Shore residents on both sides of issue want to see voting-rights impasse end


August 14, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

POCOMOKE CITY -- In Charles Fontaine's air-conditioned and fragrant barbershop on a side street in this southern Worcester County town, talk has shifted in the past week.

It's no longer the normal fare of weather and jobs, but something more basic to the American way of life -- voting.

Or in the case of Worcester County these days, voting more than once for a candidate, or, as it looks now, not voting at all in September and maybe even in November for new county commissioners.

"My customers are kind of confused," said Mr. Fontaine, who has been cutting hair in the mostly black part of town for 26 years. "But the biggest thing I'm hearing is that they want to get all this resolved so they can have an election."

They're not the only ones.

The confusion results from a decision this month by three federal appellate judges to put this fall's county commission election on hold (although countians will vote with the rest of Maryland for other offices).

They needed more time, the judges from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said, to weigh a lower-court order in a voting-rights lawsuit that would have given county voters the unusual, controversial ability to cast more than one vote for commissioner candidates of their choice this year.

The idea was to give blacks -- who constitute about 21 percent of the county's 35,000 residents -- a potentially better chance of electing a commissioner candidate.

In 252 years of county history, no minority candidate has ever been elected under the county's traditional policy of electing commissioners on a one-vote basis. That fact, some blacks and others have argued successfully in court up to the current appeals court delay, violates their rights under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But what happens next is uncertain because the judges have not given a clue about when they'll act further.

And so, although posters for some of the 17 candidates who had filed for the five commission seats dot the countryside like wildflowers, no one knows even if the election will take place this year.

Not even some of the candidates have grasped the short-term ramifications of the judicial holding pattern, apparently. County elections superintendent Sheila Jones said several have called, asking when a special election will be conducted. All she can say is to keep in touch.

Being discussed just as much in places such as Mr. Fontaine's barbershop is whether the all-white, all-Republican commission has done the right thing in spending, so far, about $400,000 in taxpayer money fighting the voting-rights suit that produced this impasse.

One of those commissioners, John E. "Sonny" Bloxom, said he will support taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if the appellate judges rule against the county.

The position has sympathy in parts of the county. For example, though Jeanne Shockley, a white Snow Hill resident, said she has voted for blacks in past elections, she wants the commissioners to continue their court battle.

"I don't think the county is fighting this suit to keep a black out of office," Ms. Shockley said. "This is the Eastern Shore, and we don't like people coming here and telling us we're wrong and how to fix things."

She points out that plaintiffs in the suit include a small group of black Worcester countians and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but it is the American Civil Liberties Union that is providing the legal muscle.

The ACLU and other civil rights groups have brought similar lawsuits against 10 other Eastern Shore towns and counties in the past decade. Worcester is the first to fight the legal challenge at the appeals court level, a source of regional pride for some local residents.

"I'm a Democrat to the core, but I really respect the commissioners," said Kristy Legacy from behind the counter of the Riverview Market outside Pocomoke City. "They've stayed by what they believe in, and it's the principle of the matter, whether it costs $4 or $400,000."

Cynthia Pusey, who seldom hesitates to take the county government to task on other issues, said she, too, backs the commissioners.

Noting that it took until 1986 for a Republican to win a commission seat and until 1990 for the first woman to do so, Ms. Pusey said blacks eventually can win elections, even under the old system.

"Give it time," she said. "There's been a natural progression of change in the county, and change will come for minorities."

Forcing that change through legal action to enhance black political power does not sit well with many white voters, who point out that few blacks run for office and only one has ever sought a commission seat.

"That's a little hard to swallow," said Ms. Pusey, serving her first term on the Snow Hill council. "I know how hard it is to get out there and get elected. But it takes hard work."

Of the 17 candidates who filed for what they thought would be the 1994 commission race, two are black. One of them, Honiss W. Cane Jr., ran four years ago but lost.

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