Schmoke Didn't, So Stokes & Co. Did

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

March 23, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

In politics, inertia can be a dangerous thing. Baltimore'sblack population went from a disadvantaged and often ignored minority to a majority big enough to shift the scales of power years ago, but arrangements between neighborhoods and politicians opposed to change kept that growth from reaching full political expression.

Blacks were shoe-horned into two of six councilmanic districts, effectively restricting their municipal say. In other districts, blacks who wanted to share in power were stymied by white political clubs, whose membership rules sounded open, but whose practices ensured that whites would always run the show.

It is thus no surprise that a 55-percent black city routinely elects white office-holders, but has great difficulty electing blacks.

Mayor Schmoke, the city's first elected black chief, knew as everyone else did the unfairness of the political boundaries drawn during the 1970s. But he wanted badly to avert the fear, hostility and bitterness that attend any drastic boundary revisions. So Mr. Schmoke, who enjoys popularity in many white communities, sought to avoid a confrontation. Faced with a legal requirement to redraw lines during a year he himself faces re-election, he offered to make minimum changes.

Even that drew sharp outbursts from some of the city's most well-to-do citizens, demonstrating that you can't take half-steps

with something so emotion-charged.

Watching all this stood the city's black community, quietly smarting over years of exclusion from power in a city as much theirs as anyone's.

Blacks remained in the city while other groups fled after 1968, including a substantial middle class. Part of that was due to the ''hypersegregation'' found by Chicago researchers looking at Baltimore's housing patterns. Part was lack of economic opportunity. But part, when all was said and done, had to do with commitment to the city.

At some point, population pressures burst the most carefully drawn political, social and cultural boundaries. Thus, blacks outgrew the restrictions of past gerrymandering, reaching 60 percent of Baltimore's population. If no other factor appeared to break the enforced inertia, court action by the NAACP or other complaining groups ensured that things would change.

What was required was a kind of leadership fraught with risk. Either Mr. Schmoke, the city's chief politician, would meet head-on the desire of blacks for more equitable sharing of power, facing as well the hostility of whites who wished to keep things the same, or someone else would. Before the black-led City Council coalition's plan burst into the news Monday, odds were that that someone would be the courts.

Think not? Look closely at the federal courts' recent erasure of political boundaries in Los Angeles.

What is happening here is that Carl Stokes, a Second District councilman who started out concerned about typical local, district problems, is emerging as a leader willing to confront the city-wide problem Mayor Schmoke would like to finesse. Vera Hall, a Northwest Baltimore councilwoman with experience working the aisles at the State House, has shown the savvy it takes to count votes. Lawrence Bell, elected in what many observers thought was a fluke, has developed a voice strong enough to sting Mr. Schmoke into saying what he often does not say out loud: I am committed to the black community.

The bottom line here is not how many blacks can get elected, but the sharing of power at neighborhood and community-group levels. Ripping up the lines that locked blacks out may or may not produce new black office-holders, but it will force the clubs, associations and neighborhood groups which traditionally have wielded political sticks to deal with the restive blacks they have traditionally excluded. Either that, or face rebellion at the polls.

It is no surprise, then, that many white opponents showed up to condemn Mr. Stokes, or that dire threats have issued. But to the complaint that the Stokes plan was ''sprung'' on the unsuspecting, Mrs. Hall points to her calendar. It says public meetings were held February 5 and 19 and March 12, with the express purpose of redrawing district lines. Few of those who now feel left out attended, she says, despite the steady progress she and others were making toward a plan.

Sheila Dixon, who waved a shoe in a heated council session, notes that its members didn't receive usable census-tract information until March 11, but that the 60-day clock was running since Mr. Schmoke offered up his redistricting plan. She's still burned up about ''the Dirty Dozen'' who froze her and other new council members out and chopped the legs from under the council president, Mary Pat Clarke, who now backs the Stokes plan.

What really animated her Monday, out of the sight of the public, were the racial epithets directed at Mr. Stokes during the council's luncheon.

Mr. Stokes, for his part, notes that he and his reform-minded cohorts are in a much better position having offered a plan, should things wind up in court. With no plan drawn up by the council, the courts might simply draw up their own, including -- horrors to some -- single-representative districts. Now, he feels, a reviewing court would likely bounce its disagreements back to the council for revision.

Finally, Councilman Mike Curran's decision not to throw punches in Monday's contentious session must be celebrated. Striking a constituent during a legitimate, if noisy, acting out of the democratic ideal would have been awful for the city. It might also have been awful for the councilman, whose fist-fighting days should be long behind him.

Garland L. Thompson is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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