Race clouds alderman's mayoral run in Annapolis Activist past may complicate campaign

April 06, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang and Tanya Jones | Dan Thanh Dang and Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

In the race for mayor of Maryland's capital city, Carl O. Snowden seems to have it all: cash, clout and network. But, he's also a black man with a militant past in a town that has never elected a black mayor.

High-minded agreement around town is that race should not be a factor in who gets elected to the city's highest office. But Annapolis has never faced a serious black contender for the post, and many fear race will be the only issue that counts.

"Will Annapolis elect a black person?" asks Richard L. Hillman, a Republican and a former mayor who is white. "They've got the best record in the state for electing black officials. But are they ready to elect Carl Snowden, white or black?"

Maybe not, Hillman says.

Interviews with community leaders and longtime political watchers show how strongly many people want to believe they can see past skin color in electing their mayor in November.

Snowden, a 5th Ward Democratic alderman for nearly 12 years, is one of six declared candidates to succeed Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, a Democrat who is barred from running again because he has served two terms.

Hoping to take over Hopkins' job, Snowden has opened a campaign headquarters on West Street and raised about $75,000 in campaign funds, far more than his rivals.

"I've been thinking that, for the first time in 30 years, we've got a chance to show that we've totally arrived," said Roger W. "Pip" Moyer, director of the Housing Authority and another white former Democratic mayor.

"My hope is that a candidate's race, his being black, won't keep him from becoming mayor. I'd like to think that it wouldn't because I think the city is beyond that," Moyer said.

The Rev. Leroy Bowman, pastor of First Baptist Church, one of the largest predominantly black congregations in the city, and a resident for more than 50 years, expressed much the same hope.

"I imagine Annapolis is as ready as any other city," said Bowman, who is black. "I hope that we have reached a stage where we vote for people not because of their race but because of their qualifications, their character."

However, Snowden's candidacy is proving a sensitive subject among people interviewed, one difficult to talk about because it touches on the not-so-latent racism in a political contest that even early on has become intense and complicated by the number of players.

At stake, after all, is not just any mayor's chair, but the chief job in Maryland's showcase city. The position brings instant recognition in the state and access to national figures.

Snowden has to convince an electorate consumed with pride in its history and power that he is the man for the job. And nagging at many voters, black and white, is Snowden's reputation as a civil rights firebrand.

That image could prove to be Snowden's biggest obstacle as he tries to win the confidence of the wider community. And the image still haunts him. While being interviewed for this article, for example, Snowden asked for assurance that an old photograph showing him with an Afro would not be used.

As he was in the '60s

"I am black, and I perceive him as the militant Carl Snowden," said Angela Haste, an Annapolis native who has been credited with reducing crime in her Parole neighborhood. "I perceived him as what he was in the '60s and '70s. Until I saw him at a function recently, I had no idea that he had changed."

He may not have changed his goals, but he has toned down his rhetoric. At 43, Snowden wages battles with lawsuits and legislation. As head of a civil rights consulting firm, Snowden over the years has sued the city of Annapolis, the state and

various employers on behalf of clients who say they suffered racial, sexual or religious discrimination. For the past few years, Snowden has chaired the council's powerful economic and finance committees.

Snowden made a name for himself in the late 1960s when he led a student walkout protesting discrimination and was expelled from Annapolis High School. He enrolled in Key School, a liberal private school, and continued to lead anti-discrimination and anti-war protests around the city.

As Snowden was coming of age, his hometown struggled with desegregation. Annapolis -- about 30 percent black with about 8,000 black residents today -- never exploded into violence but went through times of intense racial tension. Most recently, some black citizens clashed with City Hall and police after an officer trying to stop a beating shot two black youths -- one of them fatally.

First to elect blacks

Still, officials like to tout their city as the first jurisdiction in Maryland to elect black politicians after the Civil War, and they note that blacks since that time have served on the city council almost without interruption.

The city has even had a black mayor. Republican John T. Chambers was appointed to the job by council colleagues in 1981 after Mayor John C. Apostol, also a Republican, resigned and Apostol's successor committed suicide.

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