Rights activists warn Worcester on elections

October 02, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

SNOW HILL -- Civil rights activists from around the state who rallied here yesterday warned Worcester County officials to change the way top officeholders are elected or face political and economic reprisals.

Almost two years after seven Worcester blacks filed a lawsuit to get rid of the county's at-large election system, the costly legal battle continues despite two rulings from federal judges that white voters have an unfair advantage over minority voters.

About 150 marchers vented their frustration yesterday with the county's five-member commission, which has spent more than $400,000 in legal fees to keep its election system intact. Marchers cheered calls by NAACP leaders to turn the politicians out of office and, if necessary, boycott Ocean City businesses next Memorial Day weekend.

"We're not here because we want to be here," James L. Purnell Jr., president of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told a group that had gathered in a black church before marching to the county courthouse a quarter mile away in the center of town. "We're here because we were put in a situation whereby we had to send a clear message."

Last month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that Worcester's method of electing its commission violated the federal Voting Rights Act.

Blacks, who make up about 21 percent of the county's 35,000 residents, have never elected a minority candidate to a countywide office in Worcester's 252 years.

Although the appeals judges said U.S. District Court Senior Judge Joseph H. Young of Baltimore erred in April when he ordered Worcester to replace the at-large system with cumulative voting -- a system that gives each voter five votes -- civil rights activists called the ruling a victory for their side.

Last week, attorneys for the county asked the appeals judges to reconsider the ruling at a new hearing. If the request is denied, said Commissioner John E. "Sonny" Bloxom, Worcester may appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Because of the pending suit, federal judges suspended indefinitely this year's county commission election. Voters here will go to the polls Nov. 8 for the general election, but no commission candidates' names will be on the ballot.

The county's decision to continue the legal battle prompted yesterday's march, a peaceful but noisy procession escorted by uniformed officers from Snow Hill and the Maryland State Police.

For the first time since the suit was filed, activists from outside Worcester vowed to organize in support of the plaintiffs. Marchers came from the Eastern Shore, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

State NAACP president Gregory Wims said that if the commissioners do not drop their fight against the suit by Nov. 8, he will bring the debate to Annapolis when state lawmakers convene in January.

"This will be an embarrassment to the county," he said, unveiling a strategy to have legislators withhold state funds from Worcester until the election system is changed.

If that fails, he said, he will call for a boycott of Ocean City -- the county's economic and tax base -- for the 1995 Memorial Day weekend.

Boycotting Ocean City, which Mr. Wims predicted could mean the loss of several million dollars to the resort, was a suggestion ,, civil rights activists considered in 1992 when they were discussing ways to make Worcester change its elections.

The idea was rejected in favor of the suit, said plaintiff Honiss W. Cane Jr., because local blacks believed they could win in the courts. Asked yesterday if he now supports a boycott, Mr. Cane said, "Wholeheartedly."

The threat of a boycott failed to impress Mr. Bloxom, one of the commission's fiercest advocates of keeping the county's at-large election system.

"So what?," he said. "I don't think they're going to find many people willing to do that."

Ocean City Mayor Roland "Fish" Powell said he had little concern about a boycott. "Memorial Day's a long way off and a lot can happen between now and then," he said. "I don't think it's time for Ocean City to get worried about it."

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