounted on a large camper that pulls into the parking lot in front of the International Food Market, one of several Russian groceries in the area. A banner hanging from the side of the vehicle proclaims, CHABAD LUBAVITCH WISHES YOU A HAPPY PURIM! The door opens and a half-dozen boys, clad in Orthodox Jewish garb, emerge.

“Are you Jewish?” one of the youngsters asks me. When I say no, he starts to move on. I ask what’s going on, and he stops. “It’s Purim,” he says, “and we’re celebrating by giving out three-cornered pastries called hamantaschen to other Jews–particularly Russian Jews because they don’t do much of this.” By “this,” he means celebrating Jewish holidays such as Purim, which commemorates the failure of a plan, hatched long ago by a Persian named Haman, to kill Jews. Haman, the boy explains, is said to have worn a three-cornered hat–hence the shape of the namesake pastry. “That’s why we’re here, because of the Russians,” he says, before skipping off with his friends.

The outreach effort is in keeping with the Russian roots of Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox movement whose philosophy combines intellectualism and spirituality, and which was born 250 years ago in the Russian town of Lubavitch. But the visits also square with a longstanding Baltimore tradition–the intertwining of local Jewish culture and that of immigrant Russians, many of whom are Jews.

In 1880, according to Isaac Fein’s The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920, Baltimore was home to 10,000 Jews, most of whom had arrived before 1860 as immigrants from Germany. “And then,” Fein writes, “‘they’ came. ‘They’ were the East European Jews, who drew attention to themselves by being so uncouth, so untutored, so ragged, so outlandish in their manners and mannerisms in the eyes of the German Jews.” Between 1881 and 1898, new Jewish arrivals in Baltimore numbered more than 40,000–this, in a city whose total population at the time was about 450,000. As a whole, they were known as “Russian Jews,” although how many were actually Russian isn’t known.

Despite misgivings about the new arrivals’ unfamiliar customs, Baltimore’s established Jewish community stepped in to help them resettle. “The German Jews, with their gift for organization, threw themselves into the enormous undertaking, helping the immigrants in every way possible–by giving outright charity, by restoring health, by finding work,” Fein writes. “Many helped to diminish misery and make the newcomers self-supporting.”

Many of the Russians found work in the needle trades, which dominated downtown Baltimore, and which were dominated by Jewish owners and workers. A 1911 federal government report on immigrants found that 34 percent of males employed in the city’s clothing industry were Russian Jews. The garment workers were also among the first nationally to organize labor unions. The resulting strife, along with Russian-Jewish involvement in local anarchist and socialist groups and, eventually, the Russian Revolution itself, helped form an impression of the immigrants as predisposed to unsavory radical politics.

Many of the Russian Jews settled in Jonestown, just north of Little Italy. Henrietta Szold, a rabbi’s daughter of Austrian heritage, helped them to assimilate by starting an English-language night school on Gay Street, which instructed thousands of newcomers through the 1890s. Highlandtown, Canton, and Barre Circle were also home to many Russians.

The flood of Russians into Baltimore continued until World War I, when it practically ceased and never resumed to pre-war levels. But their settlement here had a lasting demographic and cultural impact. The 1930 U.S. Census counted 17,500 native Russians living in Baltimore–the largest foreign-born group in the city. The same census found more than 24,000 native Baltimoreans of Russian parentage. As Fein writes:

With great pride immigrant parents called these children of theirs gantze Yenkis (one hundred percent Americans). This new breed of Jews, most of them American-born, became socially, economically, and culturally an integral part of the general community, as much so as the German Jews. But like their American-born sons and daughters, the immigrants themselves underwent a change–at a slower pace. . . . They were no longer greenhorns. They felt themselves to be Baltimoreans rather than Vilner or Odesser. . . . No more could one speak of the immigrants as anarchists. They were becoming more and more a substantial group, active in all phases of the city’s life.

As assimilation continued through successive generations, and with immigration from what was now the Soviet Union at a virtual standstill, local ethnic Russians’ cultural connection to the land of their forebears weakened. They were absorbed into the larger Jewish community and, with it, migrated out of downtown enclaves and into Northwest Baltimore along Liberty Heights and Park Heights avenues and Reisterstown Road.

“400 Soviet Jews Settle Here Since ’73,” a 1977 Evening Sun headline proclaimed. It was, said Milton Goldman, then-head of the immigrant-aid group Jewish Family and Children’s Service, in the article “the largest resettlement of Russians we have had since the 1880s.” This trickle of immigration continued in fits and starts, depending on the vagaries of Soviet emigration policies, into the 1980s. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the floodgates opened. And once again, Baltimore’s Jewish community was ready to help the newly arriving immigrants.

Over the last 20 years, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has smoothed the way for 10,000 Russian-Jewish arrivals to the Baltimore area, says Ellen Rosen, who coordinates the society’s Russian-resettlement program. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she says, 1,200 to 1,500 Russian immigrants per year were given aid in securing housing, employment, and language instruction. Since the mid-1990s, the society’s caseload has diminished, partly because the organization instituted a policy of only taking on cases of immigrant families who already have relatives in the Baltimore area; after Sept. 11, with the federal government placing substantial bureaucratic obstacles in the way of refugee arrivals, it dropped nearly to zero. “Now they are starting to arrive again, but much more slowly,” Rosen says.

Today, the total number of Russian immigrants in the Baltimore area is hard to pin down. According to the 2000 Census, between 17,000 and 41,000 residents of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties report being of Russian ancestry, most of them in Baltimore County. Estimates by Russian immigrants interviewed for this article–among them a real-estate agent, a lawyer, a bookstore manager, and a newspaper executive–range even more widely, from 10,000 to 110,000 people in the Baltimore metropolitan area, many of them congregated in the Randallstown/Pikesville/ Owings Mills corridor.

Suffice it to say, as Rosen does, that “it’s a big community.” And its size and vitality are apparent in many ways. No less than five Russian-language periodicals–three newspapers and two magazine–are published locally. Numerous Russian-owned shops, stocked with Russian and Eastern European goods, dot the main corridors heading northwest out of the city. Two large restaurants–one in Bolton Hill, the other at the city line right off of Reisterstown Road–cater to Russian diners. At the Millbrook Apartments in Pikesville, hundreds of Russian immigrants living cheek-to-jowl create an Old World atmosphere here in the New.

A romp through Baltimore’s Russian haunts may be as close as one can come to international travel without leaving town. The tour provides a rich sampling of Russian culture and belies the stereotype of Russians as cold, somber, and suspicious. On the contrary, the people I encountered on this local journey were exceedingly warm, effusive, and open to an inquisitive stranger.

At Lev and Rose Volynskiy’s home in Owings Mills’ New Town neighborhood, visitors are asked to remove their shoes upon entering, as is customary in Russian households. Lev is the marketing director for the Pikesville-based Russian-language newspaper Kackad (Cascade), and he teaches Russian on the side. He speaks English well, if haltingly, and is prone to telling jokes and poking fun at himself. We chat around the kitchen table, which is covered with plates of sausage, cheese, crackers, and cookies.

Kackad is a 6-year-old biweekly that distributes 20,000 copies around the Baltimore-Washington area. It is filled with articles about events in Russia, the world, the United States, and the local Russian community. Lev also writes for Baltimorsky Boulevard, a 4-year-old monthly paper based in the Twin Ridge neighborhood off Old Pimlico Road, and another Russian-language monthly produced locally, Nash Golos (Our Voice). There are also two magazines: Vestnik (The Herald), a monthly based in Upper Park Heights, and Chayka (The Seagull), a semimonthly whose offices are in Owings Mills.

Rose works for Circle of Friends, a Pikesville-based adult-day-care provider that serves elderly Russians in three locations around Baltimore. Only two years old, the company now employs 80 people–yet another testimony to the stout market the Russian community represents.

A visit to Kackad‘s offices finds Lev Volynskiy in a cheerful, ebullient mood. After introducing the paper’s three other staffers, he spins tales about his arrival in the United States in 1995. His first job, he says, was as a clerk in a low-end department store, where he immediately encountered difficulties due to the language barrier. On his first day, a customer asked, “Do you have socks?” He thought the woman was asking to have sex with him and, astounded, answered no. Behind him was a table covered with socks for sale. “Why do you lie to me?” the customer angrily demanded. “You have socks on the table!” Volynskiy, utterly perplexed, thought she was demanding he service her on the table. The matter was finally resolved when the store manager intervened.

Next, Volynskiy ushers me to an auto-body shop behind the newspaper office, where his friend Alex Dudkin works as a painter. A surrealist artist whose work brings to mind Salvador Dali, Dudkin moved here from New York about five years ago. He lives nearby, in the Millbrook Apartments, and dotes on his car, which he has fitted with a roll bar and covered with racing decals and pro-American patriotic slogans. He too is given to laughter and jokes–particularly about the Russian proclivity for drinking, which he has sworn off due to its ill effect on his work ethic.

Volynskiy and Dudkin suggest a stop at Victor Kamkin Bookstore, around the block from Kackad at Reisterstown and Old Milford Mill roads. The store, opened last year, is an offshoot of the much larger Kamkin store in Rockville, which opened in 1952 but is in the process of closing. (The managers of the Baltimore outlet say it will remain open.) Although nearly all of the books are in Russian, three rows of a bookshelf at the back contain titles in English–travel guides, cookbooks, and some Russian literature. The prices are low: Cookbooks cost $4 or $5; a 600-page hardcover collection of 19th-century Russian Gothic tales is only $9.25.

Over in Owings Mills, in the 10500 block of Reisterstown Road, is a must-see stopover for anyone seeking Russian food or spirits, Euro Deli and Euro Liquors. The liquor-store proprietors, Nella and Nick Solovyovsky and Lisa and Michael Rudyak, came to the States in 1979 and at first worked menial jobs: cleaning houses, driving cabs, and the like, raising capital to start their own business.

“We always wanted to have a business where we could work as a family,” says Nella, who is Lisa’s sister. In 1990, they opened the International Food Market in Pikesville, followed by Euro Deli in 1995 and Euro Liquors in 1998. They have since sold all but the liquor store, finding the responsibilities of running three shops simultaneously to be too much.

In Reisterstown, near the intersection of Reisterstown Road and Franklin Boulevard, are the Babushka Deli and Everfresh Produce Market. Both feature traditional Russian goods–potato and cabbage rolls stuffed with meat, beef tongue, jars of mixed garlic and kelp, Russian chocolates by the pound–and Everfresh also has picture-perfect fruits and vegetables. An Everfresh truck visits Millbrook Apartments every Wednesday and Saturday morning, creating an ad hoc farmers market for the complex’s residents. Two other food markets–the Old World Deli near Liberty and Deer Park roads in Randallstown and Stolichny Deli in Northwest Baltimore–offer a similar variety of Russian foods.

The Old World was the first food store in Baltimore to offer Russian foods, Nella Solovyovsky says. As the local Russian community burgeoned in the 1980s, the Old World, then a German deli, expanded its stock to cater to the newcomers’ desire for tastes from home.

“We needed the Russian bread, the Russian salami, the Russian yogurt,” Solovyovsky says. The need was cultural as well as culinary. “It’s very important, the food,” she explains. “The way we socialize is with food, and Russian people are very generous–you can’t see the tablecloth between all the dishes on the table. It brings the family together.”

The story of years of hard, low-paying work en route to business success is common among immigrants from Russia and its former Soviet neighbors. It is told eloquently by Michael Gutin, a real-estate agent with O’Connor, Piper & Flynn’s Owings Mills office.

Gutin, a native Ukrainian, arrived in Baltimore with his wife and two young children in 1977. At the time, he says, they were one of about 10 immigrant families living in small apartments in Park Heights. He left the Soviet Union for the United States because he wanted to provide a better future for his children, he says. Today, his older son is a vice president for the financial firm Goldman Sachs in New York, and the younger attends Harvard on a full scholarship.

In Odessa, Gutin had designed ships; arriving in Baltimore, he worked as a $5-an-hour pipe fitter for Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., a now-defunct concern on the industrial waterfront. Work was sporadic due to the company’s precarious financial health, and before long he lost the job. To make ends meet, he worked numerous jobs–tending bar at Woodholme Country Club (after getting some mixology training), doing house-painting and wallpapering, pulling graveyard shifts installing body molding on cars, and getting his taxi license. (He still drives a cab on the side, when he has time.)

His success in real estate for the past 20 years–he says he’s put hundreds and hundreds of Russians into homes in the Baltimore area–and his seniority as an early arrival in the most recent wave of immigration have lent him standing in the Russian community. “I try to help everybody,” he says in accented, somewhat broken English. “Everybody know Michael. I give advice–then never follow this advice, but I give advice.” He, like many Russian immigrants, says he is “proud” to have taken low-paying jobs rather than resorting to welfare.

“I’m ready to work for $2, $3 an hour,” he says. “Maybe it’s not a job you can be proud of, but it pays. And my sons, they start work at 16. The whole family work together–and everything is family money. I know that a lot of Russians are like that. If you want to build your own life here, you can build your own life. This is a great country–if you want it, you can get it.”

The Russian-immigrant work ethic builds a healthy appetite–Russians enjoy their leisure time with gusto, Gutin says. They go to Russian restaurants–New York Palace in Bolton Hill and Europe off of Reisterstown Road hard on the city’s edge–and enjoy themselves for hours. “Food must be on the table–all night, until 4, 5, 6 in the morning,” he explains. “We eat,” he declares, with an adamance that suggests outsiders can’t really understand this phenomenon until they experience it.

Friday, March 1, was a big day in the Russian community. Baltimorsky Boulevard was celebrating its fourth anniversary with a big party at New York Palace. For $55 a head, partygoers would be treated to endless food and drink and entertainment by the Rose Sisters, two stylish Russian pop singers from New York. The restaurant, known in previous incarnations as Moscow Nights and Astoria, is the downtown place to be for local Russians, nearly all of whom live in the suburbs.

Starting around 8:30 p.m., a crowd that will eventually number several hundred people streams in. Seated at tables covered with dishes of food, bottles of vodka, and plenty of ashtrays, they settle in for the long haul. The Rose Sisters–all aglitter in red, white, and blue one-piece outfits for the first set, then more sultry in black corsets and bras later in the night–wow an appreciative crowd for hours. When they break into “God Bless America,” the entire audience rises to its feet and sings along. It’s nearly 3 a.m. when liquor-board inspectors arrive to shut the party down–and, true to Gutin’s words, plates of food still fill every available space on every table, and everyone is still eating and drinking.

The next night, at Europe, is more subdued, this being just another Saturday. But the routine is the same. From around 8:30 on, endless rounds of food–caviar, sturgeon filets in aspic with beet-colored horseradish on the side, salads of plums, eggs, mushrooms, and cucumbers–are brought out, and every table has its own bottle of vodka. The house band, a synthesizer-driven outfit churning out Russian pop songs and Ricky Martin covers, plays for hours before a dance floor that never empties. Grandmothers dance with their families, holding hands, twirling in big circles. At 2:30 in the morning, the place is still packed. The patrons are still eating.

Governor Next? With the Name, the Money, and the Aura of Virtual Incumbency, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the Odds-On Favorite to be Elected to the State’s Top Job 12 Months From Now. Or Will She Pull a “Steinberg”?

By Van Smith

Published in Baltimore Magazine, Nov. 2001


Remember Lieutenant Governor Melvin “Mickey” Steinberg? Eight years ago, he was a shoo-in for governor in the 1994 election, the man whose race it was to lose. By the July 1994 filing deadline, Steinberg was already dead in the water. He ended up finishing third in the Democratic primary.

And remember City Council President Lawrence Bell? Three years ago, he was far and away the favorite to win Baltimore’s mayoral election. He, too, collapsed down the stretch and came in a distant third in the primary.

So, sometimes, being the early favorite isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

But don’t tell that to Lieutenant Govenor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. She’s sitting pretty in the polls, has tons of money, and enjoys near-universal name recognition in Maryland. As the daughter of Robert Kennedy, a martyred national icon, she also benefits from a nationwide political organization that isn’t shy about getting more Kennedys elected.

Kennedys know what to do in her situation: Clear the field of all potential rivals. Just impress them right out of the race. And, to date, Townsend’s done just that. No one’s announced they’re running against her.


But there’s plenty of time – and several key people who haven’t taken themselves out of the running. In the general election, U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich (2nd District) is the only high-profile Republican to express interest in running for governor.

Three Democratic county executives – Wayne Curry of Prince George’s County, Douglas Duncan of Montgomery County, and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Baltimore County – are regularly mentioned as potential Townsend rivals n the primary, as, increasingly, is Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley. Some of these men have more to lose than others by challenging Townsend, but none of them has explicitly ruled out doing so. They’re keeping us guessing.


No guesswork is needed when it comes to Townsend, though. She has been running for governor for years. The expectation that she’ll be a candidate in 2002 to succeed Parris Glendening has been around since at least 1998, when she was showcased during the campaign to shore up eroding support for the governor’s re-election effort. In recognition of her crucial help, Townsend was given an administrative portfolio that, over the past three years, has strengthened her claim to have executive experience, her network of statewide contacts, and her name recognition. In an open-seat governor’s race such as this, she’s as close to an incumbent as you can get, and the power of incumbency is a proven electoral asset.

Right now, this one-candidate race is a guessing game watched mostly by insiders and political junkies. It’s likely to stay an insiders’ game until early next year, when the Governor hands a new electoral map to the General Assembly. That’s when next year’s prospects for candidates across the state will be altered – including for some who are weighing a challenge against Towsend. The voting public isn’t likely to pay close attention until next spring, as jockeying ahead of the July 1 filing deadline raises the debate to a more fevered pitch.

Between now and then, anything could happen – or nothing could happen. The state’s economy could head south with the nation’s – or not. The new war on terrorism could change the state’s mood from relatively liberal to moderately conservative – or not. A strong new contender could capture the public’s imagination, swinging voters away from the early favorite – or not. Nascent criticism of Townsend – that she’s not enough of a heavyweight for gubernatorial contention, that she’s overprivileged with out-of-state money, that she’s mishandled her key administrative assignments – may get the attention of the public – or not.

Whatever happens, the state’s top job is up for grabs next year, and as lobbyist Bruce Bereano, a longtime insider in Maryland politics, says dryly, “There certainly will be a gubernatorial race. … Any time you have a vacancy because the current office-holder is termed out, you are going to have serious people vying to fill that vacancy. So it’s going to be a very exciting year, a race of national attention – the stakes and the dimensions will be that significant.”


Frederick, Md., is only an hour west of downtown Baltimore, but its politics are light years away. Its soul is more rural than urban, and Republicans rule the roost. Still, Democrat Martin O’Malley, Baltimore’s first-term mayor, got a warm receptiopn there in August when he addressed a meeting of the Plowmen and Fishermen Club, a group of local Democrats.

In the brick-walled, tree-shaded courtyard of Tauraso’s Restaurant in the heart of Frederick’s historic district, a white-whiskered Frederick transplant from Baltimore, John Norman, cries out to O’Malley: “Hey, you’re doing a great job with my city!” The mayor beams happily for the cameras, gripping and grinning among 100 or so well-wishers.

Susan Leigh-Nelson, a local cable-television reporter, grills O’Malley about speculation that he might run for governor in 2002 against Townsend, but he refuses to discuss the matter. “I don’t waste any time exploring running for something else,” he says as the camera rolls. “I’m too busy doing what I’m doing.” He praises Glendening and Townsend for having “made a lot of wise investments in Baltimore” and declares he has “a very good relationship” with the administration in Anapolis.

Thomas G. Slater, who chairs Frederick’s Democratic State Central Committee, says O’Malley’s invitation to speak tonight has nothing to do with the 2002 election. “He’s young, he’s new, he’s exciting, and we want to get a look at him – especially early on,” Slater explains as he peruses a table of hors d’oeuvres. He’s an old hand in Western Maryland politics, and he simply doesn’t foresee an O’Malley challenge to Townsend. “It’s too soon” after his 1999 election as mayor of Baltimore. Besides, he says, Kathleen’s “got it.”

Frederick County’s only elected Democrat, State Delegate Sue Hecht, steps up on a low stone wall to introduce Martin O’Malley to the assembled partisans. “This is our star,” she gushes, “our rising star in Baltimore, and we’re going to see him and hear about him for many more years.” O’Malley takes the stage and, in his usual unscripted oratorical style, cajoles his fellow Dems to focus on results-oriented governance, does Bill Clinton impersonations, and ticks off his every-ready list of upbeat trends in Baltimore.

Afterward, the gathering turns informal. The mayor ends up chatting with Jeb Byron, the evening’s host and the son of former U.S. Representative Beverly Byron. With them is Brent Ayer, a sandy-haired long-distance runner and Bevery Byron’s former chief of staff.

Ayer tells O’Malley about big public events in Frederick County that draw large numbers of people – mass gatherings where statewide political candidates can reach a broad audience. He touts Colorfest, an October crafts fair in Thurmont – “You can get to 60,000 at that alone,” Ayer explains. The mayor introduces Ayer to his brother, Peter. “Take one of his business cards,” O’Malley tells Peter. “He’s the numbers guy for Western Maryland.”


O’Malley, like all the undeclared, potential candidates, is interested in numbers – including the 400,000 potential voters in Western Maryland.

The numbers that got the attention of a lot of politicos last May were those turned up in a public opinion poll conducted by Gonzales-Arscott Research & Communications, which showed Townsend leading O’Malley in a head-to-head primary race by only 47 percent to 40 percent – a surprisingly close margin since O’Malley had not been campaigning. What was strikingly embedded in the poll numbers as that O’Malley’s 67-percent name recognition was far below Townsend’s 95 percent, indicating that those who did know his name tended to favor him over Townsend.

Some of the buzz about O’Malley subsided a bit in July when a head-to-head poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research showed him trailing Townsend by 49 percent to 28 percent, but Carol Arscott finds “his name recognition creeping up on hers, and his negatives are very, very low.”

So, O’Malley goes to Frederick for a little politicking. As State Senator Barbara Hoffman (D-42nd District) says of the visit, “He’s smart to do that – you build up credits for the future, create a little profile for yourself. It will come in handy some day.”

The question is, “When? There are some who think that next year – while he’s still perceived as a “rising star” and is still relatively unscarred by the years in office any mayor endures – may be O’Malley’s best chance to become governor. But if he runs, he risks losing and becoming damaged goods – a brash youngster who misjudged his moment and shot too high too early in the game.


Opinion, of course, is divided over O’Malley’s 2002 gubernatorial prospects. “It still remains a long shot for him,” says Western Maryland College political science professor and columnist Herb Smith. “He could win, but the chances are he won’t. What does he gain by losing? An enemy in the governor’s mansion and a long-term negative in terms of his ambitions for any other statewide office.”

“If he runs for governor, I think it is his for the taking,” says Anirban Basu, director of Applied Economics at Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute. “I pray, as a Baltimore City resident, that he does not run for governor. We need him much more than the state needs him, but I think it is his – if he wants it.”

Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas Gansler can’t see O’Malley or anyone else beating Townsend. “I don’t think anybody can come close to Kathleen in a race,” he muses, “so I don’t know why the Martin O’Malley thing is out there.”

“I personally don’t think he’s going to run,” former State Senator Julian “Jack” Lapides says of O’Malley. Townsend already has lined up too much of the city’s power structure, he explains. “I don’t see it shifting. First of all, African Americans will be overwhelmingly for her, and she certainly will have a significant percentage of the white vote in the city. So who’s O’Malley going to get from the city? Any votes he does get will be offset by the Kennedy name and mystique” elsewhere in the state.

“There are only so many Irish-American politicians from Maryland that the nation can absorb,” quips Arscott. A showdown between the two – Townsend, a blue-blood Kennedy, versus O’Malley, an in-law of the Curran dynasty of Maryland politicians, who have been dubbed “the brown-bag Kennedys” – could be an eventuality. Maybe not next year, but some day.


Chuck Goldsborough is a race-car driver, a Baltimore boy who’s stayed true to his roots. Since 1999, he’s been the president, owner, and driver for Team Lexus, the luxury-car marker’s only racing team in the country. He’s been running the operation out of a large, immaculate garage with adjacent offices in an industrial complex in Arbutus. On a Tuesday morning in early September, Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger comes over to see Team Lexus firsthand, meet Goldsborough, and offer the county’s help and support.

Rupperberger, a large man, dons a Team Lexus shirt (“You got XXL?” he asks Goldsborough) and manages to squeeze himself into the cramped driver’s seat of one of the Team Lexus race cars. And there he stays for a good 20 minutes or more, asking Goldsborough question after question. How often does Team Lexus race? Who does the body-work on damaged cars? And so on. Finally, what happened to Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt?

Earnhardt was the NASCAR driver who died in a fiery crash at the Daytona 500 in February. Goldsborough explains that Earnhardt was a risk-taker in the extreme, habitually refusing to use standard safety gear that probably would have saved his life. But his son, Dale Jr., isn’t as reckless – in fact, he’s a natural and is already showing himself to be a great driver. “There are legacies in every sport,” Goldsborough explains, “including racing – the Earnhardts, the Andrettis.”

“Just like Kennedys in politics,” Ruppersberger interjects.

“That’s right,” Goldsborough agrees, laughing. “Just like Kennedys in politics.”

Ruppersberger laughs, too – masking what must be a certain amount of jealousy. He comes from a family of local meat merchants, far from the Camelot of the Kennedys, and has succeeded in Baltimore County politics the hard way: eight years as a prosecutor and nine years on the County Council before becoming executive in 1994. Now he’s term-limited out of running for a third term. After winning every precinct in 1998 – a reward for his having turned around the county’s once-failing budget and economy during his first term – he was widely considered prime gubernatorial material. But he’s in the shadow of a Kennedy. Now he might run for Congress rather than confront Townsend in the governor’s race.

This is a man in the throes of political agony. He wants to be governor so badly he can taste it, but the Kennedy factor is only part of his problem. His political disability is largely his own doing. It happened in 2000, when he quietly ushered an eminent-domain bill through the General Assembly – and ran headlong into an indigenous dislike for government incursions into private property rights. The reaction started in Essex, which was the bill’s main target for redevelopment, but spread countywide and was defeated by referendum. On top of this, Ruppersberger’s plans to expand the county jail have caused a damaging level of public furor. His political base – the solid ground from which every statewide candidate must launch a campaign – has been badly shaken.

In Team Lexus’ conference room, Ruppersberger settles in to talk about his options. “A lot of people are telling me,” he says, “’Dutch, I know you would be the best governor, but I don’t think you can beat Kathleen, so let’s find another alternative.’” When friends urged him to consider a congressional bid instead, he at first rejected the notion. “I want to be governor,” he says. “I want to do for the state what I did for Baltimore County. I love my state. I’m homegrown. But in the end, they say, ‘We’re telling you as friends, she’s got name recognition everywhere. How are you going to do it? People don’t know who you are. They know Kathleen.’”

Governor Glendening – who controls the redistricting process and therefore has a lot of say over Rupperberger’s congressional aspirations – has asked him to consider a run for Congress, too, he reports. “So, I think at this point I’m keeping those options open because I do love public service and I think I can make a difference wherever I go,” Ruppersberger declares. “But I want to make a difference. I don’t want to be in just for the sake of keeping my name alive. That’s not me. I want to do something. I want to be active, and I want to count for something.”

Since the height of the eminent-domain acrimony, Ruppersberger claims to have recovered a good measure of his support in Essex – but it’s conditional support. “They were even going to have a fundraiser for me,” he says, “until the word got out that I might be looking at Congress. They are all supporters of Ehrlich, and so they said, ‘Well, you run for governor and we’ll do it, but you gotta tell us that you are not running for Congress.’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to say that.’”

Ruppersberger’s hesitation is understandable; he knows the deal. “The voting profile in the Democratic primary goes to Kathleen’s advantage,” he explains. “She comes from a well-respected family, she probably has 100-percent name recognition. She will have a tremendous amount of money, and she will be able to send her message out on a regular basis on TV – in both of Maryland’s media markets, Baltimore and the D.C. suburbs.”

The money disadvantage is difficult, he says, but not insurmountable. “You don’t have to have the same amount of money as her, but you have to have enough money to cover her,” Ruppersberger explains. “In other words, when she has five ads, you need to have one to get your message out. And TV in the D.C. market is so much more expensive, because you also are buying coverage for Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia.

“But that doesn’t mean that you don’t consider running,” he declares hopefully as he changes back into his suit, preparing to head out to lunch with O’Malley. “I mean, Im still keeping all of my options open now. A couple of months from now, we can sit down and talk about issues. It’s just too soon. My first priority right now is running this county.”


Down in the D.C. suburbs, O’Malley and Ruppersberger are largely unknown quantities. This is crucial statewide electoral territory. Political power in Maryland, along with its population and economic clout, has shifted southward over the last 20 years – it’s no mistake that our current governor hails from Prince George’s County. Today, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties together are home to nearly a third of Maryland’s voters. Most are middle-class Democrats. Spawned from this rich territory are two potential players in the governor’s race: Doug Duncan and Wayne Curry, two-term county executives in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, respectively.

Duncan has paid his dues in county politics. He’s been county executive since 1994, and had been Mayor of Rockville, and a Rockville City Councilmember before that. Montgomery County has been booming during his tenure, as the I-270 corridor has become the state’s main high-tech hub and Silver Spring has come back to life. Crime is low and the schools are good. There’s just not much to complain about in Montgomery County.

Except the traffic. “The biggest issue in Montgomery County is transportation,” says State’s Attorney Gansler. “People sit in their cars too long, and they get frustrated and angry and they blame the person in charge for that.” In this case, not Duncan. The Governor instead gets blamed for blocking a popular plan for the Inter-County Connector (ICC), a highway connecting I-270 and I-95. “It’s an incredible hot button of an issue,” says Gansler. “And Doug Duncan is on the right side of that issue.”

Duncan campaign consultant Colleen Martin-Lauer (who also raises funds for Martin O’Malley) agrees that transportation is “a key issue in the Washington suburbs.” Given that Glendening has been defiant in opposing the ICC, she says, “I think people who sit on the Washington Beltway everyday will question the accomplishments” of his administration “when it comes to transportation issues.”

Here, then, is a weak point for Townsend in the D.C. suburbs – some of the anti-Glendening sentiment on transportation issues is bound to rub off on her, giving Duncan and others a stick to poke her with. But Gansler doesn’t see it that way. “She is the Lieutenant Governor,” he explains. “She needs to be loyal to the governor and his position. That’s her job. People understand that.” Later on, closer to the election, she’ll have to take an independent stance, and at that point, says Gansler, “she’s going to be acutely aware of the need to address the transportation issue here.”

Duncan, like every other potential rival, faces an intimidating challenge in taking on Townsend’s already established electoral might. He, like Ruppersberger, suffers from a shaky political base. Key Montgomery County politicians, such as former County Executive Sidney Kramer, say he’s not ready to be governor.

“There’s a perception out there that Doug has drifted away from his base,” explains Gansler. “He has alienated many political people in the Democratic Party in Montgomery County. Unlike [Ruppersberger], there really isn’t anything tangible you can point to with Doug. I think there are those who see it as political arrogance. Its much more of a personality issue than a substantive issue.”


Like Ruppersberger, Wayne Curry can’t run again for county executive. Yet he has eight years under his belt of running the Prince George’s County government. At a fundraiser he held at his home in May, he announced his intention to travel the state and “listen to what people have to say” about a statewide bid for something – governor, attorney general, or comptroller. But his schedule since hasn’t borne out that vow. He’s been busy tending to his police department, which has been jolted with a series of disturbing and embarrassing scandals that have hurt him at home. Few seem to think he’s got the legs for a gubernatorial bid – especially in light of Townsend’s popularity among Curry’s potential base of African-American voters.

John McDonough, a Prince George’s County attorney and political operative, believes Curry is most attractive as a lieutenant governor’s candidate, teaming up with Duncan, Ruppersberger, or O’Malley, should one of them choose to take on Townsend. “If one of the county executives or the Mayor actually does declare – and there’s only room for one opponent – then it will be a competitive primary,” says McDonough, making Curry “somewhat of a wild card” because he “could successfully cut into Townsend’s base among African-American voters.”


One person who appears increasingly willing to match Townsend’s bet in the governor’s stakes is Republican Robert Ehrlich. This fall, the U.S. Congressman announced to supporters that he’ll run if they can raise $2 million for him by the end of the year. Only one other Republican, Prince George’s County Councilwoman Audrey E. Scott, has expressed interest in entering the race, but only if Ehrlich doesn’t. “I know he can raise that money,” Scott told the Washington Post after the September 21 announcement, “so in my mind, Bobby is the candidate, and I’m supporting him.”

Whether he ended up facing Townsend or another Democrat, Ehrlich’s task would be daunting. Among registered voters, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. And in the most recent statewide general election – the 2000 presidential race – Maryland voters overwhelmingly preferred the Democrat, Vice President Al Gore. Ehrlich’s poll numbers in a face-off with Townsend are low – in the 30 to 35 percent range, versus about 50 percent for her – and about a third of the voters don’t even know his name, while Townsend enjoys 95 percent name-recognition.

“The odds against Republicans in Maryland are very steep – any Republican,” sums up Carol Arscott. “You begin with a base vote about half the size of your opponent’s base vote. And to chip away that much at someone’s natural base is a very difficult thing to do.”

The last time a Republican made a strong challenge to the Democratic hold on the Governor’s Mansion (Spiro Agnew was the last Republican governor of Maryland, elected in 1966) was in 1994, when then-State Delegate Ellen Sauerbrey came within 6,000 votes of victor Parris Glendening. That was the same year as the Republican takeover of Congress – and also the year 2nd District voters sent Ehrlich to Washington.

But Ehrlich’s 2nd District base, which spans parts of Baltimore, Harford, and Anne Arundel counties, isn’t reflective of Mayland as a whole. If he tosses his hat in the ring, Ehrlich will run up against the political reality that Sauerbrey saw so vividly in the 1994 returns – that without successfully swaying a large number of left-leaning voters in Baltimore City and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties away from the Democratic candidate, a statewide Republican candidate has precious little chance of claiming victory. Voters from those three jurisdictions combined provided Glendening with more than half of his winning statewide vote. Those are tough numbers to crack.

Ehrlich has gradually softened his sharply conservative edge over the years. When he first gained office in 1994, Ehrlich was a freshman in what was hailed at the time, by Republican activist Vin Weber of Empower America, as “the Rush Limbaugh Congress,” a reference to the right-wing radio-talk-show host. In 1995, Ehrlich stood on the Capitol steps with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich to unveil the “Contract With America,” a 10-point conservative agenda the new Congress planned to push.

Since then, Ehrlich has slowly gained a reputation as a more moderate Republican: He doesn’t like gun control and he voted to ban partial-birth abortions, but he generally backs abortion rights, supports stem-cell research, and enjoys a measure of support from labor unions.

Ehrlich’s perceived moderation as an incumbent has helped him win re-election four times in a majority-Democrat district. He could have a safe seat for another term, depending on how Glendening redraws his district’s boundaries this coming winter. But, if he runs for governor instead, he’s going to need Democrats from all over the state to cross party lines and vote for him.

Early indications suggest he’ll use at least three anti-Townsend themes in appealing to voters – incumbency, out-of-state money, and upper-crust privilege. In a Washington Post interview, he called the Glendening/Townsend forces “a dominant and entrenched monopoly, run by the most petty politicians you’re ever going to see,” and flogged Townsend for relying on family connections to garner fundraising support from outside Maryland. “I grew up in a rowhouse, not a castle in Camelot,” he wrote in a fundraising letter.

If Ehrlich enters this race, it’s going to be a bruiser.


Though Townsend’s strengths as an early favorite appear overwhelming, things can change.

Maryland’s economy has been surprisingly resilient to the downturn nationally, but increasingly that is projected to change. “People like how the economy has done” under Glendening, says Basu, and that success is expected to rub off well on Townsend at the polls. But “the economy is not going to be as strong going into the election,” predicts Basu, pointing to various declining indicators and the immediate after-effects of the September terrorist attacks. An increasing number of jobless voters also generally means trouble for incumbents, and Townsend has long been trying to project an image of being partly at the helm of Maryland’s ship.

As the state economy goes, so go state revenues – and if the expected slow-down is bad enough, then the state government could see a budget crisis next year. If that happens, voters will be reminded that the 2002 state budget was extraordinarily generous on the spending side, chewing prodigiously into a much-touted surplus, despite predictions of declining tax collections and calls for fiscal prudence. This, of course, would do further damage to Townsend’s reputation, allowing opponents to charge her with budgetary irresponsibility.

As for wartime politics, that could swing either way for Townsend. The tendency, says Herb Smith, is for voters to “rally ‘round the chief” in times of national crisis – and today that chief is a Republican, President George W. Bush. “It makes it more difficult for a Democrat to criticize Bush as a way of getting at a Republican opponent,” Smith explains. On the hand, adds Basu, because of the crisis, “Townsend can come off as looking prepared, professional, dignified, courageous under fire – she can gain a pulpit that her opponents won’t have.”

Townsend’s opponents, though, will have another sort of pulpit – to criticize her record. Her duties, which under the state constitution are assigned by the governor, have been extended significantly during Glendening’s second term. Economic development, transportation, juvenile justice, the state police, corrections, and parole and probation are all in her portfolio of responsiblities. These are rich territories for political foes to mine for weaknesses. In addition to the Glendening/Townsend administration’s opposition to the Inter-County Connector, voters are likely to be reminded of scandals that erupted during Townsend’s watch involving juvenile justice and parole and probation. With a little of what’s known in the trade as “opposition research,” challengers may turn up other potential embarrassments lurking in the agencies that fall under Townsend’s purview.

“I have been saying all along to her people,” says Baltimore City State Senator Barbara Hoffman, “you have got to be able to address the successes and/or failures in the portfolios to which she’s been assigned.”

Alan Fleishmann, Townsend’s chief of staff, is happy to defend her administrative record. Speaking about the bootcamp scandal – in which The Sun exposed beating of incarcerated juveniles by guards in 1998 – he explains that Townsend reacted to the crisis well. “She does not get ruffled easily,” he says. “She took responsibility for it and she took command.” In particular, he notes, Townsend put in place accountability mechanisms to ensure that bad news travels up so she can correct such problems before they blow up in her face. “What she does when she hears about it is how she wants to be judged.”

Townsend is also likely to be judge by where her political support comes from. As a Kennedy, she’s in a unique position to raise prodigious sums across the country. An analysis of her November 2000 campaign finance report (the most recent available at this writing) shows that less than half of her funds at that point had come from within Maryland, with the rest coming mostly from Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, D.C. Duncan, O’Malley, and Ruppersberger, meanwhile, had each raised between 80 and 90 percent of their money from in-state. This disparity is likely to come back on her during a competitive campaign.

Townsend’s money and her status as a virtual incumbent may appear daunting to challengers at first glance, but they may be double-edged swords. Even her Kennedy name – often considered an unmitigated plus – cuts both ways. “There are people who are just awed by the Kennedy mystique,” explains Hoffman, “and at the same time there are people in the state who hate her because she’s a Kennedy. That’s quite a burden.” Combine this with the uncertainties of the economy and the political impact of the war on terrorism, and Townsend’s seemingly indomitable position starts to look somewhat weaker. Given time, money, and a lot of hard work, a strong challenger could undermine her early lead.

“Right now you have a number of people who have said they might run, and who want to,” Prince George’s John McDonough says. “But basically they don’t want to run into a buzz saw. I think people are sitting around waiting for something bad to happen to Townsend. And that’s always a possibility. All the cards are pretty much turned up, so people are either going to bet on them or fold. Right now, she’s showing four-of-a-kind. Do you want to bet or don’t you?”