NAACP may sue over districts Schmoke plan termed unfair

January 11, 1991|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Evening Sun Staff

The president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People says he will recommend the group file suit challenging Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's plan for redrawing boundaries for the city's six councilmanic districts.

Arthur Murphy said yesterday he will challenge the mayor's plan "because it ensures inadequate representation for blacks on the City Council."

Murphy, who has studied voting patterns in Baltimore, said he will ask the NAACP board to authorize a suit during its next meeting, Jan. 21.

"As far as I am concerned, the discussion is over," Murphy said. "Unless there is a radical reappraisal of district lines, we are not interested in talking to anybody about it. We are tired of talking to politicians about this. We are going to get a federal judge and let him decide."

Schmoke has not given his redistricting plan to the council yet, but in private meetings with council members he has described making only a few changes to the existing lines of Baltimore's six council districts.

But Schmoke said yesterday that there would be a difference between the plan he formally submits to the council and the one some council members have described.

"I think folks should wait until they see the map we are going to propose before they make any final judgments," he said.

The mayor said he hopes to introduce his plan to the council when it returns from its winter recess Jan. 22. The plan must be introduced by Feb. 1, and the council will have 60 days to either amend or approve it. The new district lines then would go into effect for the 1991 municipal elections, beginning with the September primary.

The plan Schmoke shared with council members would preserve white majorities in the 1st and 3rd districts, while making South Baltimore's 6th District about 50 percent black. The three districts never have had a black council representative -- a situation experts said would continue unless the districts have clear black majorities.

"You need to have better than a 50 percent black population to ensure that a black is elected in a district," said C. Christopher Brown, a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which has brought successful voters rights suits in the past.

In Baltimore, three council members are elected from each of six districts with a president elected citywide. Only seven of the current 19 council members are black, although the city is estimated to have a black population of 60 to 65 percent.

"The suspect aspect of the mayor's plan is that it appears to guarantee whites nine pretty safe seats on the council when the city's white population is maybe 35 percent," Brown said. "His plan seems to be inviting a suit. Why he would want to shut out blacks in three districts, I don't know. It doesn't make political sense . . . or legal sense."

Murphy said federal courts have ruled in recent years that for blacks to be have a fair shot at winning representation in an election district they must make up 60 to 65 percent of the population. And that would not be the case in three Baltimore districts, under what is known of Schmoke's plan.

"His plan would assure status quo representation, unless the political leaders in the 1st, 3rd and 6th districts go through a major heart transplant," Murphy said.

Murphy said blacks most often must be a majority of a district's population to gain any political representation because whites tend to vote in higher numbers than blacks.

He said blacks usually vote in lower numbers because they have a younger population and because they tend not to own homes or rent in the same place for a long period of time, he said.

"Voter apathy is a class/caste issue, not a race issue," he said. "It is no secret why Ashburton [a black neighborhood] is the No. 1 voting precinct in the city. It is not because of income. It is because of the significant percentage of home ownership."

But a history of discrimination, which has kept past black populations out of voting booths and even now makes blacks less likely to receive home mortgages, depresses black voter participation, Murphy said.

Conversely, the existence of stable white neighborhoods have made it possible for white candidates to win in the city's 2nd and 5th districts, despite the black voting majorities in both districts, he said.

"You rarely have integrated government unless blacks are in control," Murphy said. "There really is never a total black takeover, unless the white population goes to zero."

The city's only district to have three black council representatives is the 4th, where the population is estimated to be about 99 percent black.

Murphy was part of a group that threatened to challenge the city's redistricting plan last year, but he said the effort was halted after lawyers working on the case decided that they would have a better chance to win if they waited for the new plan to emerge.

The city is required to redraw its council districts for the first municipal election that follows each census.

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