- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

BALTIMORE Maryland Republican gubernatorial candidate Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. began reaching out to Democrats and minorities yesterday, when he appeared at a predominantly black church to promote a faith-based neighborhood rehabilitation project.
Delegate Tony E. Fulton and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, both black Democrats and members of the New Psalmist Baptist Church congregation, joined Mr. Ehrlich, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez to promote New Psalmist's plan and request federal aid.
Mr. Ehrlich called the proposal a "home run, exactly the type of faith-based initiative that President Bush has talked about."
And Mr. Ehrlich said the church's proposal is more appealing because the church has the organization to do it and is offering $2 million to start.
Concerned about drug trafficking and high crime that neglected low-income housing has harbored in the community near the church, Mr. Fulton approached Mr. Ehrlich for help more than a year ago. The idea was to create a faith-based rehabilitation project that would address not just the living conditions but the lives of residents in the neighborhood around New Psalmist.
Politicians, church leaders and HUD officials met for an hour yesterday behind closed doors in a Victorian stone manor that houses some of the church's many ministries and programs.
When they emerged, Mr. Martinez said that the plan "has great potential."
"It's a wonderful faith-based organization, a very motivated group that's interested in doing more, including using some of their own capital," he said.
A mortgage on the property, called the Upland Apartments, is held by HUD and is in default.
So far the city has declined opportunities to take over the property, but HUD is required to work with the city and get its approval for any redevelopment plan.
Built about 30 years ago to house several thousand residents, many units are boarded shut. Only about 400 people still live there, and they are gradually being moved to other subsidized housing, Mr. Ehrlich said.
The church is seeking several million dollars to help purchase the property, which is wedged between blocks of sparsely occupied, worn row houses along a once-prosperous stretch of Edmonson Avenue and a lovely enclave of single family homes at the city's western edge.
In its place, the church wants to build and sell owner-occupied apartments, town houses and single family homes.
Mr. Fulton said presentations on the plan were "outstanding," as was the reception from Mr. Martinez.
"It shows me if you give Bobby [Ehrlich] a task, he's going to take care of it," Mr. Fulton said.
He said it is time for candidates to show how they are going to help turn around Baltimore's "steady decline." "If there's some question regarding [Mr. Ehrlichs] commitment to Baltimore, this certainly demonstrates he's a willing and able partner," Mr. Fulton said.
New Psalmist's 7,000 members drive through the crumbling apartments and past drug dealers to worship at the enormous domed sanctuary or drop off their children at the adjoining Christian school.
President Clinton cruised the same streets when he came there in the fall of 1998 for a get-out-the-vote rally with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination to succeed Mr. Glendening.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has complained that neither the state nor federal government has done enough to help Baltimore. Mr. O'Malley is considering challenging Mrs. Townsend in the primary.
Mr. Fulton said he hopes Mr. O'Malley will judge the proposal on its merits.
"We have a Republican and Democratic congressmen here who may not have always agreed with one another but agree that this is something that needs to be done," Mr. Fulton said.
Meanwhile, Americans United for Separation of Church and State said they would be watching to ensure the church doesn't cross the line into political activities, which could jeopardize its tax exemptions.
The group filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service, asking for an investigation after Mr. Clinton's visit.
"Clearly there are lines that can't be crossed. This isn't even close," Mr. Ehrlich said.
Asked if Mr. Bush might visit the church, Mr. Ehrlich replied, "Wouldn't that be wonderful."


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