A statesman rises to the occasion Senator: The majority leader knows the value of education. He started school late, but kept at it and became a military officer, educator, political leader, and a strong voice for children.

The Political Game

April 15, 1997|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

HE IS known to his colleagues as "the conscience of the Maryland Senate."

And last week, in the final hours of the General Assembly's 1997 session, it was obvious why.

Rising to deliver one of the more impassioned speeches all year, Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount was able to do what no one else had seemed to do in the previous 89 days.

Just before a critical vote on the city schools deal, he focused the attention of the legislature where it belonged -- on the schoolchildren of Baltimore City.

"My palms were a little sweaty until Senator Blount stood up," acknowledged Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke after watching the Senate give final approval to a bill that will infuse $254 million into the city schools over five years in return for management reforms and a state role in running the system.

In the months-long debate over the deal, it was the children's interest that seemed lost. Up till the end, there was politically and racially charged rhetoric about a "state takeover" of the school system, as well as the votes-for-more-aid extortion by suburban Washington-area legislators.

If the bill had gone down -- which was still a possibility on the last day, had the Senate rejected the House of Delegates' amendments -- the courts would surely step in to take control of the schools, delaying any help for years.

And in that case, Blount asked the Senate, "What happens to the kids of Baltimore City?

"They're getting less and less and less," he said. "Poorer teachers, poorer facilities, less equipment, no computers, nothing.

"I'm not going to stand here and allow that to happen if I can," the seven-term senator said.

And he didn't.

"I wasn't going to rise, but for the sake of the children of Baltimore, I'm going to stand on my feet," said Blount, who turns 76 Sunday. "Not to say anything would be the worst thing that I could do."

Blount spoke with such force that he cemented any support that might have been wavering for the bill, managed to render insignificant another city senator's objections to the legislation and even brought tears to the eyes of a few senators and onlookers in the gallery.

It was clear that he was speaking not just as a Baltimore legislator, not just as the Senate's senior statesman quite capable of dousing brush fires on the chamber floor, but as someone who understands the overall importance of education.

His own life is testament to it.

The son of a North Carolina sharecropper, Blount worked the fields of an old tobacco plantation in Beaufort County as a boy. He couldn't go to school, quite simply, because he had no shoes.

By the time his family moved to Baltimore, he was 10, and he could neither read, write nor even count to 10.

He entered the first grade the oldest -- and tallest -- in the class. And it was the Baltimore City public schools, the ones in such dire trouble now, that changed his life. So great an impression was left on him that he can still recall his teachers by name.

When Blount graduated from Douglass High School, he was 21, a fact he kept hidden because he was embarrassed by it.

He went on to what was then Morgan State College, but a month after entering, he was drafted. Blount spent four years in the Army, winning a battlefield commission to first lieutenant in Italy and being cited for his bravery and leadership.

After World War II, Blount returned to Baltimore, and to Morgan, and began a career in education.

He taught geography at his old junior high school and went on to become principal of Dunbar High School, before moving to the former Community College of Baltimore. There, he was chairman of the social services department and later, executive assistant to the president.

During that time, he continued his studies. He received his master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University and was well on his way toward a doctorate at Georgetown University, when a severe bout with stomach ulcers forced him to quit.

Blount came up in the rough and tumble politics of West Baltimore, where his Five-in-Five Democratic Club still carries weight.

For the past 14 years, he has been the Senate majority leader, serving under two presiding officers.

In 1987, he was vice chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee when his close friend, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, named him chairman of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, making him the first black legislator to chair a standing committee of the Maryland Senate. He is still chairman.

In years past, his name has come up as a possible congressional and mayoral candidate, but he has remained in the Senate since being elected in 1970.

Blount was an ally of William Donald Schaefer when he was mayor and governor -- and from time to time over the years has been criticized by some leaders of Baltimore's black community as being too close to the white power structure, particularly in the General Assembly.

Those criticisms are sure to surface again, after his speech last week helped squash an effort by some black city politicians, ministers and others to scuttle the schools bill.

But he believes that any flak he will take is worth the risk.

"We're losing kids every day," Blount said in an earlier interview.

"We are one state, and if one part is ill, one part is sick, one part is poor, one link in this state's chain is weak, then all of it is affected," he said.

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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