Mayor's moment of definition

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

January 31, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke may have reached what historians sometimes call, "the defining moment" of his administration when he submitted his redistricting plan to the City Council Monday.

The defining moment: Is the mayor a bold leader or an overly cautious one? Has he fulfilled the hopes of the predominantly black constituency that put him into office or has he let them down?

Has he been/is he now/will he be (if re-elected this fall) a mayor who is prepared to do the right thing despite the political costs?

You want to know what the man is all about?

Look to the defining moment -- and this is it.

The process of redrawing the city's six councilmanic districts may not be as gut-wrenching a topic as war in the Middle East. Nor does it knife into the heart of daily life like the Great Recession of 1991.

But redistricting does get to the core of racial politics in this city and racial politics may lie closer to the core of Baltimore than any of us care to admit.

It was to counteract the effect of racial politics that led the U.S. Supreme Court to mandate redistricting in the late 1960s.

It was outrage over racial politicking that led blacks to protest on each of the two occasions the maps were redrawn, in 1971 and 1983.

And it was the fear of reverse racial politicking that caused some City Council members to await the mayor's plan with such great anxiety.

But on Monday, the mayor submitted a plan that virtually maintains the status quo.

The plan will maintain one very, very black district -- the 4th -- and one very, very white district -- the 1st.

There will be two integrated, but mostly black districts -- the 2nd and 5th -- and two integrated districts with sizable white populations, the 3rd and 6th.

Despite this seemingly symmetrical set-up, a city that is at least 60 percent black currently is represented by a City Council that is 61 percent white and black politicians say the solution, if not the blame, lies in changing the status quo.

Schmoke, however, apparently refused to play that game.

So, did he take a courageous first step toward breaking the cycle of politics of race in Baltimore? Or did he toss away, betray, the first real chance blacks have had to enfranchise large segments of their community?

Black leaders here say the mayor blew it.

"The mayor is a good guy and he tends to want to be fair," said George Buntin, executive director of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP.

"But the question is, what is fair? History has shown -- and the courts have affirmed this again and again -- that while blacks are prepared to vote for a qualified white candidate, whites still have trouble voting for an equally qualified black. You can't point to one black candidate in this city who turns that point around. So is it fair to maintain a status quo that locks large numbers of African Americans out?"

The mayor, though, says his plan is fair to all.

"If you are talking about increased [black] representation," he told a reporter, "the opportunity exists with this map."

Then he added, "Baltimoreans don't vote strictly on race -- not in the 1980s. Previously, I couldn't say that."

The fact is, Buntin's assessment of voting patterns appears more realistic than Schmoke's.

In the last mayoral race, most black voters supported Schmoke, while Clarence H. Du Burns' ties to the Schaefer administration appeared to make him the candidate of choice for most whites.

Meanwhile, white candidates were selected to represent the predominantly white council districts. Black and white candidates won in the predominantly black districts.

My impulse is to applaud the mayor for appearing to want to break this cycle of racial politics with his new/old redistricting plan.

But the reality is, maintaining the status quo does nothing whatsoever to break that cycle. It simply maintains the game of racial politics in favor of whites, and whites, truth be told, did not put the mayor into office.

A black mayor has an obligation to move affirmatively to empower black voters.

If Schmoke chooses not to do this by tinkering with the council districts, fine.

But he must act to empower them some other way, then. He must prove himself a leader in this area.

We have reached the moment of definition.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.