The Troubled 44th District One of Md.'s poorest legislative districts seems as star-crossed as its fallen political leaders

January 25, 1998|By C. FRASER SMITH and PETER JENSEN

Some of the meanest streets in Maryland run through Baltimore's 44th Legislative District, one of the poorest and most politically star-crossed in the state.

Compared derisively in recent weeks to war-torn and bombed-out Beirut, the district remains home to those without economic choices: the elderly, single-parent families and a population of children who are, almost without exception, eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.

According to census data, there is no greater concentration of poverty in Maryland than the 44th District. Consider the following:

* Almost half of the adults did not graduate from high school.

* More than three-quarters of the homes are occupied by renters, not owners.

* Two out of five district residents live below the poverty line. As in most of the city, virtually all who register are Democrats.

* Households composed of a single woman with one or more children outnumber married-couple families by 2-to-1. More than a third subsist on incomes of less than $15,000 per year.

* The middle class is fleeing; about 50 percent of the members of the district's leading churches live outside the the 44th.

Many of the district's residents honor a political dynasty started by a man who helped America come closer to the democratic ideal it had so proudly espoused. His banner is in the hands of his heirs, and they have occasionally dropped it.

Baltimorean Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. joined an epic struggle on Capitol Hill as lobbyist for the National Association of Colored People, cajoling and back-slapping legislators into support for the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights measures.

Many of the barriers to black voting rights were swept away. Yet the 44th District fiefdom controlled by Mitchell's sons and grandson posts what might be the most anemic voter registration and voter participation in any of the state's 47 legislative districts.

In the 44th and elsewhere across the nation, elective offices are filled by African-Americans as a result of the most senior Mitchell's work. His sons, Clarence M. Mitchell III and Michael B. Mitchell, have served as state senators from the 44th. In 1987, both were convicted in connection with the Wedtech scandal. A year earlier, Clarence had left the state Senate and made an unsuccessful run for Congress, and Michael had succeeded him as holder of what was becoming known as "the Mitchell seat."

Their successor was Larry Young, who had been nurtured in politics by their uncle, Parren J. Mitchell, Maryland's first black congressman. Young moved over from the House of Delegates to replace Michael.

During his political career, Young has been hounded by controversies ranging from questionable fund-raising to questions that arose after the murder of a friend.

He was easily elected and re-elected despite these difficulties. In all likelihood, he would have been re-elected again if he hadn't been expelled from the Senate for ethics violations.

Young insists he is innocent - as did his two immediate predecessors. Their chief defender has been the great civil rights worker's grandson, Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV. All three men, Mitchell says, are the victims of racism.

If Young fails to regain his seat - legal and other options are still under consideration by his lawyers - it could well remain the "Mitchell seat."

Known to political insiders as "C4" or simply "4," Delegate Mitchell could become the district's new senator. The selection will be made by the five-member Democratic Central Committee that the younger Mitchell served on in the 1980s.

Mitchell predicts that the outrage over Young's ouster will spark more political activity in the district.

"Voter participation should be higher. There are many more people who could be registered but aren't," he said.

Those outside the family circle believe Young's downfall might result in new leadership and urgently needed political change.

Even those favored by the Mitchell organization have been outspoken. In the 1994 election, Del. Ruth M. Kirk, seeking her fourth term, said, "I told the little boy I could spank his little tail," a reference to Clarence Mitchell IV. "His family wants him to have a seat," she said then. "They feel the seat belongs to the Mitchell family."

Though it has had different shapes and numbers over the years, the 44th has consistently been a center to the west-city area. As drawn on the state's legislative map, the 44th resembles a child's version of a tree, with its trunk reaching into Otterbein and skirting the Inner Harbor with a single branch extending into East Baltimore.

At the top, the tree is a fully rounded expanse of the city's heart, stretching from Pigtown and Poppleton, taking in Mount Vernon and parts of Bolton Hill to the north as well as the downtown business district. Even with the inclusion of upscale neighborhoods, the district is overwhelmingly poor.

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