Shore coalition aims for political muscle Farmers, black leaders, environmentalists join in voter registration drive

August 06, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- A coalition of farmers, environmentalists and civil rights leaders has launched a voter registration drive in the Shore's only predominantly black legislative district. Carved from parts of Wicomico and Dorchester counties in 1994 under federal court order, the district has yet to elect a black legislator.

Beyond this fall's election, organizers of the Community of Concerned Citizens of the Eastern Shore aim to forge a permanent alliance linking groups that, historically, have wielded little political influence on the rural peninsula.

A series of meetings began last fall to discuss the toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicida, which killed millions of fish and forced the closure of the Pocomoke River and other Chesapeake Bay BTC tributaries. Gradually, the group broadened its focus, said Edward Lee, Worcester County chairman of Circle of Leaders, a loosely knit group of about 100 black leaders on the Lower Shore.

"As these different folks began to sit down together, we all realized there was common ground on most issues," Lee said. "The farmers have their concerns, the environmental groups have their concerns and African-Americans have specific issues. But we all came to feel that we need to join hands to leverage our common interest."

Chris Bedford, director of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, acknowledges that the nonpartisan registration drive to sign up 1,000 new voters and get them to the polls for the Sept. 15 primary is an unusual project. But, he says, the effort offers a chance to build bridges locally and, perhaps, add an environmentally friendly face to the General Assembly.

"Frankly, we were all looking for something we could take on together, something visible, something that, politically, could affect us all," Bedford said.

"The political power here is with the big poultry companies and other business interests, and there is a real fear of speaking out. This is a relatively safe way for people to speak out."

Tim King is president of the Delmarva Poultry Growers Association and a frequent critic of poultry giants such as Perdue and Tyson that dominate the Shore's economy. One of his major concerns is who will pay the costs of tighter regulation of the chicken manure fertilizer that many scientists believe fuels Pfiesteria.

While he will lobby Annapolis lawmakers for poultry processors to bear a large share of state-mandated programs to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen runoff, King knows that persuading suspicious farmers to team with environmental groups will be a tough sell. He represents 300 of about 2,800 poultry growers on Delmarva.

"If farmers listen carefully to what the environmentalists are saying, they'd realize we aren't that far apart," King said. "I don't think you can ever change anything without changing the politicians. That seems fundamental."

District 37A is 60 percent black, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans about 2-1 among approximately 12,000 registered voters.

In 1994, Republican Don B. Hughes, who is white, won the seat over two black candidates -- Democrat Rudolph Cane and Lemuel D. Chester, a former Dorchester County commissioner, who ran as an independent.

Next month, Cane, a former Wicomico County commissioner, will be opposed in the Democratic primary by Cambridge City Councilwoman Octavene Saunders, an African-American, and Wicomico correctional officer Troy A. Johnson, who is white.

Hughes, who is not seeking a second term, endorsed Jacqueline B. Jones, a black Republican who served as his legislative aide.

Last weekend, coalition members registered 265 new voters in three precincts in Salisbury and Cambridge. Next month and in November, organizers are planning a get-out-the-vote campaign.

"Our concern is that as a community, we're impotent," Lee said. "The important issues are the same for everybody. Right now, we don't have a sense that anyone in Annapolis understands that."

Pub Date: 8/06/98

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