Increased black role foreseen in Baltimore politics 'Quiet' councilman led the fight for new boundaries

March 24, 1991|By Sandy Banisky

Until last week, Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes was by his own description, among the quietest of city politicians.

A community activist? "Not really," he says.

A marcher for civil rights? Or against the Vietnam War? "Heck no. I was in school minding my business."

An active sponsor of council legislation? "I probably haven't sponsored much."

So it may have surprised some Baltimoreans, including some council members, last week when Mr. Stokes led the fight to win passage of a new redistricting plan -- a plan meant to shift the balance of power in favor of the city's black majority in the fall elections.

"They underestimated his determination on this thing," said Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th.

The hard-fought reapportionment bill, approved late Friday and signed into law early yesterday by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, has become known as the Stokes plan, after the man who spent nights and weekends drawing and redrawing district lines and trying to find a map acceptable to a majority of his colleagues.

There surely were louder people on the council floor last week shouting about change and fairness. But "loud people don't make things happen," said Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "They're just loud. You don't have to yell all the time to be powerful."

Mr. Stokes -- a first-term councilman who served as the first chairman of the body's African American Coalition and now is considering a run for city comptroller -- says the entire council was involved in the plan, with each offering changes and trying to make compromises.

"I was just the scribe," he says. "I just happened to have the quill in my hand."

But he acknowledges that he has long been interested in redistricting and giving greater voting strength to blacks, who make up 59.2 percent of the city population according to the 1990 census.

"I can remember the first day we were in office, Carl and I talked about redistricting," said Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, who represents the 2nd District with Mr. Stokes. "I mean, the day we were sworn in, in 1987, he said the biggest issue of this term would be redistricting."

Yesterday, Mr. Stokes, 40, said, "I knew we would only get this shot one time to make a strong difference in how the city's boundary lines would be set up.

"All of us realized there had been political gerrymandering in the city for the past few decades," Mr. Stokes said. "The lines were drawn to protect political machines. And what that did was disenfranchise a lot of folks -- not just African Americans, but mostly African Americans."

Mr. Ambridge calls Mr. Stokes "probably Kurt Schmoke's closest friend on the council." But when the mayor presented his own redistricting plan to the City Council in January, Mr. Stokes was among the council members who told the mayor the plan did not go far enough to shore up black voting power.

Council members pushed ahead without the mayor, supported by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which warned that the mayor's plan might not withstand a court challenge.

"Carl took it on as a project," said Councilman Bell, one of the strongest supporters of the new map.

"I'll be honest with you," Mr. Bell said. "As much as I like the man, I almost got tired of hearing his voice. He'd call me on the weekends. He'd call me late at night. But that's the kind of commitment you've got to have on this thing."

Mr. Bell said Mr. Stokes turned out to be a diplomat who convinced some colleagues to accept changes in their districts by pointing out the changes he was making in his own.

"I said, 'Man, you're making my arm feel like a corkscrew,' " Mr. Bell recalls telling Mr. Stokes.

Mr. Stokes, who describes himself as "quiet but effective," said he believes his low-key reputation helped him sell the plan.

Mr. Bell also says that Mr. Stokes was "sensitive to incumbents on this." But some incumbents -- particularly those in the 3rd and 6th districts, which lost politically powerful neighborhoods under the new map -- dispute that.

Those council members said during the debate they had been shut out of the talks once Mr. Stokes realized he had enough votes to force changes without them.

And they are less than admiring of his skills, saying Mr. Stokes merely was the messenger for the NAACP and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, groups that wanted dramatic changes.

"I can't imagine a more quiet council person," Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, said derisively.

"We were dealing with a spokesman for other outside groups who influenced us," Mr. Cunningham said. "It was the best of backroom politics."

Mr. Stokes says he thinks the anger will ebb. After the vote Friday, he said, "there were lots of hugs. We'll be all right now."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.