City Council Milestone

September 16, 1995

Tuesday's primary election produced a City Council milestone: 105 years after the first black was elected to that legislative body, African Americans for the first time form the council's majority.

The fact that 10 members of the new council will be black -- as will its president, Lawrence Bell -- does not necessarily mean that they will vote as an ethnic bloc, just as it does not mean they will always side with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. But the composition of the council is likely to increase its preoccupation with concerns of Baltimore's black majority population.

Republican Harry S. Cummings, a graduate of Lincoln University and the University of Maryland Law School (segregation barred blacks from that school later), was the council's first black member. Six different black Republicans served in the council between 1890 and 1931. The defeat of the last of two of them, Warner T. McGuinn and Walter S. Emerson, meant not only Democratic control but the exclusion of African Americans from the council. Only in 1955 were blacks able to regain a seat with the election of Democrat Walter Dixon from West Baltimore's Fourth District, then controlled by boss James H. "Jack" Pollack.

With its new black majority, the next Baltimore City Council has a difficult mission ahead.

The council is at a disadvantage under Baltimore's charter, which gives greater powers to the mayor. That so many council members will be freshmen -- nine Democratic primary winners were not on the council a year ago -- means the next council must work even harder to remain a relevant force.

The key player will be Mr. Bell, 33, who won the Democratic primary for council president and is expected to defeat Republican Anthony Cobb in November.

Mr. Bell must work hard to overcome his reputation as a grandstanding single-issue politician. He needs to be a dynamic leader who can work with the mayor when required but can bring together the rest of the council to keep the mayor from running roughshod over them when they are taking a position that is best for Baltimore.

Probably nowhere will that be more evident than when the council and the mayor tackle the issue of property taxes. The next council must decide whether the city can afford another nickel rate reduction. It must determine whether that nickel is significant enough to keep homeowners from leaving Baltimore.

Or does the tax cut only add to the city's existing fiscal woes?

The end of the last council session showed what the council can do if it vigorously exercises its oversight role. It was good to see council committees address controversial issues such as the Education Alternatives Inc. contract, corruption in the emergency public housing repair program and a new juvenile curfew law. That the faces on the council have changed does not mean it should stop asserting itself. There's no time to relax.

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