Black Voters Sensed a 'Crisis' and Turned Out DISSECTING THE SCHMOKE VICTORY

September 17, 1995|By MARILYN McCRAVEN

For most of the summer, Del. Howard P. Rawlings kept his distance from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's re-election campaign.

The two had had some political differences, so Mr. Rawlings says he had decided to sit this one out. Also, he figured the mayor was a shoo-in.

Beyond that, Mr. Rawlings, a Democrat who represents the city's 40th District, spent much of his time helping his daughter, Stephanie, in her successful bid for a 5th District City Council seat.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Rawlings' plans changed rather abruptly when polls began showing challenger Mary Pat Clarke gaining momentum. On Aug. 25, Mr. Rawlings joined other black officials in front of City Hall when Gov. Parris N. Glendening endorsed Mr. Schmoke.

After the rally, Mr. Rawlings, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, says that he began actively encouraging many people to vote for Mr. Schmoke. He and state Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a 41st District Democrat, also made up ballots with Mr. Schmoke at the top to distribute to voters.

A few weeks before Election Day, "a lot of people with concerns about Schmoke and his style of governing started concentrating on this fear . . . that this talented black man" would lose the mayoralty, Mr. Rawlings said. "That's how I felt."

Mr. Rawlings was not alone in his fears. In post-election interviews, several African-American officials and activists said there was a heightened concern among black voters during the waning days of the campaign. One even called it a "crisis situation."

Those feelings were a key reason for the unexpectedly large black voter turnout which resulted in Mr. Schmoke's stunning 20-point victory margin and the unprecedented election of blacks to the city's three top posts, Mr. Rawlings said.

Del. Shirley Nathan Pulliam, a 10th District Democrat who was worried by the polls, said black people sensed that a crisis was brewing. "We tend to be a crisis-oriented people," she said. "When we sense there's a crisis . . . we turn out."

In essence, many black people who had wavered on supporting Mr. Schmoke put their concerns aside in the interest of re-electing the city's first black elected mayor to a third term, said Ms. Pulliam and Mr. Rawlings. Black pride and racial unity outweighed their concerns about the state of the city, said retired congressman Parren Mitchell.

The possibility that Mr. Schmoke might lose sparked a "surge" of activity among community leaders and citizens. Mr. Rawlings said it also triggered a sense of urgency that had not been seen since Mr. Schmoke's first campaign for state's attorney.

Many political and religious leaders who had not endorsed Mr. Schmoke or hadn't shown much enthusiasm for his campaign were pleading the mayor's case to voters, emphasizing that the black community could not relinquish a position that it had worked so hard to get.

U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a 7th District Democrat, disagrees with the notion that widespread anxiety sent blacks to the polls. He said many black voters were driven by a "sense of personal responsibility" and a desire for consistency in City Hall rather than change.

Those interviewed cite several other matters as spurring blacks to vote, including: The Sun's endorsement of Mrs. Clarke; nationwide news reports indicating that Baltimore might become the first majority black city to turn out a black incumbent mayor for a white challenger; and the campaign slogan "Mayor Schmoke Makes Us Proud" accompanied by the black liberation colors (red, black and green).

Ms. Pulliam, a poll worker for various Democratic candidates for more than 20 years, was amazed when she ended up with an unexpected five extra Schmoke volunteers at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in West Baltimore. Several people who had committed to work just a couple of hours ended up staying all day, she said, as if all 20 Schmoke poll workers sensed that they were on a crucial mission.

Mr. Rawlings, Ms. Pulliam and Mr. Mfume said they hoped the resounding Schmoke victory would encourage more political activity in the black community.

R. B. Jones, who endorsed Mrs. Clarke in his Baltimore Times column, was dismayed by Mr. Schmoke's victory. Mr. Jones, a self-described "black nationalist from the Sixties," said that Mrs. Clarke was "better suited to be mayor because she was more in touch with the city and its people. He [Mr. Schmoke] just has a little clique of people -- they run the city in the interest of a small oligarchy and they're not for open government."

Mr. Jones said Schmoke's appeal to black pride may backfire by increasing white flight and raising black residents' expectations. Historically, he said, here and in other cities, as black political power increases, funding for cities decreases.

"We have to keep a certain percentage of them [whites] here as human shields against racism in the state legislature and Congress," he said.

Marilyn McCraven is an editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun.

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