Racial unity, not racism, drives city voting Study's conclusion comes from look at 3 Baltimore campaigns

November 25, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Voting in Baltimore is strongly characterized by racial solidarity -- but not racism, according to a new study of the 1995 city elections and several recent statewide races.

Also, contrary to prior experience here and around the nation, black voter turnout was higher than white turnout in two of three citywide races in 1995, the analysis found. Given the high level of racial pride in a majority black city, that suggests that black candidates will defeat whites in citywide elections for many years, the authors said.

And, even though the vote was not considered racist, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke "played the race card" in his campaign to win re-election, they said.

Donald F. Norris, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis and Research at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, and Mary B. Pullis, a UMBC graduate student, drew these conclusions primarily from an examination of the 1995 mayoral contest in which Schmoke, the black incumbent, defeated Mary Pat Clarke, the white City Council president.

Though they focused primarily on the mayor's race, they also studied the other two citywide contests in 1995. They found that race was salient in the atmosphere surrounding two of the three contests, for mayor and City Council president. The third race was for comptroller.

"These contests created a situation ripe for scholarly analysis of voter turnout and racial voting because each featured a white candidate against at least one black candidate in a majority black city," the authors said.

The authors found a decided pattern of "racial voting," defined in the study as a "simple coincidence of the races of the voter and the candidate." If a voter's needs can be served as well by the white or black candidate in a given race, a voter might well select the candidate of his or her own race.

A vote would be considered "racist," they said, only if it seemed to conflict with a voter's broader self-interest -- economic well-being, for example.

In selected black and white precincts examined for the study, Schmoke took 89 percent of the black vote while Clarke claimed the same percentage of white voters.

Turnout and racial solidarity were influenced by the Schmoke campaign's decision to make race an important consideration, the authors said.

They wrote:

"The black incumbent 'played the race card' early in the election. His campaign slogan, 'Mayor Schmoke Makes Us Proud,' was widely understood to mean that Schmoke makes black Baltimoreans proud."

Schmoke's choice of campaign colors -- the colors of black liberation and the civil rights movement -- also became part of the chemistry, they said.

Schmoke's chief strategist and campaign manager, Larry Gibson, said the colors were meant to represent Baltimore itself: black and white for the city's diversity, red to represent the city's past struggles and green for promise and growth. Similarly, the slogan applied not just to black voters but to white voters who were proud of the incumbent mayor.

Whatever the intent, the colors and the language made race a "salient" factor in the campaign, the authors wrote. Not mentioned in the study was the impact of a final-days opinion poll, suggesting a tight race, and The Sun's editorial endorsement of Clarke -- both of which may have helped to persuade black voters not to take Schmoke's re-election for granted.

In the City Council president's race, the four black candidates -- Lawrence A. Bell III, Vera Hall, Carl Stokes and Shelton Stewart -- took a total of 96 percent of the vote in predominantly black precincts selected for this study -- but they also got 29 percent of the vote in the white precincts.

White racial solidarity was "weaker" in this race, the study said, because the "direct" racial appeal of the white candidate, Joseph DiBlasi, solidified blacks and "repelled" some whites, causing them to vote for one of the black candidates or to stay at home.

In the race for city comptroller, the winner, Joan M. Pratt, who is black, received 80 percent of the vote in predominantly black precincts chosen for the study, 52 percent in the mixed precincts and 16 percent in the white precincts.

Her opponent, former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, who is white, won 83.9 percent of the white vote studied, 19.6 percent of the black vote and 47.9 percent of the vote in mixed districts.

Pratt, the authors suggested, rode Schmoke's coattails, winning support from voters who had turned out primarily to back the mayor and voted for her while they were at it. The large black turnout helped both.

Unexamined prospect

A prospect unexamined in this paper is the potential for coalitions between black and white candidates and organizations. Bell became council president with the help of an alliance with white Councilman Martin O'Malley in Northeast Baltimore. With such a highly developed racial consciousness in the city now, observers of Baltimore politics wonder if such alliances could be constructed for white candidates in the near term.

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