Debates about City Council candidates in Southwest Baltimore's 6th District are not focusing on the candidates' qualifications or their vision for improving neighborhoods. The big issue is race.
After negotiations to form an integrated ticket failed, three black candidates have formed an all-black ticket to challenge the white incumbents. It's a challenge that's making some residents quite nervous.
"Certain elements are trying to break up the 6th District by making it a black majority district," wrote Jim Brown, president of the Morrell Park Democratic Club, in the club's newsletter. "So it is our responsibility to support our councilmen -- and you know who they are."
A recently organized "Unity Ticket" -- consisting of Arlene Fisher, social worker from Harlem Park, Rodney Orange, a Bethlehem Steel worker from Southwest Baltimore, and Melvin Stukes, a state tax auditor from Cherry Hill -- is preparing to go door-to-door in black neighborhoods throughout the district with the message that African-American residents have for too long been overlooked by the incumbents and their political clubs.
The challengers claim that drug traffic, crime and deteriorating houses continue to plague black neighborhoods at a disproportionate rate because the white incumbents are insensitive to such issues.
It's time, they say, for the district's majority-black population to stop giving their votes to white candidates and elect representatives who are sensitive to their concerns and who will stand up for their needs in City Hall.
And they are not apologizing for their racial appeals.
"We really don't have to apologize to anyone because we want representation on the council," said Mr. Orange. "Especially when we haven't been represented for so long."
But Edward L. Reisinger III, an incumbent who was appointed to the council in 1990 to replace the late William J. Myers, said that the approach of the Unity team is really going to lead to a more racially divided district. "It upsets me, this color-consciousness," said. "I was hoping we'd get away from that. I was hoping that this Unity Ticket would come out with a positive message, not this."
He added: "And to say don't vote for Reisinger because he's white, well that's just wrong. The only thing that matters is that when anyone calls, we respond."
The chance for a black candidate to capture one or more council seats in a district long dominated by old-line white political organizations has attracted attention far beyond the 6th District, which extends from Beechfield at the far southwestern tip of the city through Morrell Park and Brooklyn down to Curtis Bay at the very southern tip of the city.
In what would be a highly unusual move, incumbent council members in other districts say that they are planning to come to the 6th District and campaign against their fellow council members.
Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, says that he is acting as an adviser on the team's campaign strategy. Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, and Sheila Dixon, D-4th, said that they have offered to campaign door-to-door with Unity candidates. And Senator Larry Young, D-Baltimore, said that he is trying to get his own West Baltimore political club -- Citizens Democratic Action Organization -- to endorse the Unity team.
"What we need is council representatives that are more inclusive of the community," said Mr. Stokes, a primary author of the city's redistricting plan, which created five majority-black districts.
"The machine politics of the 6th District have dominated for years and they only put up white male candidates. They excluded minorities and women and it's time for a change."
"It would probably serve those council people better to stay in their own districts because they have their own races to win," said 6th District incumbent Joseph J. DiBlasi. "But if they have so much extra time to spend down here, I don't have any qualms about it. We know what our competition is and we're going to continue our door-to-door effort just like we always do."
The stage was set for this fight last spring when the council passed a redistricting plan that boosted the black population in the 6th District to 58 percent by adding predominantly black neighborhoods such as Harlem Park and removing predominantly white, politically active Locust Point. An even greater percentage of registered voters in the district are black, according to figures from the Office of Councilmanic Services.
But the black candidates admit that theirs is an uphill battle because turnout could drop to an all-time low unless they generate some excitement. And they said that in the past, black residents have supported white candidates, while white voters will not support black candidates. There has never been a black candidate elected to the council from the 6th District.