The ‘Dean’ Says Goodbye

Rochelle “Rikki” Spector (David Stuck)

Often called “feisty” by friends and foes alike, longtime Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector, 80, spoke of plans for another 40 years the day after being knocked to the ground in an attempted carjacking that left her with a black eye last Friday.

“I go into the biblical mode of 120 years,” Spector said. “The first 40 years was my being born and raised, having my family and developing the loves of my life. The second 40 years was serving in the Baltimore City Council, making government work for the people. Now, I’m embarking on that third 40 years, and I feel ready and inspired.”

Spector, a Democrat who represented the city’s 5th District for 39 years, surprised many colleagues last January with her announcement that she would leave the City Council after nine terms. In good health eight decades into her life, the councilwoman said she wants to shift her focus: “I’m really ready to go on wonderful paths I feel really curious about.”

The Baltimore-born-and-raised councilwoman, known for her outspokenness on issues affecting the city, was appointed to represent Northwest Baltimore in 1977 after her late husband, Allen, was appointed as a District Court judge.

She cited multiple factors for her retirement, including the election of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and the loss of her place on influential council committees.

Her popularity has held strong in the city, and in late 2015, Spector admitted she started gearing up for her re-election — feeding the widespread belief that she would, in fact, run for an unprecedented 10th term. As it stands, Spector has held one office seat in Maryland longer than any elected official in state history.

With her final term complete, many local residents and political officials alike agree that Spector and her contributions to the council will not be forgotten.

“For as much as we didn’t agree on many issues, I told her she may not miss me, but I am certainly going to miss her,” said 14th District Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, one of the council’s senior members. “What Rikki did for her district and Baltimore, you really can’t put into words.”

On the council, Spector fought fiercely for initiatives to advance Baltimore’s economic growth. She also pushed for affordable housing, partnerships between private and public institutions and improving the city’s public school system.

But when City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young removed Spector from two of her three committee assignments — the Urban Affairs and Aging Committee and the Land Use and Transportation Committee — two years ago, she felt she couldn’t lead as effectively.

Rochelle "Rikki" Spector gives opening remarks to the volunteers before the clean up begins
Rikki Spector addresses volunteers before a clean-up on Good Neighbor Day in November 2012. (Justin Tsucalas)

In fact, for the first time in her political career, Spector had great uncertainty about her place in the current council’s ranks. In a sense, she saw the writing on the wall.

“I’m Jewish, but I had an epiphany,” Spector said. “I said to myself, ‘[Young] has not treated me properly.’ I didn’t want him not to win his re-election, and I didn’t want to work against him because I knew he was going to be the council president again. I couldn’t work four years under those circumstances, plus I didn’t know who the mayor was going to be.”

The rift between the two began in 2014, when she was the only council member to vote against body cameras for all members of Baltimore’s police force and a ban on plastic bags at city stores. The bills were both fiercely advocated for by Young and eventually vetoed by then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, leading to a fallout between Young and Spector.

In an interview with the JT, Young said he “regrets” stripping Spector of her committee assignments, “because she worked hard [and] showed up for all the meetings.”

Moreover, Young, 63, added that he is intent on never having to take away another council member’s committee assignments as he enters his second full term in his role as council president.

“Our relationship, even though Rikki was upset with me, I always looked up to her and respected her,” Young said. “The thing about me is that I respect my elders. My mom always taught me to respect those people of age. [Spector] had a wealth of experience, so what I did was wrong.”

During the last year, Spector and Young have mended their political relationship and teamed together on some hot-button issues that Young opposed.

For instance, Young said, Spector was instrumental in drumming up enough support from council members to send back to committee a bill that would have raised minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022.

Through the years, Spector and Young worked tirelessly in support of one another on other legislative matters, including the massive Port Covington project and redevelopment of Harbor East and the former site of Memorial Stadium.

Rabbi Elchonon Lisbon, Rabbi Velvel Belinsky, Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, Mayor Sheila Dixon, Councilwoman, Rikki Spector and Rabbi Lev Gopin.
Rikki Spector with former Mayor Sheila Dixon and Chabad rabbis (from left) Elchonon Lisbon, Velvel Belinsky, Shmuel Kaplan and Lev Gopin (Kirsten Beckerman)

Her knowledge and experience are two things Young plans to utilize on more key issues that promise to arise in the immediate future. He said whenever Spector wants to meet with him, she won’t need an appointment, as is his policy with other former council members.

“Rikki could charm honey out of a bee’s mouth,” Young said with a laugh. “If you sit down and listened to Rikki, she will almost convince you that she won.”

Often referred to as the “Dean of the City Council,” she became a role model for generations of women in politics, though she is quick to defer taking any credit for paving the way for others.

Baltimore County 2nd District Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat whose district shares a border with Spector’s, described Spector as a hard worker with a significant resumé in community service. Beyond that, Almond said Spector had a way of breaking any tension with “her incredible sense of humor.”

Perhaps more importantly, after Almond was first elected to her post in 2010, she said Spector gave her a simple piece of advice that she still carries with her: “Do your job, and don’t worry about anything else.”

“I’ve always tried to do that,” Almond said. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t even think Rikki realized she was breaking a glass ceiling as much as she saw going into politics as a calling.”

With the new council having taken office on Thursday, the district is under the guidance of someone without the Spector name for the first time in 50 years. Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer is the district’s new representative.

Spector praised her district, which serves as a bridge from Baltimore County along its north and west borders, for its diversity, stable neighborhoods and strong businesses.

Rikki Spector at a City Council work session in November 2013. (Marc Shapiro)

Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council from 1990 to 2016, said Spector had an uncanny knack for bringing together people from all backgrounds for the greater good of the community.

In 1968, Spector helped organize an open dialogue meeting at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC for African-Americans and Jews after riots in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination shook the city to its core in April of that year.

Those meetings eventually led to the formation of the Black Jewish Forum of Baltimore, known as BLEWS, which officially began in 1978 as an informal dialogue group to address issues of common concerns in both communities.

Abramson said Spector took the time to learn the concerns of all the ethnic groups she represented, which in turn helped build her credibility among constituents.

“She probably understood the Jewish community better than anyone on the council, but that doesn’t mean she could ignore the needs and interests of her colleagues and other residents in the community,” Abramson said. “Nobody in the African-American, Muslim or Christian communities that I know of ever complained that Rikki didn’t understand them, and that’s very much a compliment to her career.”

Maxine Webb, president of the Glen Homeowners Improvement Association, said she savored her time working with Spector.

Webb, 64, noted she was the first African-American to move into the 3000 Block of Glen Avenue in 1970 and said when Spector took office, she made her feel like a neighbor.

“I’m so happy for her. It is bittersweet for me, because when I heard she was retiring, I said to her, ‘You would go retire just right after I become president [of the Glen Homeowners Improvement Association]. You leave me when I need you most,’” Webb said with a laugh. “She said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll still be around.’”

(Photo by David Stuck)

Pre-Council Days

Spector built a Baltimore legacy before her appointment to the council. She grew up in South Baltimore’s Locust Point neighborhood, graduated from Forest Park High School and attended Baltimore Hebrew University. At home, her family spoke Yiddish.

At 9 months old, Spector said, her parents divorced when it was uncommon for Jews to dissolve a union. As she was raised by her grandfather, she attended Hebrew school at Beth Tfiloh Congregation, where she also had her bat mitzvah.

Growing up in a Polish family of shop owners, Spector said, “I could sell ice to Eskimos like they needed it.”

In the 1970s, Spector opened Six on the Square at 48 E. Sudbrook Lane in Pikesville, where she and a business partner sold clothing, jewelry, needlepoint, ladies handbags and stationery supplies. That venture, which ran from 1973 to 1978, taught Spector the importance of locally owned and operated businesses.

Years later, Spector put that business acumen to work, as businesses and state and federal agencies created jobs for residents in her district.

Just three years ago, Spector helped broker a deal that led to the opening of ShopRite in Howard Park, creating nearly 300 jobs. Plans for a grocery store in Howard Park dated back to 1999, when the Super Pride on Liberty Heights Avenue closed, leaving the area without a supermarket.

Marshall Klein, chief operating officer of Klein’s Family Markets, which owns and operates nine ShopRite locations in the Baltimore region, primarily in Harford County, said Spector understood how to effectively combine politics and business.

“She’s tenacious in a caring way,” Klein said. “As I got to know Rikki, I saw that she was not bashful or shy about expressing her opinions to anyone who wanted to listen or, more importantly, who did not want to listen. In my dealings, it’s been rare to find someone who cares for the right reasons like Rikki does, and I think a lot of that has to do with her background.”

Spector also pounced on opportunities to bring the Motor Vehicle Administration and Social Security Administration to her district when both were looking to relocate.

Here is a photo from the grand opening of Weinberg Manor South. Let me know if you need more information. Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector (middle) and Ellen Jarret, CHAI: Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc., an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, cut the ribbon at the grand opening of Weinberg Manor South, CHAI’s 15th senior living facility. They were joined by (front row left to right) Secretary Kenneth Holt, Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, Barry Schloss,The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake,, Brian Halter, Boston Capital (back row, left to right) Mitchell Posner, CHAI, Paul T. Graziano, Baltimore City Housing Commissioner, Marc B. Terrill, The Associated, Stephen Briggs, Wells Fargo and Larry Davis, Edgewood Management.
Rikki Spector is joined by various officials to celebrate the opening of Weinberg Manor South in March 2015, CHAI’s 15th senior living facility. Among those joining Spector were Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (bottom row, second from right), CHAI executive director Mitchell Posner (top row, far left) and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore president Marc B. Terrill (top row, middle). (David Stuck)

Early in her tenure, it didn’t take Spector long to realize just how much influence she could have on shaping all matters affecting the city.

Shortly after she took office, Spector worked closely with then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer on the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor. Collaborating with Schaefer in bringing the Baltimore Convention Center, Harborplace, the National Aquarium and the Hyatt Regency Baltimore Hotel to Light and Pratt streets remains among the high marks of her career.

“People had to sleep in Baltimore. They just couldn’t work here and go to school here,” Spector said. “I understood what Schaefer was doing, and I supported him. Schaefer said we needed to put everything downtown, because [Baltimore] is a walkable city. This will be the recreation dollar that we need. It gave us the tax base and the businesses that we needed.”

While Spector called Schaefer “a cheerleader for Baltimore,” she dubbed Rawlings-Blake “a role model.” Spector strongly believes Rawlings-Blake received unfair scrutiny for only having six years to implement her policies, not allowing for ample time to see them through.

“It takes 40 years to turn back the bad public policies we have seen in majors cities,” Spector said. “So it doesn’t mean you have to work less or give up. It just means that you have to keep that shoulder to the wheel. A diamond is a piece of coal that is stuck to its job.”

Kurt Schmoke, mayor of Baltimore from 1987 to 1999, said Spector took constituent service to the highest level.

“It seemed like Rikki showed up at every event with more than three people there,” said Schmoke, current president of the University of Baltimore. “Her care in dealing with calls and letters was just outstanding. To me, that was the hallmark of her career.”

Spector said one of her main policies was to return any phone call she missed the day she received it. She joked that the hit 1974 song “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” by jazz-rock group Steely Dan was her calling card.

During her extensive career on the council, she was known not only for her stature and sassy nature, but also for sitting on prestigious committees, including serving as president of the Maryland Association of Counties in 1995. She also serves as vice chairperson of the Transportation Steering committee of the National Association of Counties, is a member of NACO’s Northeast Region Board of Directors and is an at-large member of the Maryland Economic Development Association.

In Spector’s place, Schleifer, 27, a lifelong 5th District resident, plans to carry the torch and build on Spector’s many accomplishments.

“It is very important that, after so many years, we can have a smooth transition from where Rikki left off,” Schleifer said.

Outside her political career, Spector has always considered herself a strong family woman. She and her late husband Allen, who died in 1990, had three sons, Bruce, Ira and Stephen. Spector has six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, many of whom still live in the area.

City Council representative Rochelle "Rikki" Spector and Kenneth Gelula narrated the tour for the attendees.
Rikki Spector with former CHAI executive director Kenneth Gelula during a Baltimore Jewish Council candidates tour in 2007 (Andy Cook)

After Allen’s death and then Ira’s death in 1999 from influenza, Spector said “she felt vulnerable.” It was around that time she met Oscar Brilliant, 94, and moved into his high-rise luxury condo at 1000 Harborview Drive in the Inner Harbor.

While she maintains a home on Park Heights Avenue in her district, Spector has, at time, drawn criticism for not actively living at her listed addressed. She dismissed any notion of that by pointing to her rigorous schedule, walking about 30 to 35 minutes to and from City Hall every day and working as late as 10:30 or 11 most nights. Most days, she said, when she was not at City Hall, she could be found at some community event in her district, listening to the concerns of her constituents.

Before Spector ultimately decided how she would proceed in her political career, son Bruce said she had a long consultation with the family.

“She is such a family-orientated person, always has been, and we as a family wanted her to stop,” Bruce Spector said. “It was enough. She will always listen to us and take whatever we say into account, but she’ll still use her own judgment.”

Don’t count out Spector yet. Spector will have plenty of tasks to keep herself occupied by the time the calendar flips to 2017.

When the Maryland General Assembly reconvenes on Jan. 11 in Annapolis, Spector will represent Young, lobbying for pending legislation on behalf of the city. Spector said it is the first time the city will send someone to represent the council president for the 90-day legislative session.

She also has made it one of her top priorities to return to Goucher College to earn her college degree.

If her plans are any indication, Spector may be even more active in retirement.

“We need to live right, be right and do right and make sure you’re giving everybody their best if you have the ability to do it,” Spector said. “That’s how I’ve always lived my life.”

Related: Spector: ‘Give them the car? Are you nuts?’

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