Redistricting yielded its first harvest for black politicians

September 14, 1991|By Ginger Thompson

Last spring the Baltimore City Council's seven African-American members took a political gamble: They crafted a redistricting plan to create five majority-black districts, believing they would both increase the number of blacks elected to the council and break the power of the city's old-line white political alliances.

In the face of tremendous resistance from neighborhoods being shifted into new districts, the coalition held firm and pushed the plan through the council. On Thursday they harvested the first fruits of theirlabor.

For the first time, a black person was selected to fill a slot on the Democratic ticket in Southwest Baltimore's 6th District. In addition, three white incumbents backed by entrenched white political clubs were ousted.

"I'm tickled to death," said Joyce Bauerle, a resident of Locust Point, which was moved from the 6th District to the 1st. "We were so angry about redistricting, but now I think it was the best thing that could have happened to us."

As far as the racial makeup of the City Council is concerned, the most significant change came in the 6th District, which has long been dominated by the predominantly white Stonewall Democratic Club. Cherry Hill community activist Melvin L. Stukes focused his campaign on winning all the district's black votes -- and won nomination by knocking off one of the Stonewall's two white incumbents, Edward J. Reisinger.

Assuming that all Democrats win in the November general election -- a safe assumption in Baltimore for the last 50 years -- there will be eight blacks on the 19-member council.

"It went extraordinarily well," said Arthur Murphy, who was involved in the creation of the redistricting plan as president of the Baltimore NAACP. "The shake-up was enormous. The plan wounded Stonewall and in terms of race it did almost exactly what I predicted it would do."

And in East Baltimore's 1st District -- the only district in the city with a white majority -- voters ousted two veteran organization politicians who each had served on the council for 20 years or more.

Councilmen John A. Schaefer, running for his sixth term, and Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro, running for his seventh, were wiped out by challengers Perry Sfikas and John Cain. The top vote-getter was an independent, incumbent Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., running for his second term.

The plan did not perform as advertised in some areas, however.

In Northeast Baltimore's 3rd District, eight black candidates tried to take advantage of the district's new black majority. Several ran strong campaigns and made respectable showings on Thursday, but none was elected -- probably, observers say, because the black vote was stretched thin.

Still, the ticket was led by an independent, Martin O'Malley, who easily outpolled the district's two incumbents, Martin E. "Mike" Curranand Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham.

"I think the black community had a perfect opportunity to elect a black to the City Council, but they didn't get behind any one particular candidate," said Northeast Baltimore state Sen. John A. Pica Jr. "Cunningham hung on, but I think the reason he won is because the black community did not unite behind one candidate."

The 2nd District seat vacated by Jacqueline F. McLean, a black woman who won the Democratic nomination for comptroller, was only narrowly recaptured by another black woman. The victory of Paula Johnson Branch had about it the feel of an upset, however. Peter Beilenson, a white public health physician from Johns Hopkins University, had been considered a favorite to win one of the district's three seats. But Mr. Beilenson's door-to-door campaigning in black neighborhoods did not translate into votes on Election Day.

"It's always been said about Baltimore that whites won't vote for blacks, but blacks will vote for whites," said Dr. Beilenson. "But this time people only voted for their own race. It's a sad commentary."

Not so, says Marchetta Lambert, a resident of Cherry Hill. To her, it's a sign that predominantly black communities like hers are beginning to understand the power of their vote.

She and her neighbors were never eager to go to the polls because they would be outvoted by the whites that once dominated elections in the 6th District. But redistricting changed all that, and on Thursday Cherry Hill's votes brought Mr. Stukes his victory.

"For the first time we had people willing to come out of their homes to vote," she said. "I saw some neighbors stopping people on the street to make sure they had voted. And now, with Melvin's win, people will know that working together works."

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