For three decades, the history of Baltimore's 6th District, a broad wedge of working-class communities, chemical storage plants and waterfront industries flanking the city's southwest quadrant, has been intimately tied to the history of its most famous political organization, the Stonewall Democratic Club.
Members frequently tell credulous outsiders that Stonewall is primarily a social club, a place for local residents to meet in a
relaxed atmosphere and entertain one another. Some downplay the club's influence and power, saying the day of the all-powerful old b'hoys network that once dispensed patronage and jobs is past. But such disclaimers are misleading. The Stonewall organization in fact has dominated electoral politics in the district that almost no General Assembly or council candidate can win office without its imprimatur. In recent years, no City Council member has been elected without first having been appointed to the office by Stonewall supporters -- and no appointee has been named who had not already served the club as member, poll worker or precinct captain.
For years the area's delegation to the City Council was dubbed "the Silent Sixth" -- a reference to the reticence of 6th District council members to speak in chambers or participate in council debates. The district has almost no middle class, and much of the economic development that has benefited other areas of the city since the 1960s seems largely to have bypassed the 6th. Moreover, because of the 6th's peculiar geographical shape, many residents live in such relative isolation from downtown that they feel more in common with neighboring Anne Arundel County than with Baltimore -- indeed, earlier this year the Brooklyn area actually petitioned to secede from the city and join the county.
Although the 6th District has been at least 50 percent black for many years, it has never elected a black representative to the City Council. The Stonewall Club, and the half dozen other clubs in the district that compete for influence, have their base in the white working-class communities the run the length of the district, from Curtis Bay and Brooklyn in the south to Ridgely's Delight and Pigtown in the north. Blacks are concentrated in Cherry Hill and along the district's northern border from Edmondson Village in the west to Harlem Park in the district's northeast corner.
One of the goals of the redistricting plan passed by the City Council earlier this year was to increase black representation on the council by diluting the power of these clubs, which had a history of not endorsing blacks for council seats. The council plan increased the proportion of blacks in the district to about 58 percent black by moving the predominantly white, high voter turnout communities of South Baltimore and Locust Point from the 6th District to the 1st, and by moving predominantly black Harlem Park from the 4th District to the 6th.
Whether these changes will be enough to ensure the election of at least one black candidate in 6th this year remains an open question, however. Voter turnout in the district historically has been the lowest in the city, among both blacks and whites. And blacks, having been effectively disenfranchised for so long, have not succeeded in developing alternative political organizations of their own to counter the clubs' traditional hegemony.
Several black candidates have entered the race this year, but the net effect of these multiple candidacies may well be merely to fragment the black vote. A black "unity ticket" composed of candidates Melvin Stukes, Arlene Fisher and Rodney Orange received endorsements from influential ministers groups and council members from the 2nd and 4th districts have accompanied them on campaign swings through the northern part of the 6th. But incumbents Joseph J. DiBlasi, Timothy D. Murphy and Edward L. Reisinger are also campaigning aggressively in black neighborhoods.
If voter turnout in September's primary is low, as expected, the outcome, along with prospects for electing the 6th District's first black council member, could come down to a tossup.