Hall in the middle of a muddle

December 02, 1993|By Frank A. DeFilippo

BALTIMORE City Councilwoman Vera Hall is caught in the middle of a muddle.

No, it's not that silly little windbag of an argument that she has going with Montgomery County blowhard Nathan Landow, her predecessor as chair of the state Democratic Party, over who left the party with an empty tambourine.

More to the point, Ms. Hall has become an unlikely chess piece in the party's primary election campaign for governor. It's a begat story that goes like this:

Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg (who wants to be governor in the worst way) is trying to extend his political family from Baltimore County into Baltimore City in an effort to block a preemptive strike by Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening and a Baltimore City ethnic-vote showdown with Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, D-46th.

To widen the family circle, Mr. Steinberg has been holding a roundelay of meetings with city legislators, among them Sen. Larry Young, D-39th. But Mr. Young's not buying, not just yet, anyway. Mr. Young refuses to endorse Mr. Steinberg until and unless he adds a black to his ticket as a candidate for lieutenant governor.

So doing what comes naturally, Mr. Steinberg approached Sen. Clarence Blount, D-41st, the Senate majority leader, with the vague idea of appending him to the ticket as back-up singer or, if nothing more, to use the elder statesman of black politics as a kind of consultant on minority matters.

But Mr. Blount is less interested in the lieutenant governorship for himself than he is in being able to name the candidate.

And the object of his affection is none other than Ms. Hall, who shares a chunk of the city's 5th Councilmanic District with Mr. Blount. Ms. Hall is also a close ally of Mayor Kurt Schmoke and serves as his hand-picked vice president of the City Council.

Although Ms. Hall's a two-fer, a woman and a black to boot, Mr. Steinberg's choice of her as a running mate is problematical. It would create a ticket of great geographical imbalance that would set off a nasty regional fight as well as leave Mr. Steinberg with no ambassador to the Maryland suburbs around Washington.

The spotlight on Ms. Hall limns the growing significance of race as well as geography in the new Maryland politics.

To be sure, the twin issues have always been part of the politiscape, but perhaps for the first time they're converging as Maryland gets a '90s make-over.

Maryland's black population is about 25 percent, or 1.2 million of a total population of 4.7 million. The largest concentration of blacks is in Baltimore City (435,768) and Prince George's County (369,791.)

Overall, there are 612,226 blacks in the Baltimore region and 470,068 in the Maryland suburbs around Washington. Moreover, suburban Washington's black population is supplemented by huge blocks of Asians and Hispanics.

So in the dynamics of 1994's election, the layers of politics are as intricate as an artichoke. It'll be a balancing act that will require assuaging not only xenophobic regional tensions between Baltimore and Washington, but playing to minority constituencies within them as well.

Yet a close inspection of the two regions reveals as many disparities as similarities. And only a naif would blur the black constituencies of the two areas into a single voting monolith.

As every student of human motivation knows, whites are fleeing the city as fast as the moving vans will carry them, and the out-migration is leaving behind a virtual welfare colony. By contrast, Prince George's has become a safe haven for upwardly mobile blacks. PeeGee County now hosts one of the wealthiest black populations in the country.

Only recently, the good life blacks enjoy in Prince George's County was featured as the cover story in the New York Times Magazine. And even uppity Montgomery County -- which was zoned in the 1930s to keep money in and poor folks out -- now has a black population of 12 percent. But make no mistake. Just as Baltimore has its Cherry hill, PeeGee has its Glenarden.

Add to the mix the fact that the Baltimore and Washington regions are served by two very different media markets, even though they've been declared by the numbers crunchers at the Census Bureau as a Common Market Statistical Area.

Baltimoreans, black and white, watch five city commercial television stations and read The Sun and Evening Sun as well as a number of community newspapers and specialty publications. But the opinions of Washington suburban residents are shaped by the Washington Post and another quartet of television stations in the nation's capital as well as local cable channels and county newspapers.

Finally, blacks in Prince George's and Baltimore made up an overwhelming majority of the new voters who registered Democratic last year in the drive that was led by Mr. Schmoke.

Ms. Hall may be a hapless hostage in the great game of slate-making. But she's also a symptom of the new politics of regional racial geography.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes here on Maryland politics.

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