Council's gotta do the work

Dan Rodricks

March 22, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

"Dan, they're cutting down the trees on our street!" the woman on the phone said. "My God, have you seen it?"

"I'm busy," I said. "Call the City Council. Call the Third District, ask for Wilbur."

What else do you do? Who else do you call? What's a City Council for?

Reference in this column to the Baltimore City Council as the Pothole Parliament is part derogatory, part affectionate. It's high tradition for your City Council representative to be the first line of defense against the enemies of city life -- rats and stray cats, gaping potholes and trash-strewn footways, loud bars and abandoned cars, and city crews that might be chopping down shade trees without authorization.

"You gotta show up for work," the late Willie Meyers once said.

A City Council member can sermonize long and hard about off-shore oil-drilling and apartheid, but, if he doesn't deliver when the old lady on Mosher Street calls about the rusty bed springs on her sidewalk, watch out at the next election!

Of course, there are grander issues for the City Council to pursue.

But when it does, look what happens. Look at redistricting.

Any pol worth his free parking space knows that redistricting is an incendiary issue. You have to bring nimble fingers to the deal table to avoid setting off an explosion. This year, the mayor came up with a plan to redraw the boundaries of the six councilmanic districts. The council's black members were unhappy with it, and they had the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People telling them Kurt Schmoke's plan would not withstand a court challenge. The Schmoke plan did not go far enough in rearranging districts in a way that would create the potential for greater black representation on the council.

The council has 18 members and a council president.

Only seven of the council members are black. That's 36.6 percent.

The city is now nearly 60 percent black. That's not news. The city's white population has been dwindling for three decades. Slowly, more blacks have been elected to office. The mayor is black. The state's attorney is black. Blacks, however, have been slower in gaining seats in the City Council.

So the redistricting plan given preliminary approval Monday night -- the Stokes plan, not Schmoke's plan -- seeks to correct this. It was hatched out the old-fashion way -- in a back room -- and thrown before the public before the public had a chance to have its say. No compromises. No give and take. No discretion. One City Council member, Sheila Dixon, waved her shoe around the other night in an attempt to make a point about the shifting of power, and instead looked like she was gloating over a victory for racial politics.

And so the Pothole Parliament klutzed its way into a political firestorm that it could have contained.

It's a shame. This city, struggling to survive and retain a middle class, deserves better.

The uproar over the Stokes plan has been created by pols. Redistricting affects them far more than it effects the ordinary workaday people in this town.

White pols in the 3rd and 6th districts are worried about losing seats they've worked long and hard at keeping. The pols in those districts have had numerous opportunities to bring in black council candidates, but they haven't done so, though their districts have had considerable black populations for the last decade or more.

Since 1976, there have been at least three vacancies due to deaths in the 6th District -- a district that includes Cherry Hill and parts of West Baltimore -- and each time they were filled with white men chosen by the old b'hoys.

Now, the Stokes plan is going to shift the 3rd from roughly 60-40 (white-black) to about 40-60. It will do about the same to the 6th District, and two other districts. Another district will be overwhelmingly black, another will be overwhelmingly white.

So that's one large white district, one large black district and four districts that reflect the overall population. So what's the problem? It's a fair plan.

And besides, the ultimate test of its fairness is still in the hands of voters. In 1982, black voters stirred awake and elected Kurt Schmoke state's attorney. The next year, the same city overwhelmingly picked a white incumbent over a well-known black judge for mayor. And, race aside, Baltimore has a tradition of returning to office only those City Council members who return their phone calls. Long after all the blather over redistricting dies down, the survivors are going to be the ones who showed up for work.

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