Image via J.D. Merrill for State Senate/Facebook

A group of recent grads from Baltimore’s prestigious City College High School are taking their former teacher, J.D. Merrill, to task in his campaign for the 41st District Senate seat. In an op-ed published in the Afro this morning, four alumni say he discouraged students from protesting his father-in-law, ex-Gov. Martin O’Malley, and actively recruited white private school pupils to the predominantly black magnet school when he taught there.

While Merrill’s campaign has shared supportive testimonials from former students and school colleagues, the quartet behind the op-ed claim these are “false narratives” of his tenure there from 2013 to 2016. Specifically, they point to an example from 2015, when they say he discouraged members of the City Bloc, an activist student group known for its sit-ins and protests, from demonstrating at an O’Malley rally.

Their piece references an anecdote from former City Bloc leader Anise Tates, who said City Bloc members met resistance from Merrill after saying they planned to join their former parent organization, Baltimore Bloc, in protesting that day.

“That’s when Merrill really started getting on us because by that time he was engaged to O’Malley’s daughter. ‘How would it look for him if an organization from the school he worked at disrupted his father-in-law’s rally?’” Tates’ account says. “All the while he was trying to get into office.”

The City College alumni also allege Merrill “played an integral role in increasing the recruitment of White private school students at City College.” The op-ed references conversations with freshmen who had attended private middle schools, and told City Bloc members they were exempted from normal admission requirements such as composite scores and standardized test scores.

“The exempted students claimed that J.D. was the primary contact that kept consistent communication with their families during their abbreviated admission process,” the alumni wrote. Upon following up on admission data with a Maryland Public Information Act request, the grads say, “the data that revealed an abnormal spike in the percentage of White students in the freshman classes of 2014 and 2015.” Merrill was involved in admissions during both years, they wrote.

The authors, Louis Williams, Nevan Edwards, Marie Mokuba and Deontrey Yeargin, all graduated from City College in 2017 and are now rising college sophomores.

Baltimore Fishbowl has reached out to City College administrators about the allegations made about Merrill. A woman who answered the phone at the school said the principal is on vacation, and other administrators were not immediately available with summer vacation in effect.

In a statement sent along by his campaign, Merrill defended his tenure at City College.

“I always encouraged my students to be active and engaged citizens and I am proud to see City alums advocating for education reform that will empower black lives,” he said. “This campaign is, and always has been, about ensuring that every student has access to a great school, regardless of where they live.”

As for the allegation about ramping up recruitment of white students from private schools, Merrill said he “encourage[s] the students to release all of the data they received—including the demographic data and list of school visits—because I believe deeply in transparency.”

Merrill is challenging incumbent Jill Carter, who served as director of the Baltimore City Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement before being appointed to the Senate seat by Gov. Larry Hogan. Prior to working in Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration, she served as a 41st District delegate for 14 years. She’s also the daughter of Walter P. Carter, the late activist who led segregation and discrimination protests in Maryland during the Civil Rights Movement.

The race turned ugly in May after Merrill ran an ad online attacking Carter’s attendance record in Annapolis. Carter responded on Baltimore Fishbowl’s Facebook page that the alleged number of votes she missed “has not been verified,” and even if true, would only amount to about 7 percent of floor votes during her tenure. (Merrill’s campaign says they’ve verified all off the missed votes here.) She also said she was taking care of her mother, who was terminally ill at the time.

Several black community leaders retorted to Merrill online in May that he was being “petty” and relying upon a “racist trope” about black women being lazy. They also noted Carter had fought his father-in-law’s zero-tolerance policing strategy during O’Malley’s time as mayor, which many say led to mass incarceration of black Baltimoreans.

Campaign finance data show Merrill has far outpaced Carter in terms of fundraising, pulling together nearly $209,000 from donors compared to Carter’s total of just over $66,000.

Both are technically running against disgraced former state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks, who resigned his post after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges after being caught in a bribery sting. The primary is next Tuesday.

Brandon Weigel contributed reporting for this story.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...