An Issue That Mixes Politics and Race

February 17, 1991|By MARTIN C. EVANS

ON JANUARY 28, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke unveiled his proposal for re-drawing the political map that determines the voting districts in Baltimore City.

In fulfilling a responsibility demanded of him by the City Charter, the mayor did something that he finds personally distasteful, shaking together two reagents that have been among the most explosive components of American society: race and politics.

Mr. Schmoke's plan involves few changes from the map created under former Mayor William Donald Schaefer by the redistricting of 1983, a redistricting that made mostly minor changes from the map that evolved in 1971.

But it is precisely because Mr. Schmoke has been reluctant to suggest more radical revisions of the council map that his plan has been so controversial.

That is because much of the city's black community believes that, for at least the past two decades, the way the city fathers have drawn the councilmanic boundaries has hindered the ability of blacks to elect candidates of their choice to the City Council. Although the city is roughly 60 percent black, 11 of the 18 council members elected from districts are white, as is the council president, who is elected at-large.

The local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union have said that the mayor's map would do what council maps have done since the 1960s -- dilute black voting strength in such a way that blacks would find it harder to win representation in the City Council proportional to their population.

The NAACP has said it will sue in Federal court to overturn the plan, which automatically becomes law in its current form unless the council amends it before the end of March. And the mayor's plan is likely to draw intense scrutiny when the council hears public comment on the plan at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.

Ironically, it is the evolution of the Fourth District -- which has been firmly in the control of black politicians for a quarter of a century -- that is said to undermine the political power of black Baltimoreans most. The district is more than 90 percent black and would remain that way under the plan the mayor is proposing.

Black political and civil rights leaders have said that because each district can elect only three council members, concentrating black voters in one or two districts -- the Second District also is believed to be more than 70 percent black -- allows whites to retain disproportionate strength in other districts. For example, the lines that bound East Baltimore's 1st District delineate an area estimated to be about 70 percent white.

Since the 1950s, the Fourth District has had the appearance of a bird on a roost, with its breast nested in the traditional West Baltimore heartland of the city's black community and its beak reaching north and west along Park Heights Avenue. With each of the three re-drawings of the councilmanic district boundaries that have taken place since 1923, the map has taken more of the appearance of a maturing turkey no longer interested in flight.

Its double chin and spreading breast extended further and further west and south with the redistrictings of 1966, 1971 and 1983, gobbling up the expansion of the black community into Harlem Park, Rosemont, Edmondson Village, Walbrook and Ashburton. At the same time, its wings have retracted from the east, relinquishing historically white neighborhoods in Bolton Hill, Reservoir Hill, Hampden and Woodberry.

The Fourth District's evolution as a "black" district is no accident. As early as 1953, black political leaders were frustrated that the city's large black population was so fragmented among the First, Second, Fourth and Fifth districts that blacks could not elect a single representative in council. Black politicians, such as former state Sen. Verda Welcome, began openly calling for the consolidation of black precincts into a majority-black Seventh District.

Meanwhile, white power brokers such as Northwest Baltimore political lord James H. "Jack" Pollack puzzled over how to prevent shrinking white majorities in the Second and Fifth districts from becoming black majorities.

"If any single factor has prevented City Council agreement on a reasonable plan to draw new lines for election districts, it is that of race," Evening Sun reporter Richard Frank wrote in 1962, after the council had wrestled unsuccessfully with a succession of proposed redistricting plans for more than a decade. "The problem confronting the councilmen has been one of creating new districts of nearly equal voting strength without turning any of them into predominantly Negro districts."

The solution that members of both camps arrived at in 1966 -- slow in arriving and far from being unanimously accepted -- was to further consolidate black voting strength into the Fourth, while allowing white political organizations to hold onto power in other districts.

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