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Commentaryby Fern Shen5:44 pmJan 5, 20110

Amid charges of nepotism, Baltimore City Council questions 9th District candidates

Above: William A. “Pete” Welch, who wants to succeed his mother on the Baltimore City Council, waiting his turn to speak at a hearing last night.

The Baltimore City Council plowed ahead last night with a hearing intended to demonstrate that they are seriously considering other candidates — besides Agnes Welch’s son — to replace her as the 9th District representative.

Council chambers were packed with William A. “Pete” Welch Jr.’s supporters and others who came for the strange exercise of cheering on competing candidates who, most political observers believe, have a better chance of winning the Maryland Mega Millions Lottery than being selected to replace the retiring octogenarian.

It was an unsavory spectacle for other reasons:

1) Pete Welch has pleaded guilty to two sets of criminal charges (including one involving a gun he fired during a dispute in his mother’s campaign headquarters in 1999)

2) Feisty challengers with impressive resumes have emerged and

3) The 9th District’s extreme poverty and physical dilapidation make a strong argument for ditching the status quo.

Still, the council gave every indication they were up to the task of putting on the show, with Councilman James B. Kraft at one point turning the tables on one of those candidates, asking pointed questions implying that Pete Welch was the victim of reverse discrimination.

“Is it your position it’s inappropriate to support Mr. Welch or find that he’s most qualified simply because he is Agnes Welch’s son?” Kraft asked John T. Bullock, a political scientist at Towson University who has a PhD in political science.

Council member Helen Holton, meanwhile, appeared to be looking down at her phone and paying little attention to the proceedings.And Council member Warren M. Branch grilled each of the candidates at length on why they did not have letters of recommendation from District 9 community groups, as Welch did. (They all said they didn’t know it was required.)

 John T. Bullock and Michael Eugene Johnson, after the City Council hearing. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

John T. Bullock and Michael Eugene Johnson, after the City Council hearing. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

After nearly three hours of questions about living wage and spending priorities and taxing strategies and their qualifications, another candidate said he remained cynical about the process.

“It went pretty much as I expected, it was always a foregone conclusion,” said community activist Michael Eugene Johnson, who has called the process “a high-tech coronation.”

A political dynasty in a desperately poor district

Agnes Welch, 85, who represented southwest Baltimore on the council for 27 years, was not known for introducing legislation, taking bold positions or even speaking much during council meetings. Her district, whose primarily African-American residents are among the poorest in the city, includes the Hollins Market and the communities of Rosemont, Sandtown, Harlem Park and Poppleton, among others .

Welch’s 57-year-old son, an accountant, has spent the better part of his adult life (21 years) working for his mother and says he does accounting work on evenings and weekends.

(His resume also lists a BA in accounting from Loyola College and several previous positions at Equitable Bank before his post as “a council technician.”)

Agnes Welch at her last Baltimore City Council meeting. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

Agnes Welch in December, bidding her colleagues farewell at a council meeting after 27 years. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

According to a reporter who covered the council in the 1980s, Agnes Welch was “a rubber stamp vote” for whatever William Donald Schaefer or Kurt Schmoke wanted. Welch has throughout her career focused mainly on constituent services and that is what her son stressed, when asked last night what he did to help the 9th District last year.

Pete Welch said he intervened on Loretta Avenue over a problem residents were having with a contractor (“I had the city agency create a stop work order”).

And in the case of a homeowner in the 800 block of Rosedale where “water was pouring out,” Welch said he “called city services and the problem is now 95 percent alleviated.”

On the issues, Welch sparred with council member Mary Pat Clarke over her proposed living wage legislation for Baltimore, which he obviously opposed (“new businesses will go elsewhere”) but didn’t want to be seen as opposing.

“I don’t want to fight with you,” Clarke said. “I just want you to say what you think.”

Welch was also asked about the idea of increasing property taxes and he said he opposed it: “Property tax can’t go up. No one is going to move here.”

If appointed by a vote of the council, scheduled to take place Thursday, what would he try to accomplish between now and the election in September?

“Rehabilitate the Poplar Grove corridor” in West Baltimore, was his answer.

‘“Restoring order’. . . with a 38 caliber handgun

The future lawmaker’s lawbreaker past can be found easily in the public record, including this 2001 story in The Baltimore Sun.. It was written amidst controversy – not to say public ridicule — over Welch’s re-appointment to his $18,000-per-year seat on the city liquor board.

“Last year, Welch pleaded guilty to second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and discharging a firearm in the city. He was given a three-year, suspended sentence and three years’ probation.

The incident stemmed from an argument between Welch and one of his mother’s campaign workers on the day after the September 1999 primary election.

During an argument over how much time the worker had put in on Election Day – and whether she was owed $40 in “walk-around” money, a stipend prohibited by state law – Welch pulled out a handgun and fired a shot at the ground.”

Prosecutors dropped an attempted murder charge and illegal possession of a handgun in return for Welch’s plea. He received a three-year suspended sentence and three years of probation.

Why he fired the gun

At last night’s meeting, Kraft offered Welch an opportunity to talk about the criminal conviction.

“The gun misfired into the floor,” he said.

At the time of the 1999 incident, however, Welch offered a different explanation, telling police he fired the gun “to restore order.”

(Poll worker Teresa Hamer, according to an 8/4/00 story in The Sun, claimed that Welch fired the gun at her during the dispute over walking around money, at the time an illegal practice in Maryland.  Welch denied it.)

Welch also said last night that his decision to plead guilty to the charges was driven mostly by the cost of fighting them. (Desire to avoid costly legal fees was also the reason he plead guilty in 2004 to three misdemeanor charges for failing to file campaign finance reports, he said.)

The Maryland attorney general’s office ruled in the end that Welch was not subject to removal under state law because his gun-related convictions involved conduct unrelated to his duties.

The cronyism charges over the 9th District vacancy have attracted some scorching media attention, including multiple posts written by political blogger (and 2007 11th District city council candidate) Adam Meister, who has threatened in an email to council members to publicly hector whichever of them votes to replace Welch with her son.

“I will publicize it in my blog over and over again for the entire 2011 election year,” Meister wrote. “I will urge people to campaign against you and I will remind the world that you are an anti-democratic sell-out.”

Candidates call for new leadership

At last night’s meeting, meanwhile, the three candidates strove to stick to the issues and to articulate their vision for the district.

One of them was Abigail Breiseth, who teaches special needs children at the Baltimore Lab School and who founded the Southwest Baltimore Charter School, along with her sister, Erika Brockman.

“Schools, schools, schools,” she answered, when asked what her priority would be, as a city council member. Funding school construction and fighting off a move in Annapolis to make jurisdictions pick up more of the cost of teacher pensions topped her list there.

 Abigail Breiseth, founder of the Southwest Baltimore Charter School, is seeking a seat on the Baltimore City Council.

Abigail Breiseth, founder of the Southwest Baltimore Charter School, is seeking a seat on the Baltimore City Council. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

Another of her priorities, she said, is public health, noting that her district has the lowest life expectancy of any in the city. (She said average life expectancy in the Hollins/Poppleton neighborhood is 62-years, worse than any other city neighborhood according to 2008 city health department data.)

“That’s an obscenity,” the 42-year-old Breiseth said.

The 9th District, she said, is filled with a diverse group of people — activists, families, councilwoman Welch – all doing good work, but in isolation from each other. As a council member, she said, she would “knit together” these many efforts.

“The 9th needs more than constituent services, it needs inspired, intelligent leadership to help it turn around and catch up with the City and with other Districts,” she said.

Johnson, 55, director of the Paul Robeson Institute,  said he wanted to focus on improving the look of the district, with better street lighting, among other approaches. Big, “game-changing” project like a civic center would lift up the Ninth and provide needed jobs, he added:  “There hasn’t been a crane in our district for years.”

At the  same time he was critical of developers. “I think we give developers too much, developers need to step up,” he said. “Maybe they are not doing their fair share.”

Bullock, a political scientist at Towson University and the vice president of the Evergreen Protective Association, said his biggest concern is “the glut of abandoned housing” in the 9th. Asked about the city’s budget deficit, he said he favored strategies like a bottle tax and a commuter tax. He also described himself as “a big fan of a living wage.”

When asked how he would spend his first year in office, he said he would try and counter low turnout and voter apathy with “political education.” He also tried, in his closing remarks, to deliver a little education to the council.

Attributing much of  what ails the 9th District to “years of political and economic neglect,” he cited the old saying:  “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.”

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