Caribbean voters may form crucial bloc

September 11, 1999|By Gregory Kane

TWO TELEVISION cameras were on hand when 5th District city Councilwoman Helen Holton stood in the 5100 block of Park Heights Ave. and gave her endorsement to Carl Stokes for mayor.

"I have looked at all the candidates," Holton said as the cameras rolled, "and feel Carl Stokes is the best person to take the city forward. [He's] our best hope for the future of Baltimore."

With the cameras still cranking, Holton turned the podium over to Stokes. Standing in front of the Park Heights Barber Shop, Stokes gratefully acknowledged Holton's endorsement and repeated his campaign themes of no zero-tolerance to reduce crime and revitalizing neighborhoods by bolstering small- and medium-sized businesses "which provide 80 percent of all jobs."

Stokes and his campaign staff then moved up the street, in front of the headquarters of the Baltimore Association of Caribbean Organizations (BACO). The television cameras vanished. No other media were present.

"Folks take the Caribbean community for granted," Carlton Best observed in what may be the greatest understatement of the election campaign as he stood in the 5400 block of Park Heights Ave. last Wednesday morning. The day's media coverage proved him right.

The Caribbean community was being ignored again. But undaunted and without hesitation, Best proclaimed that BACO and the Caribbean Business League (CBL) were giving their endorsement to Stokes.

Compare the sparse media coverage given to two of the city's Caribbean organizations' endorsement of Stokes with the coverage this paper gave to Bethel AME pastor Rev. Frank Reid's endorsement of mayoral candidate Martin O'Malley. We did a front page article on Tuesday announcing that Reid would endorse O'Malley that day. On Wednesday we ran Reid's endorsement on the front of the Maryland section, with a picture of Reid flanked by O'Malley.

We touted the "significance" of Reid's endorsement, revealing that he heads a church of some 14,000 parishioners. Overlooked was the news that many in Reid's congregation (more than half, according to a news report two years ago) don't live in Baltimore and, assuming they were inclined to give support per their pastor's endorsement, couldn't vote in the city's primary anyway.

Best said that there are some 40,000 city folks from the Caribbean -- mainly Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago. Assuming Best's estimate is correct and they vote as a bloc per the endorsement of the CBL and BACO, we're looking at a far greater vote swing for Stokes than for O'Malley. Even if we assume only one-fourth of Caribbeans are eligible to vote, that number is probably still greater than the eligible voters in Bethel's congregation. So which endorsement was more significant?

It might just be BACO's and the CBL's endorsement of Stokes. The media apathy about Stokes' support in the Caribbean community was summed up by Best.

"We don't get the respect of the Koreans," Best said, in reference to the common belief that Koreans are good businessmen. Caribbean folks, he added, traditionally keep a low profile. "We are the silent majority," Best proclaimed. "We don't make no waves."

That might change come election day. Best said Caribbeans now consider themselves a "viable force" in city politics who "have been too long neglected and ignored as a voting people." Best said the endorsement of Stokes is the first time Baltimore's Caribbean community has supported a candidate.

"I've been working with the Caribbean community for years," Stokes said as he accepted the endorsement. "The Caribbean community is a thriving community of entrepreneurs who give back to the community." It should come as no surprise that Stokes is expected to attend this weekend's Caribbean festival.

Best and Dr. Elaine Simon, the executive director of BACO, said that 65 percent of the businesses in the Pimlico community are owned by Caribbeans. The mom and pop stores they've set up in the area "have revived the Park Heights community," the pair asserted.

The decision to support Stokes came easy. He was the only candidate to visit the community and talk to business leaders there even before he announced his candidacy for mayor. Stokes asked for Caribbean support. BACO leaders said he was the only mayoral candidate to do so.

John Haye, who also owns a business along the "Little Caribbean" corridor in Park Heights, said his only problem with Stokes was that television and radio stations didn't give him enough time for answers during debates. He was first impressed with Stokes when he gave speeches before the Caribbean community.

"I have no other choice but to vote for him," Haye said.

In an election already too close to call, it may be the votes of the Carlton Bests, the Elaine Simons and the John Hayes that tip the balance in favor of Stokes. If that happens, maybe the local media will sit up and take notice of Baltimore's Caribbean community in the next election.

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