Cummings relents, backs activist for former seat Panel rejected his bid to choose successor

July 23, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Rebuffed in his effort to hand-pick his successor in the House of Delegates, U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings backed yesterday little-known community activist Carmena F. Watson for his former 44th District seat.

As recently as last week, Cummings had supported businesswoman Elaine R. McCloud for the position he held from 1983 until he won a special 7th District congressional election this spring.

But the district's Democratic Central Committee voted last week to recommend Watson -- a member of the committee and an ally of state Sen. Larry Young -- to Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Young is widely believed to control a majority of votes on the committee.

Glendening is expected to appoint Watson this summer. Watson, 62, is president of the Harlem Park Trust, which raises money to maintain the neighborhood's parks, and of the St. Pius V Housing Committee, which helps low-income residents find housing.

Cummings, who had admitted surprise at Watson's selection, said he decided to support her after speaking with her last week. At a news conference yesterday, he announced he would back Watson and took no questions. Later in an interview, Cummings explained that Watson had promised not to seek re-election in 1998, and that had changed his mind.

"Ms. Watson agreed that she would not serve beyond two years," Cummings said. "That allows us to have someone who will do a good job for two years, and I really believe we have a lot of great candidates for 1998."

But Watson said she has refused to rule out a 1998 run. "Everyone is asking me, but I have to see how things work out," she said. "I have no idea about 1998."

Young added: "The 1998 election is not on her agenda as of today. We'll make a decision with the committee and her then whether she'll be on the ticket."

Appointed to the central committee in February, Watson said she did not apply for the House seat initially. She said she never considered public office until two weeks ago, when the five-person committee deadlocked on picking Cummings' successor.

Two members voted for city National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branch head Rodney A. Orange Sr., two for Druid Heights Community Development Corp. Executive Director Jacquelyn D. Cornish, and one for Cummings' choice, McCloud.

As the stalemate dragged on, Young said the committee chairman, T. Michael Scales, asked members to consider four other candidates who had applied, but members wouldn't budge from their positions.

Watson said that, though she has supported Young's campaigns in the past, he did not push her to run. Instead, after "a lot of prayer," she decided she might be a promising compromise candidate and offered her name to Scales, she said.

"I like the idea of being able to lift people up, to represent the community," she said.

Watson said the committee voted unanimously, "and yes, I voted for myself."

Late last week, she visited Cummings on Capitol Hill. "My purpose in going to him was to dispel some of the rumors about why I was doing this," she said.

Born in Baltimore on New Year's Day 1934, Watson said she still lives in the same Harlem Avenue house where she grew up. After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School, she worked for four years during the 1950s as an accountant and clerk at the Baltimore Afro-American.

In 1966, she said she took a job in computer operations at Fort Holabird. She retired three years ago. She is single and the mother of four children, ages 32 to 14.

"She is direct, and very hands-on in the neighborhood," said Robert Ford, president of the Harlem Park Neighborhood Council. "You can call her at any time and depend on her."

She serves on the board of the nonprofit Total Health Care, a minority-owned community health center and HMO, said a company spokeswoman. But community leaders in 44th District neighborhoods outside Harlem Park said they know little about her. And two candidates who applied for the post claim the process was rigged. "It was wrong" to have Watson "a candidate for the job, interviewing other candidates," said Verna Jones, a West Baltimore community activist. Jones and candidate Orange said Cummings should not have endorsed a candidate he doesn't believe is a long-term solution for the district.

Pub Date: 7/23/96

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