School Board Vote Shows Bias Fever


November 15, 1992|By KEVIN THOMAS

Elections are like thermometers. They're good for gauging the social and political temperature of where we live. That's why I was a little alarmed by the results that came out of the race for the Howard County Board of Education on Nov. 3. I would classify it as a low-grade fever, a sort of creeping bias that has infected the community.

Of the four candidates who ran for the board, only two could win.

Sandra French and Linda Johnston, both of whom are white, won by large margins, garnering 47,170 votes and 39,082 votes respectively. The other two candidates, who are black -- Melvina Brown and Delroy Cornick -- came in third and fourth, with wide disparities between their results and those of the two white candidates.

In an election in which voters could cast their ballot for two candidates, Ms. Brown got only 20,762 votes and Mr. Cornick received just 26,799 votes.

Why didn't either of the two African-American candidates come even close to winning?

While Ms. French had the advantage of name recognition because she had run for the board only two years ago, there was nothing in terms of ideology or experience that would have counted any of the candidates out. Everyone running seemed qualified for the job.

Most local newspapers, including this one, endorsed one white and one black candidate.

If I were to make a diagnosis, I'd say that race was a key factor in the election. The results don't bode well for an African-American ever winning a county-wide race.

What happened in my opinion is the county came down with an age-old malady: Blacks voted for white candidates a whole lot quicker than whites voted for blacks.

The election results also say that as the county has grown, it has become more conservative and therefore less likely to support an African-American for public office. This is a sad state of affairs.

Mr. Cornick, a retired college administrator, believes his bid was unsuccessful because whites "bullet-voted." In other words, .

while black candidates may have split their votes between one white and one black candidate, many whites voted only for white candidates.

A high ranking county elected official, who asked not to be named, said that what black voters failed to realize is that they needed to bullet vote for black candidates too. That way, blacks voters would have created a block. The only thing necessary then would be for one of the black candidates to get a third of the white vote in order to win.

This particular elected official also believes that the best strategy would have been for only one black candidate to run.

All of these theories are a little difficult to prove. Certain trends support any number of conclusions, all of them suggesting what difficulty minority candidates have in Howard.

The last black to hold a seat on Howard County's Board of Education was William Manning, who won in 1982 but lost when he ran six years later. In the six years that Mr. Manning sat on the board, the makeup of the county underwent dramatic change. Howard experienced its fastest period of growth then, much of it in the more-conservative western end of the county. Republican registration also grew rapidly during that period, dramatically shrinking the gap between the GOP and Democrats.

Two black candidates also ran for the board in 1990. Both lost. In that election, where only one seat was up for grabs, it could be argued that black candidates split their vote. But the split-vote argument doesn't wash this time.

"It was almost like an anti-black vote," Ms. Brown said. "I just feel it's extremely difficult for African-Americans to win in a county-wide election."

There is more evidence to consider.

When Vernon Gray, one of the best known African-American politicians in Howard County, if not the state, ran for County Council in 1982, he was elected at-large. But in 1985, Mr. Gray moved from the Dorseys Search area of Columbia to Phelps Luck. The move was in anticipation of new council elections, which by then had switched to being held by district.

Mr. Gray readily admits that he moved from the more white and conservative Dorseys Search to the more liberal and minority Phelps Luck to increase his chance of victory.

The question now for Mr. Gray, who has been rumored to be interested in the county executive's job, is whether he can win county-wide. Melvina Brown, for one, believes he would have a tough time.

Unfortunately, I think she is right. It's getting mighty tough for a black to win public office around here.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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