Few blacks hold office in suburbs

September 11, 1994|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

For blacks who struggled to be part of Baltimore's suburban governments, 1974 was a remarkable year. The first blacks were elected to county councils in Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

But 20 years later, little has changed, despite increasing numbers of African-Americans moving from the city. C. Vernon Gray, chairman of the Howard County Council, is the only black on a suburban county council.

And little is likely to change after this election, despite a larger number of blacks seeking local offices. Three African-Americans are running for the same Baltimore County Council seat in Tuesday's primary and another is running against Mr. Gray in Howard County.

While none of those candidates is making race an issue, they agree it's time more blacks were elected to county government.

"There's a body out there not being represented," said William A. Gray III, one of the Baltimore County Council candidates.

Harford and Anne Arundel counties, with black populations of 9 percent and 12 percent respectively, have elected one African-American council member each since 1974.

Two African-Americans sit on the eight-member Board of Aldermen in Annapolis, where blacks make up one-third of the population.

No black ever has been elected to the Baltimore County Council, where African-Americans make up more than 12 percent of the population. In Carroll County, voters have elected a black mayor in Union Bridge and black City Council members in Sykesville, but no African-American has ever sat on the County Commission.

The reasons for the lack of black representation range from apathy to racism, say current and former officeholders.

Dr. Lehman Spry, a Havre de Grace dentist who was elected to the first of two terms on the Harford County Council in 1974, said few people, regardless of race, are willing to work within their parties, attend party functions and contribute to other candidates.

"It takes a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of energy," he said.

Dr. Spry was forced to resign from office in his second term after he pleaded guilty to income tax evasion. He tried to entice blacks to run for council after him, but found no one willing.

"You're under a microscope. You get some heat," he said.

Cheryl Banks, head of the Black Political Forum in Anne Arundel, agreed. "There is a lack of people willing to put themselves on the line," she said.

Candidates' school planned

Her organization is establishing a candidates' school to groom aspiring black politicians. "The black community no longer can say it is the fault of the white community and no one is allowing us in the process," she said. "We are capable and able to make things happen for ourselves."

Sarah Carter, who was elected to the Anne Arundel County Council in 1974, said she never felt comfortable in the job, but race was only part of the problem.

A religious woman, she often carried her Bible with her and relied on it in making decisions. She also is a teetotaler and felt uncomfortable when her colleagues went out for drinks.

Because she didn't fit in, she said, she frequently failed to get support for her legislation.

Although she was glad to be rid of the job, Mrs. Carter tried unsuccessfully to persuade friends and relatives to seek a council seat.

"I felt like maybe I wasn't the smartest person in the world, but I thought it was important to have a minority," she said.

State Sen. Clarence Blount, a longtime Baltimore politician, agreed that black voters must share some of the blame for the lack of African-Americans in suburban governments. But he contended that racism has played a role as well.

"Blacks are used to voting for whites, but whites aren't used to voting for blacks," he said.

Linda Dorsey Walker, a candidate for Baltimore County Council, said she believes she has done well in candidate forums and has been praised for her ideas, but some voters have told her that they still cannot vote for her because she is black.

"Race still plays a role," she said. "Ethnicity plays a strong role."

Many of the politicians said the political parties need to provide mentors for aspiring black candidates, put them on tickets with whites and give them the financial support they need.

"It's an embarrassment to me that there is no black in local VTC government," said Joseph W. Alton Jr., a former Anne Arundel County executive who promoted several blacks in county and state elections in the 1960s and 1970s.

Harold G. Gordon, a state Senate candidate from Baltimore County who ran unsuccessfully for County Council in 1990, said suspicion and distrust between the county's white and black communities has made it difficult for blacks to win office.

In addition, the district with the highest concentration of blacks in the county -- the Liberty Road corridor and Pikesville -- also contains the bulk of the county's Jewish population. Whites make up the majority of the 87,000 people who live in the district.

Ran in countywide races

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