In West Bal­ti­more, GOP sup­port wel­come

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By John Fritze

Arthur “Squeaky” Kirk’s com­mu­nity cen­ter in West Bal­ti­more is a har­bor for stu­dents look­ing to get off the streets and a bless­ing for fam­i­lies who need to sup­ple­ment their pantries.

And in this po­lar­iz­ing elec­tion year, the Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Re­cre­ation Cen­ter in the Franklin Square neigh­bor­hood has also be­come an un­usual base for Repub­li­can can­di­dates for of­fice — a tiny out­post for the GOP in one of the most re­li­ably Demo­cratic cor­ners of the state.

Mary­land Repub­li­can Se­nate can­di­date Kathy Szeliga, a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor, jumped in to keep the cen­ter open this year when the city threat­ened to close it — an ef­fort noted in a re­cent ra­dio ad sup­port­ing her cam­paign.

Ken­neth Earl Ebron Jr., a Repub­li­can can­di­date for City Coun­cil who was there this week help­ing Kirk pack boxes with do­nated frozen chicken and bread, said he helps out at the cen­ter of­ten.

Repub­li­can Gov. Larry Ho­gan, who is not up for elec­tion un­til 2018, raised pri­vate money for a com­puter lab, and his ad­min­is­tra­tion has helped to or­ga­nize coat and back­pack drives at the cen­ter.

The work has given the GOP a chance to

en­gage in a city that has been so heav­ily Demo­cratic for so long that most statewide Repub­li­cans spend min­i­mal time cam­paign­ing here.

Kirk, a 46-year-old city fire dis­patcher, is the son of the late Ruth M. Kirk, a long­time Demo­cratic state law­maker.

He said his con­nec­tion to Repub­li­cans has noth­ing to do with pol­i­tics. Ho­gan, Szeliga and oth­ers, he said, got in­volved after Democrats were un­will­ing to help.

“It’s a Demo­cratic area, but I didn’t get no help from the Democrats,” Kirk said. “And [then] I had a guy tell me he was go­ing to help me and the help’s been there ever since.”

The “guy” is Ho­gan, the pop­u­lar Repub­li­can who is try­ing to be the first gover­nor from his party to win a sec­ond term in Demo­cratic Mary­land since Theodore R. McKeldin more than 60 years ago.

Call­ing Franklin Square a Demo­cratic strong­hold would be an un­der­state­ment. Only two peo­ple in the eastern half of the neigh­bor­hood voted for Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Mitt Rom­ney on Elec­tion Day in 2012, com­pared with 636 who cast a bal­lot for Barack Obama.

Ex­actly 12 peo­ple voted for Ho­gan two years ago, less than 4 per­cent of the to­tal vote.

Repub­li­can in­volve­ment at Kirk’s cen­ter won’t change po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity in Bal­ti­more. Polls show Ho­gan is pop­u­lar in the city, as he is statewide. But he lost Bal­ti­more to Demo­crat An­thony G. Brown by more than 50 points in 2014, and he has had a rocky re­la­tion­ship with Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake, in part from their dis­agree­ments over the ri­ots that fol­lowed the death of Fred­die Gray last year and Ho­gan’s de­ci­sion to can­cel the Red Line light rail project.

Still, the Repub­li­can pres­ence at the cen­ter is the kind of out­reach that could help the party nar­row the gap here, and make the party’s can­di­dates more at­trac­tive to sub­ur­ban vot­ers who­care about the city.

Tucked into an al­ley near Lex­ing­ton and Mount streets, the cen­ter bus­tles with weekly food drives and GED pro­grams. Dozens of stu­dents ar­rive ev­ery day to fin­ish home­work and play.

Kirk’s ef­forts to open the com- Arthur “Squeaky” Kirk walks past a mu­ral at the re­cre­ation cen­ter, on which he has spent tens of thou­sand of his own money to re­vi­tal­ize the place. The food drives at the Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Re­cre­ation Cen­ter are only part of an am­bi­tious pro­gram for the neigh­bor­hood. mu­nity cen­ter — with money al­most en­tirely from his own pocket — caught the at­ten­tion of Ho­gan’s staff last year. Steve McA­dams, direc­tor of com­mu­nity ini­tia­tives for the gover­nor, or­gan- ized a fundraiser for the cen­ter that al­lowed Kirk to pur­chase com­put­ers and build a com­mu­nity gar­den that was re­cently planted with col­or­ful fall chrysan­the­mums.

“It’s some­thing the ad­min­is­tra­tion can do, and we do things like that in var­i­ous places all around the state,” Ho­gan spokesman Dou­glass Mayer said.

Be­fore Ruth Kirk died in 2011, her son promised her that he would open the cen­ter. Ruth Kirk served in the House of Del­e­gates from 1983 to 2011 as a Demo­crat, though she en­dorsed and re­mained close with for­mer Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Kirk was un­seated in the 2010 Demo­cratic pri­mary by Keif­fer J. Mitchell Jr., who now works as a spe­cial ad­viser to Ho­gan.

“She was an old-school pol, and even though she was a Demo­crat, she knew how to find a way, how to get what she wanted across the ta­ble,” Kirk said. “I’m a Demo­crat, but I like peo­ple for whothey are. I don’t be­lieve in black and white, Demo­crat and Repub­li­can.”

Asked about the cen­ter be­ing raised in an ad in the race for Mary­land’s open Se­nate seat, Kirk said he didn’t mind “be­cause ev­ery­thing [Szeliga] says is true.”

A spokes­woman for Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Mont­gomery County, Szeliga’s Demo­cratic op­po­nent, de­clined to com­ment.

Szeliga said she learned of the cen­ter through Gary Mangum, a whole­sale nurs­ery owner, Repub­li­can donor and Ho­gan ally who helped Kirk with the gar­dens. She dis­cov­ered city of­fi­cials were mov­ing to close the build­ing be­cause it lacked in­sur­ance and was in dis­re­pair.

Szeliga called Scott Don­a­hoo, a po­lit­i­cally con­nected for­mer car dealer, who called City Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Bernard C. “Jack” Young. The city, which owns the build­ing and is leas­ing it to Kirk, backed off from shut­ting it down. Szeliga also called a friend in the con­struc­tion busi­ness who is fix­ing the build­ing at no charge.

Weeks later, a su­per PAC sup­port­ing Szeliga’s cam­paign, Move Mary­land For­ward, be­gan run­ning a ra­dio ad fea­tur­ing the con­trac­tor. “Kathy came to me and asked if my com­pany could as­sist an or­ga­ni­za­tion in Bal­ti­more City,” the con­trac­tor tells lis­ten­ers. “Kathy seems to un­der­stand that lead­er­ship is more im­por­tant than pol­i­tics.”

A spokesman for the PAC, which is pro­hib­ited from co­or­di­nat­ing its mes­sage with the cam­paign, said the nar­ra­tor de­clined to be iden­ti­fied. The su­per PAC, which has spent $119,000 on Szeliga’s be­half, has not yet iden­ti­fied its donors.

Young con­firmed he spoke with Don­a­hoo and then called city of­fi­cials to try to work out a so­lu­tion.

Kirk has “been there do­ing a great job,” Young said. But he stressed that city pol­icy re­quires Kirk to have in­sur­ance.

Young seemed sur­prised the cen­ter was the fo­cus of a cam­paign ad­ver­tise­ment: “I didn’t know this was go­ing to be a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball.”

Szeliga, a Bal­ti­more na­tive who pre­vi­ously worked as a city school­teacher, said she got in­volved not for po­lit­i­cal gain but be­cause she knew Ruth Kirk, and be­cause she be­lieves in the work the late law­maker’s son is do­ing.

“There is noth­ing more in­spir­ing than a pri­vate in­di­vid­ual who is rolling up [his] sleeves ... to im­prove [his] com­mu­nity,” Szeliga said. “I just love what they’re do­ing there.”

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Arthur “Squeaky” Kirk or­ga­nizes a food bas­ket give­away at the Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Re­cre­ation Cen­ter in West Bal­ti­more, which has re­ceived sup­port from Repub­li­can of­fice­hold­ers, in­clud­ing Gov. Larry Ho­gan, and pri­vate donors.

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN PHO­TOS

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