Drama in 44th: Mitchell heir vs. friends of the family CAMPAIGN 1994

August 09, 1994|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

At high noon on a steamy summer day, Clarence M. Mitchell IV stands outside the Eutaw Street entrance to Lexington Market, pressing the flesh of lunch goers and passing out a brochure touting his campaign for House of Delegates in the 44th Legislative District.

Some react to the slender young man in the dark suit indifferently; some respond quizzically, as if trying to connect the face with the famous name.

But others are enthusiastic.

"Oh, Clarence," Delores McKay says effusively. "I know your father."

Such recognition of the Mitchell family name, and the way it resonates through much of the district, is creating personal and political concern among the three House incumbents.

All are one-time members of the Mitchell family political organization who are running together in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary on a ticket dubbed "Our Neighborhood Team."

"It's difficult when you have in the past been allies with a family," says Del. Elijah E. Cummings, 43, who is seeking his fourth term and is considered by many to be the most invulnerable of the triumvirate. "That's why all of us have vowed that this would be a very high-road campaign. I have seen nothing to contradict that."

Del. John D. Jefferies, 66, a machinists' union official who has the strong backing of organized labor in his bid for a second full term, complains that Mr. Mitchell has a thin record of service.

But Mr. Jefferies admits that, because of the name, Mr. Mitchell is a force to be reckoned with. "It's up to me to let the people know what I've done," he says.

Del. Ruth M. Kirk, 64, also seeking her fourth term, is outspoken about her displeasure with Mr. Mitchell's run for a House seat.

"I told the little boy I could spank his little tail," she says.

"The Mitchell boy is running because his name is a Mitchell," she adds.

"His family wants him to have a seat. They feel the seat belongs to the Mitchell family."

DMr. Mitchell, 32, titular head of the family bail bond and insurance business, is hardly shy about his invoking the rich legacy of his family -- which includes his late grandfather, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., the revered Capitol Hill lobbyist for the NAACP; his late grandmother, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, a longtime local NAACP leader and legal counsel; and his great-uncle, Parren J. Mitchell, who was elected Maryland's first black congressman in 1970 and retired in 1986.

His father, Clarence M. Mitchell III, served for 24 years in the state Senate before losing in his attempt to succeed Parren in 1986; his uncle, Michael Mitchell, was a Baltimore City councilman and state senator. Their political careers ended in 1987 with their corruption convictions on charges of taking money to improperly impede a congressional investigation.

Indeed, Mr. Mitchell's campaign literature touts him as "A Fighter for the People" who "represents another generation of FREEDOM FIGHTERS."

Citing his 12 years of experience on the Democratic State Central Committee and involvement in such activities as a member of the School Improvement Team at Samuel Coleridge Taylor Elementary School, he says in an interview, "I tell people I am my own person but I stand on a strong foundation."

"I'm for real with this," he adds. "This is not an ego thing."

Mr. Mitchell is not the only challenger in the center-city district. In all, there are 10 candidates for the House seats, including the three incumbents.

That is the second-largest number of House candidates in any of the city's eight districts, behind only the 40th.

The reason for the crowded field, political observers agree, is redistricting.

What politicians are calling the "new" 44th is actually about 75 percent of what for the last decade was the 39th. (The 39th no longer exists in the city). Gone is most of low-income Nehemiah Housing project; added is part of upscale Bolton Hill. The district is more than 80 percent black; it encompasses the Inner Harbor and Belvedere areas as well as the Edgar Allan Poe Homes and impoverished areas around Bon Secours Hospital.

Besides Mr. Mitchell, the challengers drawing the most attention are John E. Hannay, an administrator with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Verna Jones, a housing activist. Each is making a first run for elective office -- and each is critical of the visibility and performance of the incumbents.

"When I go door-to-door, I find a lot of people don't even know who the delegates are," says Mr. Hannay, 39, who has been active in a number of civil rights issues, including gay rights.

Ms. Jones, 38, says she doesn't believe the incumbents have been as effective as they could be in "garnering resources" and adds, "This is a new day. It's time for new energy and new ideas."

Mr. Mitchell refuses to criticize the incumbents but sounds much the same theme.

Conceding that he's "not really sure" if he differs from them on any issues, he says, '"My knock is not against them for being inadequate. It's not what they haven't done. It's we need a new vision, a new energy."

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