Successor chosen for House vacancy

Process highlights neighborhood politics

February 14, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Closing ranks in the face of a half-dozen neighborhood activists from Cherry Hill and Brooklyn, South Baltimore's top Democratic leaders yesterday tapped a junior member of their political family for a soon-to-be vacant seat in the House of Delegates.

William H. Cole IV, a 26-year-old Congressional aide and close ally of state Sen. George W. Della Jr., won the unanimous support of Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee members from the 47th District to replace Del. Timothy D. Murphy, who is resigning to accept a district judgeship.

Cole's name will be sent this week to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who is expected to quickly approve his appointment to the remaining 46 months of Murphy's four-year term.

While delegate is an elective office, the choice of Murphy's replacement essentially belonged to Della, who controls four votes on the five-member committee. As a member of the committee, Cole was able to vote on his own nomination during a closed-door, lunchtime deliberation at the library branch in Brooklyn.

The selection of the Locust Point resident to serve alongside Del. Brian K. McHale, a Democrat also from Locust Point, means that two men from the same small neighborhood near Fort McHenry now represent most of South and Southwest Baltimore. Cole said yesterday that, if his wife of two years agrees, he might move to a different section in the interests of "neighborhood representation."

"I've learned and seen a lot in a short time," said Cole, a University of Maryland, College Park graduate who has worked three years for Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. "And I absolutely am interested in pursuing elective office now and in the future."

The Maryland Constitution and election law grant the party central committees virtually unchallenged power over vacancies. Della's decision to conduct open-door interviews of the candidates yesterday gave the public a rare glimpse inside South Baltimore's unique politics: at once polite, parochial and racially charged.

The prospect of nearly four years in Annapolis -- without the hard work of winning an election -- proved attractive to 13 candidates, aged 26 to 75, six of them first-time office seekers. Among those who submitted resumes were a former administrative law judge, a firefighter, a social worker, former City Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, and a retired TV cameraman.

Interviews lasted less than 10 minutes and consisted of four identical questions. Most of the candidates offered speeches so optimistic and populist they would have made Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith -- the one who went to Washington -- blush.

"This country is too worried about taking politics out of life," said Bill Marker, a lawyer and political activist from Barre Circle near Pigtown. "Politics is good people trying to do good things."

Norman Vogel, retired from Channel 13, devoted part of his time to the history of Fort Avenue. Gary Thomas, an employee of the Baltimore sheriff's office, referred to his cerebral palsy in noting, "I wasn't supposed to be here. I was supposed to die as a baby. Doctors said I would never walk or talk normally."

Willie Walker, a former administrative law judge from Cherry Hill, declared with confidence: "I've been living in Cherry Hill 54 years, and I expect to be living there another 154 years."

Walker and three other candidates from Cherry Hill, South Baltimore's largest black neighborhood, were among the most disappointed. Cherry Hill has never had a representative in the state legislature. But hopes were high this time for Rosa McCoy and Gwendolyn Johnson. Both are neighborhood activists who have been members of the Stonewall Democratic Club, of which Della is a leader.

Despite the backing of committee member and 6th District City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, who is a Cherry Hill resident, neither Johnson nor McCoy had the votes. Stukes ultimately agreed to Cole's nomination, apparently in return for the right to choose Cole's successor on the committee.

"It stinks," said Cleoda R. Walker, a longtime Cherry Hill activist who, at age 57, was making her first try at elected office. "The old boys club did what it had to do."

When the committee members returned to the interview room and announced Cole's nomination, there was not a hint of applause. Some audience members loudly objected to the committee appointing one of its own members.

After one angry exchange, Della slammed a folder full of candidates' resumes on a table and, staring, walked toward a man in the audience. With other elected officials urging him to stop before a fight broke out, he seemed to think better of it and returned to his seat.

"Just another piece of democracy," Marker said bitterly,

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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