When it comes to the game of politics, Melvin L. Stukes, a candidate for City Council in South Baltimore's 6th District, likes a narrow playing field.
But the field Stukes sees this year contains 14 candidates for the three seats from the 6th. And seven of the 14 candidates are black, Stukes among them.
Stukes finished fourth in the 1987 election and he rates his chances as the best to become the first black elected to the 6th.
The large field of black candidates, Stukes contends, will split the black vote and reduce his chances. So, he is calling for some of the blacks to withdraw.
But the other black candidates say that Stukes' chances are no better than theirs and have so far rebuffed his call.
The new councilmanic redistricting changed the racial population of the 6th from 51 percent white to 58 percent black. Black leaders hope the newly constituted 6th will improve the chances of electing a black representative in the district.
In a statement released by the Stukes campaign just before last Friday's filing deadline, the candidate called for a debate among all candidates to "reduce the field of African-American candidates."
Stukes said the debate would highlight those black candidates who are the best qualified and persuade the others to drop out. The withdrawal deadline is July 15.
"If we could schedule a debate before the withdrawal deadline and narrow the field of African-American candidates down to about three strong candidates, we can elect an African-American this time," Stukes said.
One who has rebuffed Stukes is Gwendolyn A. Johnson.
"I have no plans to withdraw, no indeedy," said Johnson. "If any black candidate has a chance to win, it is me. Stukes' best chance is to lose."
Johnson is the first black member of the Stonewall Democratic Club, the white male-dominated organization that has controlled South Baltimore politics for decades.
She also was the first black person elected to the 47th Legislative District's Democratic State Central Committee, gaining victories in the 1986 and 1990 state elections on Stonewall's ticket.
Rodney A. Orange, a worker at Bethlehem Steel and a member of the executive committee of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he is willing to debate, but he's in the race to stay.
"I sincerely feel that I am the best qualified candidate," said Orange. "I've told Stukes that what he did the last time doesn't have any bearing on this race."
Orange said the more black candidates the voters have to choose from, the better. Otherwise, he noted, blacks could also vote for one or more of the three white Democratic incumbents.
On that point, Orange and Stukes agree.
"White voters in the district are not willing to vote for African-Americans, but African-Americans have traditionally in the past voted for white incumbents," said Stukes.
That is why, Orange said, black voters must be encouraged to vote for three black candidates and not waste a vote on any of the incumbents.
In the 1987 municipal elections, the turnout in the 6th was 36 percent of registered voters, the lowest of any of the six councilmanic districts.
In the predominantly black precincts, the turnout was slightly higher -- 37.4 percent. Stukes and incumbents Timothy Murphy and Joseph DiBlasi were usually the top three vote-getters in those precincts.
Stukes received over 4,900 votes, about 7,500 behind the
third-place finisher, Councilman William Myers, who died in January 1990 and was succeeded by Edward Reisinger.
Turnout in the white precincts in 1987 averaged about 36 percent, lower if the 11 precincts in the South Baltimore peninsula were not included. The turnout in these precincts averaged 51.3 percent.
It was no accident, then, that black leaders saw to it that this
area was carved out of the 6th during redistricting and placed into the predominantly white 1st District.