Aspiring politician brings hope for the future Unflagging idealism marks Miller's style

June 25, 1996|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

These days, a disillusioned electorate is taking a dim view of its public officials and the insiders' game of politics that seems to control the government.

Voters have responded by turning out to the polls in record-low numbers. And younger voters, in particular, seem to have thrown up their hands in frustration.

Out of this cynical abyss comes Baltimore resident Traci K. Miller, a Generation-X lawyer with an Ivy League education, a rarity who has been bitten by the political bug.

In fact, in her maiden bid for public office, Miller set her sights on Congress -- a virtually unheard-of goal for a serious first-timer -- running for the 7th District congressional seat vacated by Rep. Kweisi Mfume.

Simply put, she believes, with the enthusiasm of all idealists, that she can make a difference.

"I believe in what can be. Period," said Miller emphatically. "I think impossible things can happen -- that's why I decided to enter the process."

Plus, she adds, "the need is tremendous" -- particularly in West Baltimore, the heart of both the 7th Congressional District and the 44th Legislative District, where she lives.

"When you look at where people are, and where people need to be, there's a huge gap," said the 28-year-old city prosecutor. "Obviously, there needs to be a change in the way things are done."

It was that kind of message -- both in its sense of purpose and clarity -- that won her support in the 27-candidate Democratic primary in March. She lost to former state Del. Elijah E. Cummings, who went on to be elected to the Mfume seat. Miller finished 10th, capturing just under 1,000 votes.

After her loss, she quickly re-entered the fray in April by applying for Cummings' 44th District seat in the Maryland House of Delegates.

Miller initially seemed to have the new congressman's backing -- he all but singled her out as a possible successor during the campaign. But reports soon emerged of a quiet "anybody-but-Traci Miller" push by state Sen. Larry Young, the district leader.

Confronted with that, she decided not to show up last month for an interview by members of the city Democratic Central Committee, which has yet to pick Cummings' successor.

"It became clear to me very early in the process that it was a farce, and I excused myself from it," Miller said. But, she said, "just because I was shut out of this process doesn't mean I'll be shut down" in the long run.

To many in the city's black power structure -- including elected officials who ran against her for Congress -- Miller offers hope for the future.

"Traci's part of that new wave of politicians," said Del. Salima Siler Marriott, a West Baltimore legislator who also ran for the Mfume seat.

"First, you had the people who broke the color barrier, and then you had the wave of community activists. And now you have this third wave, where people are entering at a younger age," Marriott said.

Riding the crest of that wave, Miller appeared in the 7th District race -- and the city's political scene -- out of the blue. Unlike others of her generation who have scored in politics, Miller is an outsider.

For instance, City Councilwoman Stephanie C. Rawlings, Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV all have politics in their blood and are carrying on a tradition bearing surnames that are well known in Baltimore, Annapolis and beyond.

Even Del. Clay C. Opara, a young lawyer who has caught the attention of leaders in the General Assembly, was appointed to a vacancy in the House of Delegates because of support from the Vanguard Democratic Organization, a West Side political club in which his father had been active.

Nevertheless, Miller impressed the city's political establishment and charmed voters she encountered along the campaign trail, leaving the expectation that she will be back.

"She has a lot of potential for entering public life as an elected official," said Marriott, who would like to see more black women in the legislature.

Miller keeps her name before the public, speaking at schools, churches and to civic groups.

This month, she delivered the commencement address to the eighth-graders graduating from Pimlico Middle School -- and wowed teachers, parents and children.

"I'm not in the political arena, but the way she expresses herself, once people hear her and her message, I think she'll go a long way," predicted Joyce A. McNeill, a school guidance counselor. "She's such a dynamic speaker."

The daughter of two federal workers, Miller grew up comfortably -- and fairly apolitically -- in middle-class Columbia, where she attended public schools.

There, as a 15-year-old high school student, she heard then-Rep. Parren J. Mitchell speak at an anniversary commemoration of the march on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 20 years before.

She still remembers the words used by Mitchell, Maryland's first black congressman. " 'There's a fire in me, and there ought to be a fire in you,' " she recalls.

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