Baltimore's New Political Dynamics

September 14, 1991

Years from now, Thursday's primary is likely to be seen as a watershed election in the city. Although only three of the 16 City Council incumbents seeking re-election were defeated, the political dynamics clearly have started to change.

The days of old-time machine domination are over in the First District, where six-termer Dominic Mimi DiPietro and five-termer John A. Schaefer were soundly routed by rookies.

Results in the Third District make it clear that a black council representative is an inevitability sooner rather than later, even though three white males managed to get elected this time.

Melvin L. Stukes' surprise victory in the Sixth District broke the white Stonewall Democratic Club's long monopoly on power. Councilmen Timothy D. Murphy and Joseph J. DiBlasi now have a choice of either trying to forge genuine and equitable coalitions with black organizations or risk defeat in future elections.

The impact of last spring's controversial redistricting is now clear. While blacks -- who account for some 59 percent of the city's overall population -- still have only eight seats on the 18-member City Council, they are becoming the defining voting block even in a low-turnout election. This is evidenced by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's victory as well as Jacqueline McLean's drubbing of her opponents in the city comptroller's race. In both cases, the winners were able to count on relatively undivided black core support as well as a substantial cross-over vote by whites.

The question now is how this message will be received by established politicians. Will the all-white Democratic team in the Third District, for example, now start serious coalition building with black organizations? Much depends on black organizations themselves, which too often have proven to be more interested in internecine fights than in measurable political gains. It can be argued, for instance, that Maegertha Whitaker, who finished sixth, might have had a real chance to become the first black council member from the Third had she accepted the two white incumbents' offer to join them on a primary ticket. Ms. Whitaker was tempted but acceded to her club's wishes not to.

As this example illustrates, coalition building is a two-way process in which secondary considerations can dominate. In that sense, it will be interesting to see whether Mr. Stukes, the first black to be elected in the Sixth District, will enter an alliance with the two white incumbents. The situation is an unusual one. Mr. Murphy, one of the white winners, may get a judgeship. If that happens, he is expected to nominate Edward L. Reisinger, a white incumbent who lost, for the vacancy as part of a bigger deal to redefine Sixth District power-sharing. The city's political pot is boiling.

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