People who encountered political newcomer Shannon Sneed as she campaigned on the mean streets of East Baltimore predicted that she’d never get more than a couple hundred votes in the Democratic primary.
After all, Sneed had never held elected office and got her largest campaign contribution ($500) from her father-in-law, while the city councilman she was challenging was laden with political connections and campaign booty.
And yet when the votes were counted last Tuesday night, Sneed had gotten more than 1,700 votes in the 13th District – only 15 votes behind incumbent Warren Branch – and has refused to concede. Now city election officials are counting provisional and absentee votes, and an announcement of final totals is expected this week.
How did it happen that the slim, soft-spoken, 30-year-old former television producer came this close to taking down an entrenched politician flush with more than $50,000 in campaign donations, much of it from corporate donors?
“I’ve never seen someone so dedicated to the community,” said Star Brady, 27, a mother of two who lives in the heart of the 13th on Luzerne Avenue. She called Sneed “incredibly brave” for campaigning so visibly in some of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in the city.
“She started talking to residents in the district, and we all got to know her and believe in her, that she could actually do something to help us,” Brady said.
Sneed declined to talk to The Brew about the race, or the way her opponent’s lead had abruptly doubled from 15 to 30 in the days following the election on the Baltimore Board of Elections’ unofficial results web page.
“I’m watching the vote-counting process very carefully at this stage,” she said Friday. “I think I need to step back and let that play out and not comment.”
Councilman Branch did not answer telephone calls or respond to questions e-mailed to his office by The Brew. Still, there’s plenty to be gleaned by a visit to the East Baltimore district they would both like to represent and a review of each candidate’s campaign finance records.
“The Streets Are Filthy”
The 13th District forms a wedge in the center of East Baltimore, fanning northeast from Broadway along Gay Street and Belair Road, swinging south through Armistead Gardens and cutting back along Monument and Baltimore streets.
It encompasses most of the Johns Hopkins Hospital campus and biopark and includes such neighborhoods as Middle East, Belair-Edison, Orangeville, McElderry Park, Berea, Butchers Hill and Washington Hill. A view of the district from a passing Amtrak train prompted songwriter Randy Newman to write Baltimore with its downcast lyrics. A sample: “Hard times in the city/In a hard town by the sea/Ain’t nowhere to run to/There ain’t nothin’ here for free.”
The 13th is, in fact, riddled with vacant boarded-up homes and drug-related crime and violence. Some of Sneed’s campaign Tweets suggest the environment in which she campaigned:
July 6: I was on Dudley and I am sad to say we could not knock on the entire block due to someone being stabbed. Another sad day in District 13.
July 3: It was a great service at Greater Paradise this morning. Though their church burned down last week, they are still standing strong!
Brady, who was caring for her one-year-old and five-year-old at her McElderry Park home last Friday, said she supports Sneed in part because she has been so frustrated by the failure of incumbent Branch to help with the many problems she encounters in her neighborhood.
One problem has been kids playing basketball and football in the street, denting residents’ cars and throwing eggs on them – at one point a neighbor’s car was keyed. Brady said she and others contacted Branch’s office seeking “No Ballplaying” signs, but couldn’t get any help.
“We couldn’t talk to Warren Branch about it,” Brady said. “There’s a lady [at his office] that answers the phone. She said they don’t issue them.”
Trash is another problem, Brady complained. “The streets are filthy. It’s embarrassing to invite people over,” adding that her many phone calls to the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods and 311 Call Center – as well as to Branch’s office – have been fruitless.
“I went down to a City Council meeting. Warren Branch was the only one that wasn’t there,” she said. “This man is never there to see us. Every other council member was there, but he wasn’t there.”
Brady, an accountant, said she and her husband moved to the area two years ago thinking it was part of the Patterson Park revival. Instead, she said, the area “is the dumping ground for a certain type of people who shouldn’t be around homeowners.”
Brady quickly ticked off a list of all she’s witnessed – drug paraphernalia in flowerpots, a gang initiation in her back alley (“a boy getting completely beaten up and jumped on … other people just standing around and watching”), and a boy shot and killed around the corner (“my husband saw that and ran over to the boy and tried to help him”).
How could Sneed help?
The candidate has been effective, Brady said, noting that she’s already gotten trees planted on Fayette Street and angle parking on Luzerne. “She always gets right back to you.”
“We Call and Call … and Still Nothing”
A few blocks away, Leona Hartner expressed many of the same complaints. Hartner has lived at the same house for 60 years and said the neighborhood suffers from institutional neglect, exacerbated by Councilman Branch’s lack of responsiveness.
“We’re not Fells Point, so it’s hard to get something done,” she said, standing on the trademark East Baltimore marble steps of her two-story rowhouse. She pointed to trash in the gutters and said rats are gaining the upper hand.
“We call and call to the councilman’s office, and the lady there says she’ll give him a message. And still nothing. It’s gotten worse in the last year and a half. And then try to call 311. You call to report rats and the girl says there’s no special unit to eradicate rats anymore. So you just go round and round.”
Hartner said she got to know Sneed after she rapped on her door and asked her opinions about the neighborhood. “I got impressed with her because she was going door to door, asking people about what’s going on, instead of just shoving on you a lot of campaign literature.”
Sneed had little campaign literature to dispense, having run a grassroots campaign with minimal funds. On campaign finance records, she reports $8,111 in campaign donations through August 28, many of them collected in $25 and $50 increments from local residents.
Her campaign was similarly conducted below the radar of the local media (The Brew included) and the political establishment, as she pounded the pavement and quietly forged personal contacts with the 13th’s constituents. “I started in May in earnest and probably have knocked on just about every door in the district,” she said Friday.
Contributions from Developers
The campaign strategy of 50-year-old Branch is the mirror opposite of Sneed’s.
Collecting $51,925 in campaign funds, his reelection committee is flush with $500-and-over campaign contributions from a “who’s who” of companies that do business with City Hall and with the $1.8 billion East Baltimore Development project north of the Johns Hopkins Hospital that’s mostly within the 13th District.
On August 28, Branch received $4,000 from Forest City Enterprises, prime developer of the Hopkins biopark project, which has been repeatedly criticized by local residents as pricing them out of the housing market.
Two affiliates of Forest City, RMS Management and FC Facilitator LLC, handed over $2,000 to Branch’s campaign, while Forest City’s project manager, Scott Levitan, tossed in another $1,000. Through his City Council position, Branch is an ex-officio director of East Baltimore Development Inc., the non-profit that has authority over the biopark project.
He’s gotten $1,000 from Daniel Schuster, president of Schuster Concrete Co., and at least $9,000 more from other city contractors; $1,000 from the Maryland Soft Drink Association; $1,000 from the Maryland Realtors PAC; $750 from Constellation Energy PAC; $500 from New Q’s Liquor and Tavern on Monument Street; and more than $6,000 from various law, accounting and consulting firms, several associated with the biopark project. Branch spent some of these funds in glossy campaign literature and banked the rest for his political future.
The councilman was first hired by the city in 1984 as a laborer at the Montebello Filtration Plant and made his first move into politics during the Kurt Schmoke administration when he was assigned to the Eastern District Neighborhood Service Center.
The brother of State Delegate Talmadge Branch, Warren was elected to the State Central Democratic Committee in 2006, and a year later won his current City Council post, squeaking past Vernon E. Crider by less than 50 votes after a special count of absentee ballots.
In this year’s race, Sneed was by far the largest voter-getter of the four challengers to Branch who collectively won 61% of the district’s vote. But the challengers split the count so that Branch currently leads with 38.7% of the total.
Facing an obscure libertarian candidate in the November general election, the person who wins the Democratic primary becomes the de-facto next councilman for the 13th.
Here are video interviews with Sneed and Branch conducted by Doni Glover at the Bmore News website: