The race for Southeast Baltimore’s open City Council seat features a pastor, a city government veteran and an accountant — which may sound like the set-up to a fun joke, but in reality has turned into one of this year’s most competitive council races.

Mark Parker, a Highlandtown pastor who has been endorsed by the district’s outgoing city councilman, Zeke Cohen, hopes to trade his pulpit for a City Hall office. He faces Liam Davis, a well-funded manager of the Baltimore City Department of Transportation’s legislative affairs division, and Joseph Koehler, an active volunteer and Canton booster, in the May 14 Democratic primary.

The district includes the highly populated Fells Point, Canton, Patterson Park, Greektown and O’Donnell Heights neighborhoods.

The race has divided City Council members, a majority of whom have backed Davis. And AFSCME Maryland, among the state’s largest unions for public employees, announced an initial round of endorsements before settling on Parker in mid-April after weeks of extra deliberation.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Breath of God Lutheran Church in Highlandtown renovated a vacant house that is to become a home for a new refugee family. Volunteers painted the house Friday and Saturday in hopes of having the home ready for occupancy by February 2023.  Pastor Mark Parker at the door of the home.
Pastor Mark Parker stands at a renovated vacant house, taken on by his church, that was set to become a home for a new refugee family in February 2023. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

Mark Parker

On a warm Friday in March, Parker works the room as he waits for his order at Ovenbird, a newly opened restaurant in Highlandtown where customers converse quietly over coffee and open laptops.

The pastor greets four or five people before settling down at a table with an egg sandwich and an iced tea. For more than an hour, he chatters excitedly about his campaign to represent the district.

As the leader of the Breath of God Lutheran Church for 15 years, the bright-eyed, bilingual Parker has aimed to spend a majority of his time getting to know his neighbors, lifting them up at their worst and standing beside them at their best. As he makes the rounds at Ovenbird, his reach is clear to see.

Despite his comfortable perch, the 42-year-old pastor hasn’t been able to shake the itch to run. He challenged Cohen and five other candidates for the same seat in 2016, placing fourth. In the years since that loss, he’s doubled down on his role in the community, advocating for causes close to him and building bridges with the area’s growing population of Latino immigrants.

And with some campaign cash and Cohen’s endorsement, he thinks he has a real shot now.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

A self-described “nerd-dork” who studied government and politics and competed on the Model UN team at the University of Maryland, College Park, Parker said he intends to make up for his lack of direct public office experience with an intense study of, and appreciation for, how the work gets done.

“You build some relationships, you listen to other people’s experience of life in the city. You can identify some breakdowns — the things that are holding us back,” he said. “And then you want to be part of crafting solutions, and having a vote, and having a voice.”

Born in Otterbein in 1982, Parker’s parents purchased and fixed up a “dollar house” that they purchased from the city and rehabbed with help from a low-interest loan from the federal government. His parents still live there today. With the Inner Harbor in his backyard, he grew attached to the city’s hustle and bustle and felt inspired by the people from different walks of life who called Baltimore home.

After college, Parker answered a calling and attended divinity school at United Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia before moving home to Baltimore in 2009 to lead the Highlandtown church. His wife, Christine, is also a pastor at the Epiphany Lutheran Church of Baltimore.

Parker said, if elected, he would step down from his leadership role in the church but continue to lend a hand on Sundays and in a limited administrative capacity. He also said he would spend the first year listening and learning before developing a defined legislative platform, though he would engage on immigration and affordable housing — the topics closest to him.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“For me, it’s always rooted in the the actual, real experience of walking alongside people in the midst of whatever that policy is trying to address,” Parker said. “I’m bringing a much deeper understanding of what this means for people. And I think it makes me a more effective legislator, and somebody who can always put people at the forefront of the conversations we’re having.”

Liam Davis

Davis, the 34-year old legislative affairs manager for the city’s transportation department, offers a clear contrast. With more than a decade in city government and a childhood spent romping around City Hall (his mom, Jeanne, retired as its curator in 2016, working for “every mayor from Schaefer to Pugh”), Davis said he understands legislative process and procedure “like the back of my hand.”

He also counts a number of wins during his tenure, including convincing the department to invest in speed cameras on Interstate 83 that have shown to reduce accidents and speeding, and lobbying successfully for the installation of electric vehicle chargers. His advocacy also helped the city win back tens of millions of dollars per year in state Highway User Revenue, a funding source that Gov. Martin O’Malley slashed during the Great Recession.

“I would hold it up to anybody on the council,” Davis said about his track record. “I’ve been trying to really tell myself: Let’s build a platform we can actually achieve.”

City DOT workers Donnell Lay, right, and Liam Davis, left, fill bags of sand in Fells Point on Sept. 22, 2023, for residents in efforts to prepare for possible flooding from Tropical Storm Ophelia.

Davis said he’s kept an obsessive eye on Baltimore, and an intense belief in its potential, since boyhood.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Born in Northeast Baltimore, Davis said he grew up reading The Baltimore Sun’s business pages. The family moved to Baltimore County in 2000, which Davis called a formative experience.

“The move to the county was crushing,” he said in an 11-minute “documentary” on his campaign website. He would go on to college at Towson University, where he majored in metropolitan studies.

The campaign video features words of support from former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, one of Davis’ mentors. Under Mayor Brandon Scott, Davis took a job at the transportation agency, which he considers his best career move.

At 24, Davis launched an ambitious bid for an open seat in the Maryland House of Delegates, a run he looks at fondly but acknowledges he wasn’t qualified for. He said he’s matured considerably since then and has broadened his understanding of issues, elections and politicking.

“It was all about getting the experience, lining me up to eventually run for council,” he said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

If he wins, Davis — a frequent flyer at neighborhood meetings and a past Greektown community president — said he would come in with a three-pronged approach that centers on public safety, constituent services and city government hiring. He sees an opportunity to build a “schools-to-service” pipeline that expands the high school curriculum to offer more apprentice-based skills and lowers the educational credentials needed to apply for some city jobs.

“We could hire the next generation of public servants,” he said one March afternoon in his campaign office, a bright but sparsely decorated top-floor apartment in an old savings and loan building in Fells Point. “And the public gets the benefit from the better services.”

Davis poked holes in Cohen’s endorsement of Parker and holds up those he’s won from the firefighters’ union and from eight current members of the City Council.

“He [Cohen] said he’s endorsing Mark because he’s the candidate that can build a coalition across district boundaries,” Davis said. “I just laughed. Two days later, we had the endorsement of seven City Council members. That’s a coalition.”

Joseph Koehler

Koehler said voters deserve more than the choice between a religious figure and an entrenched bureaucrat.

“I saw these two people running, and I didn’t think they actually represented the district in terms of who lives here and their work experience,” Koehler said. “I believe in the separation of church and state. And Liam, he’s a nice guy ... and he thinks he’s most qualified because he’s been in city government his whole career. That’s actually why he’s least qualified.”

Koehler’s lone endorsement comes from Run For Something, a progressive organization that helps recruit and support young candidates to run for office. He said he offers voters a “granular” understanding of the local economy in a way his opponents — and other city politicians — lack.

“There’s nobody in city government who understands this from a representation level,” Koehler said. “I don’t think our comptroller [Bill Henry] understands this, and I want to help him.”

Koehler’s also taken shots at Gov. Wes Moore, telling a crowd at a mid-April candidates’ forum that the pledge to revive the Red Line project has more to do with Moore’s interest in his own resume than with the project’s utility.

“They gotta build the Red Line,” Davis said in response, drawing applause from the crowd.

A photo of Joe Koehler wearing a black suit, blue shirt, and dark blue tie.
Joe Koehler is a candidate for the Baltimore City Council in the 1st District. (Handout)

Koehler, if elected would advocate for a property tax cut that he said would counter the “aggressive” formula introduced by Renew Baltimore, the ballot-issue coalition that has proposed halving Baltimore’s current rate over a six-year period. He also would lobby for a fully staffed police department and more financial incentives for government workers.

He can understand the enthusiasm around Parker, Koehler added, and even agrees with him on some positions. “But where he and I differ are on the prioritization of those issues,” he said.

Unlike Parker and Davis, who both said they would serve as a full-time council members, Koehler said he would commit to full-time service for only a year. “I’ve got to be able to pay my mortgage,” he said. Many City Council members hold part-time jobs to supplement their city salaries.

Henry, the city comptroller, has endorsed Parker and donated to his campaign. A spokesman declined to comment on Koehler’s remarks.

Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who is running for City Council president, speaks during a hearing with members of the Baltimore City Council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee inside Baltimore City Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 23. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Money is flowing into the 1st District race.

Parker’s latest report from April shows him with a cash balance of about $93,000. Davis’ latest report showed a cash balance of around $90,000, much of which comes from developers with active projects in Baltimore. Koehler, an accountant and auditor whose clients have included Visit Baltimore, reported a cash balance of about $18,000.

Parker received a donation from Eric Smith, the younger brother of Atlas Restaurant Group’s Alex Smith, whose politically well-connected family includes Baltimore Sun Media Group majority owner and Sinclair Inc. Executive Chairman David Smith.

Both Eric and Alex Smith donated the maximum $6,000 to Davis, who also received contributions from developers at Caves Valley Partners, the firm behind the ongoing redevelopment in the area surrounding M&T Bank Stadium and Horseshoe Casino; P. David Bramble’s MCB Property Services; Doug Schmidt from Workshop Development, which developed apartments in Highlandtown and has also given money to Parker; and Mark Sapperstein from 28 Walker Development, which is building townhomes in Baltimore Peninsula. John “Jack” Luetkemeyer, a Baltimore County real estate developer backing several city candidates, including Sheila Dixon, also has donated the maximum $6,000 to Davis.

Koehler said his relatively smaller cash balance speaks to his autonomy — and pitched it as an advantage in the relatively cash-heavy District 1 race.

“I will be someone who is independent, informed and educated,” Koehler said, “and say when I think something’s wrong.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the seminary that Mark Parker attended and the building redeveloped by Workshop Development.

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

More From The Banner