Ex-senator still a force

Farmer: James Clark Jr.'s 28-year political career ended in 1986, but he has never abandoned public service or the political arena.

June 01, 1999|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

In his current life as an Ellicott City farmer -- dependent upon fate -- former state Senate President James Clark Jr. prays for rain. Not much, just the inch per week the crops on his 548-acre spread demand.

"If we have as dry a season as last year," he says, "it'll be a disaster."

That's how Clark spends most of his time these days -- fretting over his sweet corn. But 13 years after he ended an extensive legislative career, his political instincts remain sharp. There are still times when Clark takes matters into his own hands, calling in markers of political influence.

He did so twice in April, weighing in against a church's plan for townhouses next door and a gas station in Marriottsville. How much influence can he possibly have? Well, when people keep calling him senator, it's an indication of the sway he holds.

"I've never gotten over calling him `senator,' " says Del. Elizabeth Bobo. "It's not because he's stuffy, and I'm not a formal person myself, but the words just go together to me."

"He is a great foe, a great politician, and he's been doing it a long time," says the Rev. Darrell Baker, associate senior pastor of the Covenant Baptist Church, which lost a 5-0 Howard County Planning Board vote.

Baker has said he wants to sell a portion of the church's property for development of townhouses, a project Clark opposes, as he does an Exxon station at Warwick Way and Marriottsville Road. "He's a former state senator; he knows government, knows the system and he works through it," Baker says.

Mostly, the 80-year-old statesman manipulates the land. He takes care not to step on the tomato plants when walking to the rows in which he will plant gladioluses. He tends to the cattle. He rides the tractor.

Each morning, he wakes up shortly after dawn. He reads The Wall Street Journal and eats breakfast in preparation for his 7 o'clock meeting with George Pendleton, his assistant for 40 years.

"Time marches on; it doesn't stop," says Clark, driving through the farm, in much the same condition it has been in since 1951, save for a few houses built for family members. He ticks off the names of the trees, some of them obscure to all but the most ardent arborists: paulownia, sassafras, tulip poplar.

Besides the trees, there are more than 100 cattle, a handful of horses, a few hundred sheep, 22 acres of sweet corn divided between Silver Queen and Silverado, and a few rows each of tomatoes, okra and string beans.

Worried about corn

Clark's main concern is the sweet corn. It stars in the vegetable stand he runs on Route 108, but it needs more rain.

"It takes a lot of water to raise corn. This year, we're doing all right," he says. "But if we don't get a lot of rain in June or July, we'll be sunk. Farming's a tough business. There's no control over the weather, and no control over the prices you sell stuff for. And those are two of the main things."

He's aware that he could have gotten a lot of money for selling his land, at the northern edge of Columbia. But he says he never will -- his family worked too hard to obtain it in the first place.

The resolve is hard to appreciate until he roams into the western part of the county. Driving on Route 99, Clark looks to his left and sees bulldozers laboring over land near the proposed Exxon.

"Oh, my goodness, look at what they're doing there," he says, stifling the alarm, but too late. "If you want to buy a house, it's a good thing, I guess."

Staying involved

The choices he makes regarding causes he champions do not exist in a vacuum. His involvement and testimony in the Covenant Baptist case come from tangible interests. The church property abuts the land that Clark farms off Route 108 and Centennial Lane.

Baker, while admiring, says Clark never wanted any part of the church there. Clark says the church leaders misled him about further development of the property.

"They assured us they had no intention of doing that," he said during a planning board meeting April 9. "We were appalled when this proposal was put before us."

But when Clark inserts himself into the Exxon battle, it is an extension of the community participation that he has continued since he ended a 28-year career in the state legislature.

The proposed Exxon station site sits across the street from the Waverly Mansion, a 238-year-old structure protected by the Howard County Historical Society, on whose board Clark serves.

"To have a big filling station across the street isn't the best thing," he says, sitting in the driveway of the mansion on Marriottsville Road where former Gov. George Howard lived. "The county has an obligation to protect it. Anybody who drives at all goes by a lot of filling stations in the matter of a week. You can say you have to have one right here, but that doesn't make it essential."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.