Annapolis alderman digs in on loitering bill fight

Opponents claim enough signatures for recall election

June 18, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

The bill seemed like a clear solution.

Annapolis public housing residents wanted suspected drug dealers off their sidewalks. But police officers had no jurisdiction over the sidewalks, which are the property of the Annapolis Housing Authority.

So Alderman Herbert H. McMillan studied the loitering laws of big cities such as Chicago and Baltimore, and decided Annapolis could use an ordinance allowing police to ask suspected drug dealers on public housing sidewalks to move along.

But what the first-term alderman pitched as a simple fix has plunged him deep into the quagmire of racial tensions in America.

Annapolis' black leaders, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union have criticized the bill, arguing that police officers could use it to harass all African-Americans on street corners.

Last week, the Supreme Court struck down a similar bill, one aimed at gang members in Chicago.

McMillan's bill, which will be discussed at a public hearing Monday, has generated such a hostile response that it might cost him his job. Opponents say they have 800 signatures, 100 more than they need to start a recall process.

The 41-year-old accidental alderman, who had never seriously considered a life in politics until days before he ran two years ago, has rapidly learned that representing Ward 5 -- one of only two majority-black wards in Annapolis -- is a highly nuanced job where his perceived white perspective has become an issue.

McMillan has dug in for the fight.

"Maybe [my opponents] thought I would come in and sit around and try not to stir things up for four years," he said. "But I won't avoid a tough issue; I want to change some things."

McMillan argues that police couldn't use this law to harass African-Americans at random because it specifies characteristics of "drug activity" to look for before approaching a loiterer.

Ruby Blakeney, a Ward 5 resident who heads the committee gathering ouster signatures, joined the ACLU and NAACP last week to call for McMillan to withdraw the bill after the Supreme Court decision. The groups plan to protest his bill at the public hearing Monday.

Blakeney said she sees McMillan's bill as the last straw in a series of anti-black actions on his part. She noted his attempts to cut funding for Grandma's House, a public-housing after-school program, and Annapolis' Kunta Kinte Festival.

"Everything he has done in the past goes against these people that he is supposed to represent," said Blakeney, a Kunta Kinte Festival board member.

McMillan's defenders see an altogether different person.

"He's a good guy who believes all neighborhoods regardless of socioeconomics should be able to enjoy a safe environment just like the most affluent neighborhoods," said Antonio Brown, a Neighborhood Watch block captain in Ward 5 and an African-American.

Eloquent and outspoken, McMillan exudes an image of having been groomed for politics. But until two years ago, he was content being a member of the PTA and the Hunt Meadow Homeowners Association board.

Then, Carl O. Snowden, a popular black Democrat who was outspoken on issues affecting the African-American community, stepped down from his Ward 5 seat after three terms to run -- unsuccessfully -- for mayor.

Democratic ward

Race has always been an issue in Ward 5, one of two majority-black wards created in the 1980s so African-Americans would have representation, and the Democrats -- who make up 70 percent of Ward 5 -- were pushing city police officer George Kelley, who is black.

The Republicans looked to McMillan. "Like most people, I would read the paper and complain about things," McMillan said. "I would think that, if I was there, I would do this or that differently. I thought this was something I should do."

So he started knocking on doors to find out what his constituents cared about. When crime and loitering surfaced as issues, he made those his platform. And he scored a surprise win, squeaking by with 392 votes to Kelley's 358.

But McMillan's election didn't happen without at least one reference to his race. He and his predecessor made local headlines when Snowden chastised the Republican Party for not finding a black candidate to run.

McMillan cried race baiting, and hasn't forgotten the incident, especially since Snowden was at the protest meeting where the idea to oust him came up. McMillan expressed bitterness that his most vocal opponents -- including Blakeney -- have long supported or worked with Snowden.

In a fund-raising letter to 1,100 Republicans last week, he pinned the recall effort on "partisan extremists, led by Carl Snowden."

But Snowden, now a government relations liaison for the county administration, said he attended the meeting as an individual and did not instigate or voice support for McMillan's ouster.

"It's not appropriate for me to comment on Mr. McMillan's allegations," Snowden said. "He has my best wishes for his future endeavors."

Vocal leaders

Other county leaders have been more vocal.

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