7th long a 'fiercely independent' district

February 05, 1996|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

It was in Maryland's 7th Congressional District -- a diverse area that now stretches from Belair-Edison to Woodlawn, from Catonsville to Reisterstown -- that Baltimore-area black voters first demonstrated their power and made history.

Just 26 years ago, Parren J. Mitchell became Maryland's first black congressman after defeating a machine-backed, nine-term incumbent by a mere 38 votes at a time when blacks made up only 40 percent of the voters in the district.

The 7th has been regarded with a special reverence ever since.

Today, the district is a stronghold of black political power: Almost every elected official in the district is black -- and so is nearly every one of the 32 candidates running in the March 5 primary election for the congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Kweisi Mfume.

But the 27 Democrats and five Republicans in the race to replace Mr. Mfume will find a markedly different district -- demographically, geographically and even politically -- than the one in which Mr. Mitchell ran in 1970.

The only constant seems to be that since black voters broke the hold of a white Democratic political organization on the 7th, they have remained independent.

"It was never really controlled or beholden to anyone," said Mr. Mitchell, now president of the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc. "The mayor couldn't control the 7th District; former governors couldn't. It's been traditionally a fiercely independent district."

The district also remains overwhelmingly Democratic -- 83.4 percent, according to the most recent election board figures -- meaning that winning the primary election, just a month from now, is tantamount to winning the seat.

But Mr. Mitchell pointed out that much more has changed than has stayed the same.

"Then, it was the overwhelming unity in the black community" that elected him, Mr. Mitchell said. "This year, the number of candidates is the splintering factor."

A similar battle for the seat took place in 1986, when Mr. Mitchell chose not to seek re-election.

Nine candidates ran in the Democratic primary that year -- fewer than a third of the aspirants this time. Out of that fray emerged only the third congressman to represent the 7th -- Mr. Mfume, who is stepping down to head the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The ministerial factor

This year's field is a strong one that has brought out six elected officials from across the district, including Baltimore County, and five ministers, one of whom is also an officeholder.

That field may split the all-important vote of churchgoers in the district, historically a significant factor in winning the seat.

In 1970, for instance, ministers of the city's black churches first showed the strength of the pulpit, uniting behind Mr. Mitchell.

"They played an enormous role," Mr. Mitchell said. "Every church had announcements in their bulletins before the election, which was unprecedented."

It was a scene that was replayed in 1986, when Mr. Mfume, then a city councilman with little political base, won the important endorsement of the black ministers over two particularly strong candidates -- Wendell H. Phillips, a minister and member of the House of Delegates, and former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III, the congressman's nephew.

In the end, Mr. Mfume's share of the vote was more than that of Mr. Phillips and Mr. Mitchell put together, in part because of the ministers' support.

The Baltimore County factor

When Mr. Mitchell took the seat in 1970, the Baltimore County portion of the district was little more than a sliver on the Westside, mostly between the city line and the Baltimore Beltway.

The county now accounts for a quarter of the district's population and nearly matches that in terms of registered voters who go to the polls in higher percentages than city voters.

Mr. Mfume has never had any real competition since winning the seat, which was generally believed to be his as long as he wanted it, and the redistricting of 1991 did not anticipate his stepping down.

So the strength of the vote has never truly been tested in a congressional fight, and West Baltimore voters, who traditionally have coalesced behind one candidate, could be divided this time because of the size of the field.

"Every person who's running, or at least the vast majority, has at least a constituent base they can call their own," Mr. Mitchell said. "The winner will be the one who can dig into the constituency base of others."

One untested factor in this race will be state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a county candidate deeply rooted in the city's west side who will throw a new dynamic into the contest.

Seeing the importance of the county in this race, many of the political and community leaders in Catonsville -- a mostly white, middle-class, conservative area -- have banded together to form a bloc in the southwest elbow of the district.

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