Black movers and shakers talk strategy for increasing leverage

November 07, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

More than 200 African-American business and political leaders from around the state gathered in an Annapolis hotel yesterday and struggled to come up with ways to maximize the political and economic clout of blacks in Maryland.

The occasion was the first conference of the Maryland Forum of African-American Leaders, a fledgling group interested in forging more effective partnership between black business owners and black politicians.

"We want to become experts of our own prosperity," said John H. Morris Jr., an attorney and chairman of the event. "That's what empowerment is."

Everyone agreed on the purpose. But it proved harder to reach agreement on how to achieve the group's goals.

Despite some optimistic talk about trying to create the momentum for major gubernatorial candidates to select black running mates for lieutenant governor, the conference did not appear to produce a consensus on that point.

"It would be nice to have someone black running at the top of the ticket," said Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who in September decided not to run for governor. "But the im portant thing is to have those running be sensitive to needs of the African-American community."

In a rousing talk to begin the conference, Mr. Schmoke told the gathering that he is planning to use his popularity and political war chest to go "around the state helping other African-Americans get elected."

He added that he plans to "talk seriously to those candidates running for governor. I want to talk really seriously about African-American people. . . . I want to know their views on discrimination. If they tell me racism died 20 years ago, then I know they just don't get it."

Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis alderman and a key organizer of the conference, said the group wants to sponsor a forum for presenting its ideas to the state's gubernatorial candidates. From there, he said, pressure for black running mates could develop.

Others were less optimistic.

"We haven't so far proven we can stick together," said Del. Tony Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat. "If we can't build consensus from the bottom up, how are we going to win at the top?"

Some argued that politicians must do more to make their work visible to their constituents, who sometimes find the political process irrelevant. And still others said that blacks need to alter what they expect from their elected officials.

Isiah Leggett, a council member from Montgomery County, which has a 12 percent black population, said that African-Americans should move away from expecting black politicians to deal only with issues that affect black voters. Not to do so, he said, would be to ignore the small but growing cadre of black officials who back causes supported by blacks but who mostly represent white constituents.

Arthur Murphy, a Baltimore community activist and political consultant, said blacks should contribute more generously to black candidates to ensure that their agenda remains foremost in the minds of their elected officials.

Others argued that elective politics is not the salvation for blacks, citing the growing homicide, drug and family problems plaguing poor black neighborhoods.

"Politics is not going to solve the vast majority of our problems," said Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat. "They have to be solved at the community level."

Vera White, a Montgomery County prosecutor, warned elected officials that so many black males are receiving felony convictions and are being killed that "soon you're not going to have a constituency. They'll all be either disqualified [to vote] or dead."

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