Along-observed practice of office-seekers in racially mixed Baltimore is to deny that race is a consideration in local elections -- even when it clearly is.
Those denials haven't been forthcoming from Southwest Baltimore's 6th District this year. Three black candidates for the City Council have banded together to form the so-called "Unity Ticket" with the expressed aim of unseating the three white incumbents. Their campaign message, blunt and without apology, is that it is long past time when blacks should be represented by a person of their own color.
They never have been in the 6th District, even as blacks have become the majority population.
"The representation hasn't been reflective of the diversity of the district," said Arlene B. Fisher, a social worker and one of the black challengers. "They [the incumbents] not only don't represent the district but they all live in the southern end."
The blue-collar district stretches from Beechfield in the far southwestern tip of the city through Morrell Park and Brooklyn and down to Curtis Bay at Baltimore's southern boundary.
The challengers are insisting that the incumbents -- Timothy D. Murphy, Joseph J. DiBlasi and Edward L. Reisinger III -- have ignored the black communities of the 6th District. "When we go door-to-door," said candidate Melvin L. Stukes, "the overwhelming majority of people don't even know the names of their council members."
Not surprisingly, the incumbents deny that they have been less than evenhanded in their representation. "That's just campaign rhetoric," said Mr. DiBlasi.
Both the incumbents and some of their black challengers express unease about a campaign that has become so clearly defined by race.
"I find the fact that the discussion of the election is so wedded to the issue of race to be unfortunate," said Mr. Murphy. "I don't think that is how either camp intended the election to develop. It evolved. It's inadvertent."
Inadvertent, but also avoidable, according to candidates on both sides of the racial split. For many years, politics in the 6th District has been tightly controlled by the storied Stonewall Democratic Club.
Almost without exception, the club has been able to handpick the district's representatives to the City Council and the General Assembly by putting an army of campaign workers behind selected candidates on Election Day. Although the club now has black members, it has never sponsored a black candidate for the City Council.
Mr. Stukes believed he deserved that support after finishing a strong fourth in the 1987 campaign. But in 1990 when 6th District City Councilman William J. Myers died and left a vacancy, it was Mr. Reisinger and not Mr. Stukes or any other black who won Stonewall's backing.
"The 6th District just hasn't shown it has an interest in developing that kind of coalition," Mr. Stukes said.
Now, Mr. DiBlasi, who once ran without Stonewall's support but is now in the fold, says he would support the appointment of a black to fill the next vacancy in the 6th. He acknowledges, however, that it's too late for such declarations.
"I think they think the only way they're going to get a seat is to win the seat," he said.
Although race is dominating discussions in the campaign, it is not the only issue. As they do in almost every South Baltimore political campaign, voters in the district's neighborhoods, which are close to some of the city's most unpleasant industrial sites, are urging their representatives to fight industrial pollution, to block new incinerators or medical waste dumps and to make sure local firehouses stay open.
But this year, other concerns have emerged as the major campaign issues: crime, drugs, housing, jobs and economic development.
Members of the Unity Ticket, for example, charge that these problems have plagued their community disproportionately because the three white incumbents have been insensitive and largely invisible. But not all the Democratic challengers are on the Unity Ticket.
Perhaps the most unusual voice belongs to Edwin L. Smith, a land surveyor who, although running as a Democrat, is a member of the Green Party. Mr. Smith is running on a platform of decentralizing government, overhauling the property tax structure and maintaining stringent environmental standards. "I don't think I'm going to win," he recently allowed.
By contrast, members of the Unity Ticket are brimming with confidence. They and other black candidates are emboldened by the recently enacted redistricting plan, which boosts the black majority further, up to 60 percent of the overall population.
The redistricting added the predominantly black neighborhoods of Poppleton and Harlem Park, where residents traditionally vote in heavy numbers. And it removes from the district Locust Point and parts of South Baltimore where the Stonewall Club is located and from which its strength emanated.
Despite the changes, members of the Unity Ticket say the election will be decided by whether voters from the black precincts turn out in numbers approaching that of the traditionally heavy voting white neighborhoods in the 6th.
"The redistricting is an opportunity," said Mr. Stukes. "It's nothing to take for granted, but it's an opportunity."
The three winners in the Democratic primary Sept. 12 will face a lone Republican challenger on the November ballot. He is Charles H. Howe, 58, a resident of Pigtown and member of the 47th District Republican State Central Committee.