John Bullock doesn’t mind being called a pragmatist.

The West Baltimore City Councilman, a two-term incumbent who captured the coveted seat in 2016, embraces the label. An academic who’s spent almost two decades living on the city’s West Side, the 45-year-old Democrat said he’s spent the last eight years finding creative ways to bite off small chunks of his agenda. If you step back, he says, you can see the full scope of his work.

Baltimore — and West Baltimore, specifically — has a new champion in Gov. Wes Moore, Bullock said, and he can feel the momentum growing as the governor settles into the job. With the Red Line and Frederick Douglass Tunnel projects still in early planning stages, Bullock said he wants to stick around for a third term to help see the work through.

But Bullock faces unique challengers this year. Among them is Sonia Eaddy, a constituent whose name has become synonymous with Poppleton, the historic Black neighborhood that fell into the hands of a New York-based developer before Bullock’s time. The city attempted to seize Eaddy’s home starting in 2020 under its eminent domain powers to hand over to the developer. Following a legal fight, the city backed off the effort in 2022 and promised to chart a new, corrective course in the neighborhood.

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Eaddy said she’s running because those promises ring hollow. After winning back her house and helping to preserve a stretch of historic homes next door, she hopes to use her organizing skills to unseat Bullock and reclaim the West Baltimore council seat for new, visionary leadership.

“My leader is not listening: We thought you were listening. You have not heard us,” Eaddy said about Bullock. “He shows up just to show up. Not to be effectual. There have been no meaningful conversations to help people empower themselves.”

Councilmember John Bullock speaks with Sonia Eaddy before a press conference in Poppleton, where it was announced that she could keep her home. (Taneen Momeni)

Eaddy faces a steep climb.

So far, Bullock has won key endorsements, including from AFSCME Maryland Council 3, among the state’s largest unions for public employees. He also possesses the race’s funding advantage, with the latest campaign finance reports showing a more than $54,000 cash balance as of April.

Eaddy has not yet uploaded campaign finance statements, while Bullock’s other challenger, Venroy July, outraised him over the last filing period. The race’s fourth contender, Matthew Johnson, has not raised or spent more than $1,000, campaign finance records show.

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Eaddy acknowledged missing a deadline to apply for public financing, a tool she said would have helped her. And defeating an incumbent —especially one with institutional support — comes with its own hurdles, she said.

Born in Philadelphia, Bullock graduated from Hampton University, a private, historically Black college, in 2000. He earned a master’s degree in regional planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill two years later. Following a brief stint in Washington, D.C., as a congressional fellow and transportation policy analyst, he earned his doctorate from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2009. He works as a Towson University lecturer and holds a doctorate in government and politics.

Prior to his first council run — a six-person brawl where he earned half of the total primary election votes — he served as the director of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for more resources in urban communities.

Sitting with an open notepad in his City Hall office one March afternoon, Bullock recounted a series of legislative wins from the last two terms. As the council’s representative on the city’s Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation, he’s successfully lobbied for a number of historic designations — including to memorialize the North Stricker Street rowhouse in his district where three Baltimore firefighters died in 2022. He introduced and successfully helped pass a real estate disclosure bill that requires agents to report if properties fall within historically protected districts, which he said stemmed from complaints from buyers about the unforeseen costs of rehabbing some homes in West Baltimore.

He also cites his advocacy with helping to pass and sustain the city’s affordable housing trust fund, winning a tax credit for residents who use solar panels, and helping Eaddy and the city negotiate with the Poppleton developer to preserve more homes there.

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Bullock said he once viewed the role as overwhelming, akin to “drinking from a fire hose.” But in eight years — and despite the learning curve forced by the coronavirus pandemic — he said he’s become more adept at solving problems.

“There are certain limitations we have,” Bullock said about the job. “And then there are certain opportunities to take advantage of the opportunities when we have them, and then trying to work as much as we can to push some things forward.”

He is, of course, referencing Poppleton — the specter looming large over the race.

Bullock said he has attempted to walk a narrow path that balances the community’s will with the legally binding 2006 contract the city entered into with La Cité. He noted an unsuccessful attempt by the city in 2012 to break the deal. Continuing to relitigate the past, he said, prevents forward motion.

Eaddy, 60, cites two factors that drove her unexpected foray into the Democratic primary.

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One reason, she said, stems from Bullock’s support for adding density and height in Poppleton.

“We don’t want any more apartments in this neighborhood,” Eaddy, a longtime community organizer and neighborhood association leader, said. “That became a major problem for me.”

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon’s bid to unseat Brandon Scott served as the second catalyst, she added. She largely blames Dixon — who served as City Council president when the city first announced the deal with La Cité — for the neighborhood’s plight.

“When I saw Sheila get in, I said, we can’t lose. We can’t go backwards, and I saw us going backwards,” Eaddy said. “We need leadership that will take us forward.”

Sonia Eaddy chats with Mayor Brandon Scott after the press conference about the Poppleton deal as City Councilman John Bullock looks on. (Taneen Momeni)

Born on the city’s West Side, Eaddy inherited her current home from her father, an arabber who sold produce on a horse-drawn cart. She points out that she may not have the same educational credentials as her opponents, but she’s learned about the world in other ways — as a wife, a mother to five kids, a grandmother to 13 and a great-grandmother to four.

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In the campaign to save her house, she learned how to advocate for herself, even when the chances looked improbable. Organizing, she said, means teaching others how to fight. She wants to apply that fighting spirit to the rest of the district, which she said could use a bruiser.

If elected, Eaddy said she would lobby for more recreational centers, job opportunities and small business creation in the district. And, above all, she said she would work to ensure that existing neighborhood residents can have a seat at the table when developers come knocking.

“That’s what’s kept me fighting,” she said. “And that’s what’s keeping me fighting until I see the change.”

Sarah Ann Street occupied 2
Sarah Ann Street homes vacant due to condemnation.
The historic Sarah Ann Street homes have been transferred to a community developer to preserve. (Courtesy of Charles Cohen)

One of the race’s other contenders argues that Poppleton, and the rest of West Baltimore, would benefit from a fresh set of eyes.

Venroy July, a corporate attorney and West Baltimore real estate investor, said he sees himself as the balance between Bullock’s practicality and Eaddy’s idealism. A 13-year resident of the area, July said he’s become all-too-familiar with the district’s problems — the inadequate city services, the high concentrations of vacancies and blight, the violence.

He doesn’t take his challenge of Bullock lightly; both are members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and share mutual friends. July has even donated to Bullock’s past runs.

But his friend has lost his touch, July said. As he knocks on doors, he said people either can’t name their council representative or have lost faith in him.

Some quality-of-life issues have stagnated or worsened during Bullock’s tenure, July added, including trash collection, illegal dumping and food access. He doesn’t see Bullock fighting to make drastic improvements.

“Quite frankly, he just hasn’t been present on a lot of issues that people are talking about,” July said.

The run hasn’t been easy for July. The Duke University School of Law and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, graduate said he underestimated how hard it would be to raise money, and he hasn’t picked up endorsements.

“Being an incumbent here is like a moat,” he said.

July said he would lean on his real estate mediation background to help repair the burned bridges in Poppleton. He would also look into offering more financial incentives to people who relocate or commit to developing in West Baltimore.

“Development means increased population to the 9th [District], which means better services, which potentially means schools aren’t closing all the damn time,” he said. “So, this whole anti-development stance: I just think we have to be very thoughtful about what that actually means.”

Eaddy, though, doesn’t see herself as an anti-development candidate. At a March town hall with city Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy, she reiterated a common refrain in Poppleton: that community members should have more influence over what gets built around them.

“This is something people have to understand,” Eaddy said. “You are your own savior.”

This story has been updated to correct that Eaddy was born in West Baltimore.

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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