Kristerfer Burnett stepped out of his comfort zone to become a voice for change in Baltimore’s 8th City Council District before current council member Helen Holton announced her retirement; before Baltimore’s 2015 unrest; before the death of Freddie Gray.
Kristerfer Burnett is expected to be the next City Council person for Baltimore’s 8th District. (Courtesy photo)
Burnett, 30, is among the youngest of the new Democratic Council candidates, focused on changing the trajectory of Baltimore’s City Council. Burnett won the Democratic primary on April 26 and is overwhelmingly expected to win in majority Democratic Baltimore come Nov. Burnett, returned home to his neighborhood in Baltimore after graduating from The University of Maryland College Park. He attended graduate school at UMBC, married his long-time girlfriend, Vanessa, and move back into his childhood home, which he now owns in Edmonson Village. He immediately got involved in the Edmondson Village Association and got to work.
“I got involved in a bigger campaign about our shopping center that needed to be cleaned up. “I got tired of hearing the stories of what it used to look like. I kept asking why can’t it look like that way now,” Burnett said.
Edmondson Village Shopping Center opened in 1947 as one of the region’s first upscale shopping centers. It is currently owned by Carl Verstandig, of America’s Realty Corp. The Center deteriorated as the area’s population declined and the community’s demographics changed from majority White to majority Black. “We got organized and started to push the owner to do better. We still have a lot of work to do and we’re still in dialogue, but we saw progress,” Burnett said.
Burnett also worked for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU 1199) where he helped organized the Union’s “Good Jobs, Better Baltimore” campaign and pushed for local hiring on development projects like Harbor Point. He became increasingly concerned that the current City Council lacked passion for issues that were adversely impacting Baltimore residents.
“I was seeing the lack of urgency in doing community-based work like I was doing. I felt like we needed to have someone on the council with a community organizing background,” Burnett stated emphatically. The only way we can change this city is by uplifting our neighborhoods and empowering our residents to be change makers. So I decided to take a swing at running for city council,” he said.
Burnett said as he listened to residents, three priorities were stated repeatedly across the 8th District’s many diverse neighborhoods. He kept hearing the need for youth development, relief for the district’s many unemployed and underemployed and community development, including clean and safe streets, and blight removal as priorities.
Burnett has already started learning the ropes from current 8th District Councilwoman Helen Holton, who is retiring after 20 years in office. “Ms. Holton has been very cooperative,” Burnett said. The 8th District is among the largest geographic districts in the city. Burnett said he appreciated learning as much as possible from Holton about all aspects of the responsibilities of the City Council.
Burnett started his door-to-door listening campaign before Freddie Gray’s arrest and the unrest of 2015. “A lot of people were motivated to get into the primary because of the unrest, but I was already involved,” Burnett said. “We knocked on 10,000 doors during the primary. I went to every neighborhood; every block on the district. I wanted to make sure I had an understanding of what the concerns were in my district”, Burnett emphasized.
In spite of a door-to-door effort that lasted more than a year, Burnett still has lots of work to do this Fall. Burnett hopes to connect with supporters of his six other democratic challengers and those he has still not reached like Isaiah Forman of the Mt. Holly-Saratoga-Mulberry-Lyndhurst Community Association.
“I’ve been living in this district for 55 years. I’ve seen it come and go. It takes a politician to do more than show up”, Forman said. Forman wants to hear Burnett’s plan to reverse decline in neighborhoods like Allendale. We’ve got a neighborhood where there used to be a lot of homeowners. It hasn’t fallen completely apart, but we’ve got to keep the drugs and the killing out of the neighborhood, he emphasized.
Burnett was raised in the Catholic tradition; but it was his grandmother who infused in him a passion for community organizing and the social justice of empowering neighborhoods. “It started with watching my grandmother’s fight for her neighborhood in East Baltimore. In 2000 we found out that she was going to lose her home to eminent domain,” Burnett said. “Rather than taking that lying down, she stood up to that with her family and neighbors to preserve that neighborhood,” he said.
Burnett believes his greatest contribution will be to take the vision and lessons learned from community work into City Hall. “I view this as a high calling. I take it seriously. I view the campaign as a job interview. Some people just want the job and some people want to do the job. There’s a very big difference. I want to do the job,” he said.