The new districts: 3rd

July 29, 1991

An editorial yesterday about the 3rd District City Council race implied that councilmen Martin E. "Mike" Curran and Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham had endorsed Maegertha Whitaker for the district's third councilmanic seat. We wish to make clear that Whitaker is not running on Curran and Cunningham's ticket.

America is a nation of immigrants, and the most interesting Americans are those who decide to leave the fold in their native land. When, around mid-century, Irish and Italians from East Baltimore's crowded 10th Ward -- roughly the area surrounding the state prison -- looked to where the good life beckoned, it was winking at them from the green acres of the 3rd District in the city's northeastern quadrant.

The western part of the 3rd had long been identified with upward mobility. That was where leading families of the previous century had built summer cottages in what was then pastoral countryside above the city line at North Avenue. The district's eastern half experienced its coming of age later, during the great6 suburbanization following World War II.


The City Council redistricting plan passed earlier this year changed the racial balance of the 3rd District, from 56 percent white to 60 percent black -- chiefly by moving black neighborhoods from the upper 2nd District into the 3rd and moving whites along Belair and Harford roads from the 3rd to the 1st.

It remains unclear, however, whether the change will allow a black to win in the 3rd District, which has never elected a black or a woman to the City Council.

One reason is the strength of the two incumbents who are running for re-election. Councilman Martin E. "Mike" Curran comes out of a political tradition whose roots go back to the old 10th Ward organizational machine. Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham represents a more intellectual strain of the same service-oriented tradition. Both men are intensely involved in the affairs of their district and enjoy exceptional name recognition. (The third incumbent, Councilman Jody Landers, is running for city comptroller this year.)

Curran and Cunningham have supported Maegertha Whitaker, a black woman who is a member of the Democratic State Central Committee, for the third council seat. But there are seven other black candidates vying for the nomination besides Whitaker, raising the possibility they could cancel each other out. Meanwhile, the district has another strong white candidate, Martin O'Malley, who narrowly lost a state Senate bid last year and would likely profit from a fragmented black vote.

Given these realities, the natural question that arises is: Why haven't 3rd District blacks come together behind a balanced ticket that includes either one or more of the incumbents or a relatively strong white challenger such as O'Malley?

The immediate cause probably can be ascribed to the simple inability of such black political clubs as exist in the 3rd District to agree on a coordinated plan of action. But there are deeper reasons that reflect the historical currents that give the 3rd its distinctive character.

Like their white counterparts, 3rd District blacks were, for the most part, upwardly mobile refugees from closer-in neighborhoods. As blacks spread outward from the central city, one axis moved west along the Liberty Road corridor toward XTC Baltimore County; a smaller group gravitated northeast toward the 3rd. But unlike the Irish and Italians who preceded them, these middle-class black strivers did not bring with them a pre-existing, virtually intact social and political network (as to some extent the west side's black bourgeoisie managed to do). One result was that no strong black political center of gravity developed as a counterweight to the dominant white clubs.

The redistricting plan that gave blacks a majority in the 3rd for the first time also gave impetus to the emergence of such a counterweight. But it will take time for the various factions among 3rd District blacks to knit themselves together into a force to be reckoned with.

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