Minister candidates overturn old process Some say clergy will make 7th District race more divisive

January 04, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

Baltimore elections used to be predictable: Politicians ran for office, and ministers endorsed them.

That timeworn process has been overturned in the 7th District congressional race, with at least five clergy members among the 28 Democratic primary candidates -- a factor that will make the campaign more divisive, some political observers say.

The key reasons the clergy candidates give for running are: arrogant, inaccessible politicians, frustration with a political system that isn't doing more to address such city ills as widespread unemployment, and a belief that voters tired of politics-as-usual will have more regard for religious leaders.

Ministers are "the ones who have built the political base and delivered it to the career politicians," said Bishop Theodore M. Williams Jr., a candidate for the 7th District seat. "Now, we're just cutting the middleman out and running for office ourselves."

The bumper crop of minister-candidates for the seat left empty by Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who is to become president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also owes some of its origins to three key developments, analysts say:

* The upset win by political novice Joan M. Pratt in last year's race for city comptroller -- a victory attributed to strong clergy support.

* Growth over the past 18 years of Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD), a church-based community group that has encouraged city churches to become more involved in politics, including registering voters and setting a political agenda.

* Emergence of a group of city ministers with attributes that work well in politics -- charisma, public-speaking ability and leadership skills -- and improve their chances in a field crowded with unknowns.

Those critical of the clergy candidates say they could cause a change in local political dynamics and increase divisiveness in the community, leading to an unusually bitter campaign.

Also, some of the ministers-turned-politicians may focus less on issues of importance to their flocks and more on how to win votes, the critics say.

"I have a sense of deep disappointment that it has become a kind of religious war," said the Rev. Marion C. Bascom Sr., who was Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's pastor until his retirement last spring from Douglas Memorial Community Church after 45 years.

The clergy candidates, in alphabetical order, are the Rev. Mary W. Conaway, the city's register of wills, who is on leave as pastor of the John Wesley United Methodist Church in Anne Arundel County; the Rev. Arnold W. Howard, pastor of Enon Baptist Church; the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church; the Rev. Medgar L. Reid, no relation to Rev. Frank Reid, pastor of Reid Memorial Community Church; and Bishop Williams, pastor of Mount Sinai Temple in Randallstown.

All of these candidates are running in the Democratic primary.

A critical look

Criticism of clergy candidates comes from several quarters, including from other candidates.

Bishop Williams, pastor of a 100-member congregation, says a congressman who leads a large church wouldn't have time to attend adequately to constituents' needs.

Frank Reid and Mr. Howard, pastors of large churches, said they have the necessary help and energy to tackle both jobs. Mr. Howard said his church will hire an assistant pastor if he is elected.

To underscore his point, Frank Reid, pastor of a 10,000-member church, noted a recent New York Times article on how Rep. Floyd H. Flake, A New York Democrat, successfully manages the ministry of a large church and a congressional career.

Divisiveness

Even some noncandidate ministers are critical of the clergy candidates.

"Once you give your life over to politics, you cannot give adequate time to the church," Mr. Bascom said.

The Rev. Melvin B. Tuggle II, of East Baltimore's Garden of Prayer Baptist Church, said in a news release last week that he decided not to run for the congressional seat to avoid adding to divisiveness among churchgoers.

Many are critical of the clergy candidates, largely because most have never held elected office.

Arthur Murphy, a political consultant to state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, who represents Baltimore County's 10th District and is a candidate in the race, said most of the clergy candidates are political novices who "have confused political influence with real political power. They're under the mistaken impression that Joan Pratt won because of them," Mr. Murphy said. "They have influence, but they can't dictate" to voters.

Politics in flux

Clergy candidates are expected to win endorsements of the ministerial groups, which will increase divisiveness and lead to charges that the endorsements went to friends, not necessarily the best-qualified candidates, some say.

Once such complaint came recently after Mr. Howard on Dec. 19 simultaneously announced his candidacy and his endorsement by the United Baptist Missionary Convention and the Baptist Ministers Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity.

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