If Paris Gray had his way, the Edmondson Village Shopping Center would be overhauled with a new grocery store, coffee shop and health care center — and maybe even something less glamorous, like a UPS store.

To him, the outdated shopping complex, acquired by a Chicago-based developer last year after a more than two-year slog, presents the most transformative opportunity for his West Baltimore district. That, and voters’ ability to launch him into the District 8 City Council seat this spring.

Like the shopping center, Gray said he has the potential to do great things for his constituents, as well as deliver the small, less exciting minutiae that often go unnoticed but still serve a purpose.

Gray, 37, has a clear path to victory in the May Democratic primary. He has the endorsement of his boss and predecessor, outgoing City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, who is stepping down after two terms. He’s so far won the endorsements of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, among the state’s largest unions for public employees, as well as from current City Council members who are donating to his campaign.

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For the last four years, Gray has worked in Burnett’s City Council office as its community outreach coordinator, attending meetings with constituents, getting his hands dirty at neighborhood cleanups and answering phone calls and emails from residents seeking better services.

In the work, Gray said, he’s found his purpose.

“I still have a passion for being boots on the ground,” Gray said one Thursday morning in mid-March, shortly after AFSCME’s endorsement became public. “I’ve already proven that I can answer the call. People can make promises. I can show results.”

His win is by no means assured, though. He faces a challenge from Bilal Ali, a former state delegate and health care executive whose latest reported campaign cash balance exceeded Gray’s, as well as three other opponents — Chris Allen, Jeffery Allen and Joyous Jones — who have relatively limited funds on hand. Ali was endorsed earlier this week by the AFRO News.

Edmondson Village Shopping Center in Baltimore, Monday, October 17, 2022.
Edmondson Village Shopping Center in Baltimore, on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/Jessica Gallagher)

Born in Southwest Baltimore, Gray graduated from McDonogh School in Baltimore County, where he boarded as a high schooler. He attended Indiana University briefly before his father’s death during his first year, which he said destabilized him.

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“I didn’t realize at that point that it was depression,” he said about the decision to move home. He plans to go back to school someday to finish his degree.

After Indiana, Gray found work at a Macy’s store before starting at Wells Fargo. About four years ago, Burnett offered him the outreach post, a position he started three weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic barreled into Baltimore and beyond.

Even with the threat of an unprecedented public health crisis, Gray said he got to work. He coordinated services for the district’s older adults, including a Meals on Wheels partnership that allowed them to minimize potential exposure to the virus. And as COVID-19′s scale widened, he fielded calls from concerned constituents in need of essential resources to survive, sometimes triaging life-or-death problems.

Many constituents called the office over the course of those first few months looking for work, so Gray organized a job fair in the district. And after getting his bearings, he put together an Edmondson Avenue task force that would go door-to-door and distribute information to neighbors about its ongoing revitalization.

But Gray said he’s most proud of his dedication to constituent services and transparency. He’s made showing up at community meetings his bread and butter, he said, and those interactions with constituents have helped sharpen his position on the need for better city services. If elected, he said, he would push the city to allow residents to better track the status of their 311 requests.

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“That’s what people want,” he said. “They want practical solutions and responsive leadership. I will sponsor legislation for those lofty goals. But I have to address what people are talking about in the communities.”

Outgoing Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, center, listens at the annual State of the City address on Monday, April 17. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Ali, 72, president of community health and residential services at the Howard County-based Clinic Management and Development Services, thinks the race is more competitive, and more hungry for an outsider, than what Gray might believe.

An appointee of Gov. Larry Hogan to an open state delegate seat in 2017, Ali served for two years before losing a bid for a full term. He considers his Annapolis tenure a success, though, pointing to a bill he helped pass that restricts the operating hours of liquor stores in certain areas of Baltimore.

Ali’s employer, CMDS, has since been at the center of a community dispute in Northeast Baltimore over its efforts to open a residential substance abuse treatment facility on Harford Road. The organization sued the city in 2022 over its decision to deny a residential use permit for the center and subpoenaed at least three neighborhood associations about their role in the matter, according to the complaint.

Community members who opposed the facility raised concerns about Ali, who would have been in charge of the center; his health care licenses for substance abuse treatment and counseling had previously been put on probation.

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Those licenses are currently active, according to a state database.

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The CMDS case remains ongoing: In February, the organization filed an appeal in Baltimore Circuit Court, appealing a decision from the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals. A federal case in Maryland District Court also remains active.

Ali said while he could not comment on pending litigation, the matter is not connected to his campaign.

If elected, he said he would “hit the ground running” and use his council platform — as well as his existing relationships in city and state government — to raise awareness about the city’s public health disparities, including its over-saturation of people with substance use disorder and the lack of adequate treatment options for them. He also said he would propose investigating potential instances of real estate appraisal discrimination in his district and would lobby for more programs that ensure legacy homeowners with debts to pay don’t lose their houses during the annual tax sale.

“I’m in a helping profession, so helping people and advocating for policies is helping people’s lives,” he said. “It’s no different.”

He challenged that Gray, a mentee of Burnett’s — whom he criticized for missing the City Council’s consequential redistricting vote last year — has no experience as a legislator.

“I know because Paris thinks he’s riding the coattails of Burnett that he’s a shoo-in,” Ali said. “But I beg to differ.”

Gray said he thinks he may have laid just enough groundwork to break through with a win.

“I respect my opponents, and I respect what they’ve done individually,” Gray said. “But I also know what I’m capable of. And more importantly, the community knows what I’m capable of.”

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.

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