In a heated meeting punctuated by name-calling and political threats, the City Council gave tentative approval to a redistricting plan that would greatly increase chances for electing a majority black council.
The plan, which won on a 10-7-2 vote last night, also would result in a change of council districts for a host of neighborhoods in south and northeast Baltimore. They include Hampden, Woodberry, Homeland, Hamilton and Gardenville, Locust Point and the South Baltimore peninsula, Waverly and Belair-Edison.
It also would return to their old districts two neighborhoods slated to move under Schmoke's plan: Ten Hills and Bolton Hill.
The plan, which completely revises one introduced by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke Jan. 28, was crafted by Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd. Stokes led members of the council's African-American Coalition through a hectic weekend of private meetings and phone calls to refine and drum up votes for the plan.
The final deals were not cut until yesterday afternoon, and many council members complained that the short notice left their constituents out of the process. A hearing on the plan was hastily scheduled for 4 p.m. today in the council chambers.
The Stokes plan does not displace any incumbent council members from their districts.
If the amended bill passes a final vote likely to come either Thursday or Friday, it would give five of the city's six councilmanic districts populations with large black majorities. Under Schmoke's proposal, only three of the districts would be predominantly black.
Currently, three of the districts -- the 2nd, 4th and 5th, have a majority black population. And only seven of the council's 19 members are black, in a city that is 59.2 percent black.
But while the Stokes amendments promise to increase black representation on the council, it is not clear that it would be supported by Schmoke, Baltimore's first elected black mayor.
The mayor will not comment on the merits of the plan until he has time to review it thoroughly, Clinton R. Coleman, a spokesman for the mayor, said today.
But unless the affected neighborhoods are given time to respond, "the community may view this as the worst kind of back-room politics," said Coleman.
"I remain concerned that affected neighborhoods will not have ample opportunity to express their views to the council," Schmoke said in a letter to council members.
During the heat of the meeting, Councilman Lawrence A. Bell 3rd, D-4th, criticized the mayor for his lack of support of the Stokes plan.
"For an Afro-American mayor -- who got into office on the sweat and blood of black voters -- to have the audacity to say this plan is unfair is something I can't understand," Bell said.
While the council's action concerned Schmoke, it cheered Arthur Murphy, president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who had threatened to sue if Schmoke's plan became law.
"I think it is a perfect plan," said a beaming Murphy, as he sat in the council chamber following the vote. "My hat goes off to the incredibly wonderful hard work of the African-American coalition."
But while Murphy likes the plan, others are talking about bringing suit. Several communities in northeast Baltimore as well as some South Baltimore political bosses are contemplating a suit if the amended plan passes, sources said.
Councilman Martin E. "Mike" Curran, D-3rd, -- who rose from his seat to confront hecklers in the crowd three times during last night's meeting -- called the proposal "a rape of our neighborhoods."
His colleague, Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, said if the new plan is adopted it will drive the city's remaining middle class -- much of which lives in their district -- out of the city.
Jean Snyder, president of HARBEL, the community umbrella association which covers the Belair Road-Harford Road corridor, declined to comment directly on the new plan. But, she noted, "we have worked so well with our council members over the years and that is what has made our neighborhoods work."
The move to amend the redistricting plan was supported by a 12-member coalition of seven blacks and five whites. But the deal struck by the group was criticized by white council members from the 3rd and 6th districts, who said it smacked of the worst of "back-room politics."
"If the shoe had been on the other foot, if it was the 4th and the 5th district and the 2nd District [districts with black representation] being carved up, you would be on this floor angry about the 'injustice' that has been done," said Councilman Joseph T. Landers 3rd, D-3rd.
Bell offered a quick retort. "The reality is, my friend, that the shoe has been on the other foot for the past several decades," he said. "The reality is, some people aren't willing to bend until their backs are against the wall."
During the most heated flare-ups of the meeting, charges of racism were hurled back and forth between some black and white members of the council.