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 blasted 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 has generated such a hostile response in the state capital that it may even cost him his job.

Opponents said 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.

"As they say, `A warship is safe in the harbor, but that's not what warships were built for,' " said McMillan, who 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. But I won't avoid a tough issue; I want to change some things."

McMillan argued that police officers cannot use this law to harass African-Americans at random because it specifies characteristics of "drug activity" to look for before approaching a loiterer to move along.

But Ruby Blakeney, a Ward 5 resident who heads the committee that is gathering ouster signatures, joined the ACLU and NAACP last week to call for the bill's recall after the Supreme Court decision.

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

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. "He seems very willing to learn and listen to people. People should give him a chance."

Family influence

The alderman is not one to waffle on what he believes to be right. He traces that aspect of his personality to his deeply religious Catholic family who raised him in Knoxville, Tenn.

"I've never been a follower," he said. "I've never been afraid to stand out."

McMillan moved to Annapolis in 1976 to attend the Naval Academy. After graduation, he was stationed on the USS Steinaker in Baltimore for more than a year, then attended flight school in Pensacola, Fla. In the late 1980s, he moved back to Annapolis to be an admissions officer at his alma mater. He joined American Airlines as a pilot in 1991.

Eloquent, outspoken and conservatively dressed, McMillan exudes an image of having been groomed for politics. But until two years ago, the husband and father -- two boys and two girls, ages 3 to 16 -- was content being a member of the PTA and the Hunt Meadow Homeowners Association board.

But then came a telephone call in 1997, mere days before the deadline for declaring candidacy for the Annapolis city council election in September.

Ward 5 was mired in uncertainty over who would be its next representative. Carl O. Snowden, a popular black Democrat who was outspoken on issues affecting the African-American community, had stepped down 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 political representation, and the Democrats -- who make up 70 percent of Ward 5 -- were pushing city police officer George Kelley, who is black.

On the Republican end, Sara White, the Ward 5 representative on the Republican City Central Committee for Annapolis, talked to neighborhood association leaders and called 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."

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