Increased black role foreseen in Baltimore politics Whites, blacks say power to be shared after redistricting

March 24, 1991|By Sandy Banisky

In Baltimore's City Hall, the issue of race always hung jus below the surface of polite politics. Last week, it exploded on the City Council floor as the black minority wrested approval of a new redistricting plan from the majority white body.

And council politics has likely been changed forever.

"When we came into office, there was a different coalition with all the power," said Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, sponsor of the redistricting plan adopted Friday and signed yesterday by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "Now there's a new coalition.

"There will certainly be a mixing between the two," said Mr. Stokes, one of seven blacks on the 19-member council. "But we have proven that we are strong."

Mr. Stokes says, however, that in redrawing district lines his goal was not to pit black against white. "It's not a shift from white to black power. It's a shift from good ol' boys" -- his label for machine politicians -- "to inclusive politics."

But other veterans of Baltimore politics plainly say they see the new district map as a vehicle for more black participation in government -- particularly with council elections coming this fall.

"It took 20 years longer than it should have," said William H. Murphy Jr., who in 1983 challenged William Donald Schaefer for mayor. "Blacks have been afraid to band together to push for changes, and that's no longer the case."

"We're not racist, but we want our share of power, and we are not going to abuse power," said the Rev. Sidney Daniels of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. "Power's been abused in the past."

The redistricting plan, a substitute for a more moderate plan offered by Mayor Schmoke, provoked shouting on the council floor and outbursts from the gallery as council members argued over its implications. But by week's end, people on both sides said the heat will fade and the council will resume its work cordially.

"The city's not at war," said Delegate Curtis S. Anderson, D-Baltimore. "[The] council people had a disagreement. It's now up to them to sit back down and work together."

But Baltimore's first black mayor, Clarence H. "Du" Burns, was not so certain of a happy future. He fears the council may last week have "inflicted wounds that never will heal."

A believer in compromise and accommodation -- for which he sometimes drew criticism during his political career -- Mr. Burns called the council coalition that supported the redistricting plan "a new breed of people. They don't know what the art of compromise is."

"You can hear them saying, 'Well, it was done to us,' and, 'Let themfret,' " Mr. Burns said of the black council minority. "But you can work with people and accomplish the same end. It's really the constituents in the city who are going to suffer."

He predicted that the council could gain two more black members this fall under the plan, and maybe more. "It could very easily come out 12 or 13" black members, he said. "But just because you have a majority doesn't mean you're going to win," Mr. Burns said. "You've got to have a majority who're going to vote. You've got to knock on doors and make people feel they're needed."

The Rev. Marion C. Bascom, another member of the Ministerial Alliance, agreed that to increase their representation, blacks must field "good strong candidates." Then, the voters must turn out.

"That's what we must work on this summer," said Mr. Bascom, who marched for civil rights in the 1960s. "There's no choice."

JTC Many white politicians said they don't fear the changes. "Everybody will be fine this summer," said state Sen. John A. Pica Jr., whose Northeast Baltimore district saw some boundary shifts. "Some people will be running in new areas. And people will have to adapt to new areas or adopt new strategies -- or they won't be there next year."

"We're not talking about revolutionary change here, though the politicians would have you believe that's the case," said Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "We're talking about the sharing of power."

Black politicians agree. "If this racial debate means people will turn out in numbers, then I can't say it's bad," Delegate Anderson said. "It's no more sitting back and saying, 'Oh, he's going to get in again.' Now you got to get to the polls and vote for the person you want to get in. It gets people involved again," he said.

Mr. Stokes' plan creates five council districts with black majorities. Only one district, the 1st, retains a white majority. Under the old map, three districts were predominantly white and three were predominantly black.

The new lines mean some communities shift from one district intoanother. Councilman Martin E. "Mike" Curran, D-3rd, called it "the rape of neighborhoods." But council members -- a black-white coalition -- who supported the plan called it the empowerment of Baltimore's underrepresented black majority.

"Obviously, we've broken up the boundaries of some old political machines," Mr. Stokes said. "We've cracked the old machines that stopped other people from getting elected."

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