One New District Has No Incumbent, One Has Two In the Fourth, Friction and Anger Turn To Reconciliation of Counties, Races

March 01, 1992|By C. FRASER SMITH

TAKOMA PARK — Takoma Park. -- In the beginning, the race for Congress in Maryland's new Fourth Congressional District was all about numbers and anger.

Draped across the northeast corner of Washington, D.C., the district has drawn more than a dozen Democrats and almost as many Republicans to compete for an open seat.

The campaign has seemed at times to stimulate class, regional and racial friction. But with the election two days away, the story may have turned to one of accommodation and even reconciliation.

Though rooted in Prince George's County and created to produce a minority congressperson, the new Fourth District includes a large number of citizens who might not be in complete sympathy with that objective -- 160,000 Montgomery County voters, most of them white.

Some Montgomery voters felt uprooted, for example, by the back-room crowd in Annapolis, the men and women who re-drew Maryland's election map to conform with the 1990 census.

Montgomery has been the domain during the 1980s of Rep. Constance A. Morella, a personable Republican whose politics conform with the county's moderate to liberal traditions. The comfort and assurance of history ended with the new map.

But Montgomery was not powerless.

Residents there register in greater percentages and, historically, have been more likely to vote. Could they wrest control of the district from its majority minority population? The calculus of a ballot box revolution was this:

About 25 percent of the nearly 600,000 congressional district residents live in Montgomery. But this minority had power beyond its numbers. In Prince George's, a state senator can be elected with 4,000 votes. In Montgomery, the winner of a senate race draws 7,000 votes.

No one was going to take this constituency for granted. Every candidate in the race realized Montgomery contained a powerful force for the candidate, black or white, who could capture it. And even if a Montgomery County candidate could not win, its voters could make a claim for the time and attention of that winner.

The even more basic numbers question was this:

Would the many good black candidates splinter the black vote and allow a white candidate to win?

The theory that a white candidate could march through the carnage of competing blacks has not been disproved. But it has faded a bit in the blur of candidate forums, endorsements, leaflets and early morning sign waving at bleary eyed commuters.

The campaign may have helped to reduce the early tensions, according to Pamela Brewington, president of the Montgomery County elections board and a student of county politics. The two counties have been introduced to each other through politics and by a field of quality candidates.

"The political activists in Montgomery at least have calmed down a bit. They're seeing pragmatically: Montgomery will at least get a piece of a Democratic representative," she says.

Participants believe the race has three leaders, all from Prince George's County: Councilwoman Hilda Pemberton, whose campaign is based on her record of service and an appeal to women voters; County State's Attorney Alex Williams, the first black candidate elected to a countywide post in Prince George's; and state Sen. Albert Wynn, a highly regarded senator who has mounted a non-stop campaign.

Delegate Dana Dembrow, the white Montgomery candidate, might still make the initial numbers game work, riding through the pack to victory. But that outcome is widely discounted by Mrs. Brewington and others.

The reasons can be found on the Prince George's side of the district, where political motivations have been considerably different this year, according to Delegate Michael Arrington.

From his perspective, the redistricting process has been salutary and revivifying. The grip of the old Democratic organization in the county has been loosened, he says. Candidates have had to re-create their organizations and to make themselves electable among wholly new constituencies.

L And the disenfranchised should be encouraged to participate.

"The less educated, low income residents of Prince George's have not voted as much historically. But all these candidates -- a state senator, a county councilwoman and a state's attorney -- have been close to the people. People are going to be voting this year for candidates they've been able to see and touch and talk to."

So turnout could be higher this year. As surely as Montgomery voters feel a loss of connection with government, those in Prince George's may feel they are moving closer to it.

"We have an opportunity to make history and I think people know that. They have an opportunity to elect one of their own," he says.

Is it possible that, from the upheaval of redistricting, will come greater understanding between the competing interests? Could the political process have done some positive?

"As much as it pains this ultra-parochial Montgomery County columnist to admit it, the right thing to do next Tuesday is to vote for the best person, not the best county," says Blair Lee, who writes for the Montgomery County Journal. Even the most committed Montgomery chauvinist succumbs to the good government impulse.

But Mrs. Brewington says even the most astute citizen could be confused and surprised this year.

"A lot of people are just waking up to the fact that they're supposed to vote on Tuesday," she says. "Many will discover what has happened to them when they get to the voting place."

And the significance of what has happened may go well beyond the winning and losing candidates.

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