Republican Baltimore County Councilman David Marks is running against Democratic challenger Crystal Francis for reelection in an eastern district that looks considerably different from the majority-Democrat district where Marks was first elected 12 years ago.
Marks, 49, is touting a record of working across party lines as he vies for a fourth term against Francis, 37, a Middle River resident with a storied history of advocacy for criminal justice reform. Francis has also argued that the mostly white and male County Council isn’t representative enough of Baltimore County.
Since Marks became the first Republican to represent the 5th District — which, until this year, included the county seat of Towson — the Perry Hall native has worked across party lines to enact wide-ranging legislation.
He spent eight-odd years as a councilman organizing task forces and lobbying local officials to bring the county’s free transit system to the Towson area, an initiative Marks began championing more than a decade ago as a state transportation official and which finally launched last fall as a pilot program, the Towson Loop, with funding from Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.
He voted with most council Democrats and fellow Republican Wade Kach on an Olszewski-backed bill to add a 2020 ballot measure that enabled voters to approve public campaign financing by referendum, and introduced legislation establishing its framework.
And with Olszewski, Marks sponsored 2019 legislation to levy so-called impact fees — subjectively-applied remittance that stalled at the pandemic’s outset, and which Marks wants to beef up if reelected — against homebuilders and other developers to help cover the cost of schools and roads, bringing the county in line with most other Maryland jurisdictions.
Francis finished out a term as chair of the Baltimore County Democratic Party in June. Announcing her departure in a Facebook post, Francis wrote it “has been an honor serving over the past decade.”
Upon leaving, Francis “will focus my full attention to ensuring that women and diverse communities have a voice on the local level, while continuing to work alongside the local and state party,” wrote Francis, an associate director at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. She’s also worked with dozens of organizations across Maryland to remove barriers people face after incarceration, reform correctional systems and end “the school to prison pipeline,” according to Walden University’s Center for Social Change.
Marks, who brushed off a single challenger in his primary, has been critical of Francis’ foothold in the Democratic Party, which he thinks would undermine political diversity of the seven-member County Council, on which Democrats outnumber Republicans 4-3.
The County Council “needs a diversity of ideas,” Marks told listeners earlier this month during a candidate forum the Essex-Middle River Civic Council hosted at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School.
He’s a bridge builder, he said, and “a bipartisan problem-solver.”
In an interview, Marks added that Francis “certainly has not demonstrated bipartisanship,” and “doesn’t seem to care about differences of opinion on the County Council.”
Francis, though, says diversity is what the council lacks. Six of its members are white. Just two Black council members — both men elected by the county’s one majority-Black district — have been elected in its history. And when the council’s lone councilwoman, Cathy Bevins, eschewed a fourth term, it revived the possibility that no woman would serve on the County Council, she said.
“I’m the only woman to make it out of my primary,” Francis told dozens of audience members during October’s Essex forum; Francis is one of two women running in November’s council election, both of whom are Black. Kim Bryant, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary in the western 4th District, is campaigning against Council Chair Julian Jones.
“There needs to be equity and diversity in the local decision making body,” Francis, who won her party’s nomination with about 69% of the vote in a two-way race, told district voters.
“It would be a real shame if, after November, no women were on the council,” she said.
Francis declined interview requests from The Banner. In an email, Francis wrote the “public nature” of her employment prohibited her from speaking with a reporter unless she first reviewed questions.
In responses to written questions sent to all candidates from The Banner, Francis said building adequate parks, community centers, grocery stores and employment centers in underserved parts of the county should be prioritized.
Francis, who has worked with policymakers to improve quality of life for people with disabilities and seniors, wrote she would improve access to affordable housing, to which some constituents say Marks has been an impediment. He proposed a bill — which the County Council voted down in 2020 — to restrict the height of a planned low-income housing project in East Towson that the county attorney said could have violated the Fair Housing Act. He pledges on his campaign website to “continue to oppose the oversaturation of neighborhoods with Section 8 housing” in his district.
Francis wrote she would change land use rules to allow tiny homes and accessory dwellings to increase affordable housing, use vacant commercial and publicly-owned land for affordable and accessible housing and offer incentives to encourage developers to rent or sell vacant housing at affordable rates. She also wants to decrease carbon emissions and flood hazards.
A former member of Maryland’s Critical Area Commission, Marks said in an interview that he’s well-positioned to represent the interests of new would-be constituents, many of whom who live along the Chesapeake Bay shoreline that spans the length of 5th District’s southeastern boundary. Towson and Parkville were removed from the district when the county adopted new redistricting maps earlier this year, and Bowleys Quarters and Middle River were added. Perry Hall and Kingsville in northeastern Baltimore County remain in the 5th District.
He’s already started to involve himself in land proposals derided by 5th District constituents — even breaking with ”councilmanic courtesy” tradition to vote against a planned unit development in Middle River that was introduced by Bevins, the community’s current representative, to signal his discontent with the impact fee waiver the developer is due to receive.
Marks said his years of experience serving on the Critical Area Commission — a position from which he recently resigned to avoid appearance of interest conflicts, he said — would lend him a balanced perspective while weighing the wants of homebuilders and other developers against obligations to protect the critical area of the Chesapeake Bay and its waters.
“There are some legitimate frustrations from some of the restaurants” when it comes to building restrictions around protected bay waterways, Marks said, referencing a regulation that prohibits a restaurant owner from converting a concrete bulkhead into a seating area. That restriction “doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
Responding to voters’ questions about the district’s greatest challenges at the Mount Carmel forum, Francis said the county isn’t “doing enough to support” local businesses or “revitalize” the district’s waterfront, and that pedestrian access and transit are limited — she wants to bring an electric bus circulator to White Marsh, Parkville, Middle River and Perry Hall.
Marks responded during the forum that the district’s waterfront is “booming,” with no need for revitalization investments. Some district constituents have said the east side shoreline is overdeveloped.
He would rather see funding for a charrette effort to redevelop the aging White Marsh Mall similar to the process playing out for Security Square Mall in Woodlawn, he said in an interview.
Both Marks and Francis said they believe in the importance of green space preservation, and say developers aren’t doing their part to provide community amenities or compensate for development-precipitated population growth that strains infrastructure and schools.
Baltimore Banner reporter Kristen Griffith contributed to this article.