Black power, white mayor?

June 16, 1995

If Mary Pat Clarke were to defeat incumbent Mayor Kurt Schmoke in the citywide elections this year, would that set back black political power in Baltimore? Not necessarily. In fact, not at all. There is no way Mrs. Clarke -- or any candidate -- could be elected without substantial support from black voters. As a practical matter that means whoever becomes the city's next mayor will owe their election to the black power revolution.

Yet to date no American city of comparable size in which blacks constitute a majority has ever replaced an incumbent black mayor with a white challenger. Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland and Los Angeles all elected black mayors who later were replaced by whites. But blacks were never a majority in those cities. In Detroit, Atlanta, Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C., all cities with black majorities, voters have replaced black incumbents with black challengers, but never with white ones. If it happened here, it would be a first.

The very fact that it is a possibility here, however, suggests there is something different about Baltimore. On racial matters, at least, mayoral politics in Baltimore have been marked by a tradition of civility and accommodation that contrasts sharply with the polarization and demagogy that beset other cities undergoing transition from white to black political control. This despite the documented fact that blacks everywhere are generally more likely than whites to vote across racial lines.

Former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, for example, was able to win re-election against a black challenger years after blacks became a majority in Baltimore. When Mr. Schaefer resigned to become governor in 1986, City Council President Clarence "Du" Burns automatically succeeded him, thus becoming the city's first black mayor. The political sea change marked by the election of Kurt Schmoke as mayor in 1987 was accompanied by almost none of the turbulence that troubled other cities. Mr. Schmoke ran as a race-neutral candidate who sought, and won, support from both black and white voters.

Eight years later, Mrs. Clarke is running much the sort of campaign that garnered Mr. Schaefer re-election in 1983 and brought Mr. Schmoke to City Hall in 1987 and 1991. She and her opponent disagree on many issues, but race is not one of them: They both have worked hard over the years to sustain Baltimore's tradition of racial comity, and both have been rewarded with broad support across racial lines on Election Day. That is a pattern we would like to see continue whoever becomes Baltimore's next mayor.

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