Blacks may need more than numbers to gain Political clubs, voting patterns affect black gains.

March 13, 1991|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Evening Sun Staff

When Kenneth C. Montague Jr. ran for a 3rd District City Council seat in 1983, he ignored the naysayers who told him a black candidate couldn't win in a predominantly white district.

Montague, an attorney and longtime civic activist, ran a well-financed, non-racial textbook campaign in northeast Baltimore.

He finished a distant fourth.

He lost because he got only a handful of votes in white precincts, while his white opponents did well in black precincts.

White voter rejection of black candidates remains a fact of life in Baltimore. It's one reason that the City Council is 63 percent white, while the city is almost 60 percent black.

Today, black activists hope that redistricting will help them gain more City Council seats by creating more districts with black majorities.

But an Evening Sun analysis of voting patterns, registration figures and census data, plus interviews with candidates, indicates that numbers alone may not do the trick because:

* Elections often hinge as much on organizational clout as on a district's racial composition, and whites tend to have stronger political organizations.

* Those organizations can influence voter turnout and concentrate voting strength behind a slate of candidates.

* While blacks and whites register to vote in nearly the same proportion, blacks are far more willing than whites to vote for candidates of the other race.

"There exists in the minds of some whites a presumption against black candidates," said Montague, who finally won a seat in the House of Delegates in 1986 and was re-elected last year.

"There is a presumption that blacks may not be able to do the job or would not represent the entire district. Black voters tend to be much more objective and open-minded."


Montague's experience is instructive as the City Council wrestles with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's plan for redrawing the lines of Baltimore's six council districts.

Several civil rights groups have attacked the Schmoke plan, saying it dilutes black voting strength by allowing two of the districts to retain large white majorities and a third to be about 52 percent white. The other three will continue to have substantial black majorities.

As a result, they say, the Schmoke plan offers little hope that blacks will make any gains on the council, where they now hold only seven of 19 seats.

Their argument is based on the assumption that a black candidate cannot win in a district that is less than 65 percent black.

Schmoke, however, said his plan could produce a majority black council.

"If you look at the map, and people only voted on racial lines, the map I submitted would produce 11 black council people," he said. "But I didn't design it to guarantee any particular result. I designed it to afford the opportunity for black representation, but not to guarantee it."

The Evening Sun's analysis shows that the city already has three districts with black majorities of at least 60 percent. Politically and geographically, it would be possible to make a fourth.

But, if the patterns in other districts hold, the new black district might elect at least one white council member. And taking black voters from other black districts could jeopardize black candidates there.

There is no question that blacks have the potential voting power to elect more black council members if they vote on strictly racial lines. Neither blacks nor whites have a disproportionate edge in voter registration. And white voter turnout, on average, is only slightly better than black turnout in city elections.


Using a computer, The Evening Sun matched voter-registration figures with new 1990 Census data in voting precincts with populations that are at least 90 percent black or 90 percent white.

About 64 percent of the city's voting-age population lives in precincts segregated to this extent.

Overall, 57.4 percent of the city's 556,145 voting-age citizens are registered, The Evening Sun found. Statewide, an estimated 66 percent of the voting-age population is registered, elections officials say.

In the overwhelmingly black precincts, 61 percent of the voting-age population was registered, compared with 58 percent the white precincts.

This slight advantage is offset by the more youthful profile of the black population. While blacks make up almost 59 percent of the population as a whole, they make up only 56 percent of the voting-age population. Likewise, whites account for 39 percent of the city's population but 42 percent of its residents of voting age.

The fact that blacks register in roughly equal proportions to whites may soften -- but hardly eliminate -- opposition to Schmoke's plan, one council member predicted.

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