In the voting booth, color takes back seat

Election: For many African-American voters, it was not race, but a wide variety of other concerns, that guided their choices.

Primary 1999 : Mayoral Race

September 15, 1999|By Joe Mathews and Michael James | Joe Mathews and Michael James,SUN STAFF

Martin O'Malley built his victory in white neighborhoods such as Hamilton and Highlandtown, but he sealed his huge margin in areas such as Roundview Road, in the heart of a public housing project in African-American Cherry Hill.

Across the street from a polling place there yesterday afternoon, six women who live on this street -- all older than 30, all mothers, all black, all from this south Baltimore neighborhood -- walked into Patapsco Elementary to push a button beside the name of O'Malley, a white man from the other side of the city.

They chose with little hesitation, for reasons as fickle as the Baltimore weather. He will clear the drug corners on Seamon Avenue, one said. He is conciliatory. He is commanding. He is cute.

One of the six, retired nursing assistant Theresa Davis, ran through the options. City Council President Lawrence A. Bell? "He's not grown up yet." Carl Stokes? "You must be joking -- we don't know him down here."

"I don't think there's much of a choice," she said, sighing, keeping an eye on one of her seven grandchildren. "This is an impossible job, and O'Malley is the one thing we've got. On TV, he's very direct and to the point. He's a stable person, with a wife and family. A lot of people in Cherry Hill will vote for him -- you'll be surprised."

As much as his toothy grin and plan for "zero tolerance" crime fighting, O'Malley owed his victory to two contradictory impulses: the strong solidarity of white voters with the white candidate, and the willingness of thousands of African-American voters to cross racial lines at the ballot box.

Preliminary returns last night strongly suggested that, around the city, blacks were more likely to cast their vote for a white candidate than whites were to vote for either of the two leading black contenders.

"The story this time is that many black voters decided to cross over and endorse a white candidate," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins political science professor and supporter of Carl Stokes. "Possibly that is because O'Malley received the endorsement of black political leaders. Possibly because they were disappointed with the candidates they had."

African-American voters proved unwilling to toe the racial line. Shernaise Bennett, 30, who handed out O'Malley literature on Caroline Street in East Baltimore, said she was harassed and stripped of her O'Malley campaign signs by a group of angry men, who stuffed them into an electrical utility box so she couldn't retrieve them.

"I've been called `nigger' by black people today," Bennett said. "The whole thing has just gotten to be ridiculous."

The trend appeared clear on a tour of West Baltimore. In Rosemont, Leon Wright said he voted for O'Malley because of the 3rd District councilman's determination to clear drug corners. Outside Lafayette Elementary School, Kevin Taylor, a 40-year-old postal worker, said he thought the city councilman represented a change.

"To me the race thing was overplayed," said Drenary Glover, 26, an African-American homemaker in the O'Malley stronghold of Northeast Baltimore.

That sentiment, coupled with soaring turnout in white neighborhoods, proved a winning combination.

Mary Koch, an 88-year-old former sugarhouse worker in Locust Point, braved a bad back -- which has curtailed her karate practice -- to make it to the polls. She expressed admiration for Stokes, but never seriously considered voting for him.

"I prayed last night to God that the city will select the right person," said Koch, who was accompanied by her friend Louise Brauer. "This O'Malley kid is probably our best chance."

That those same words were being uttered in Cherry Hill was one of yesterday's biggest surprises. Racism has shaped its history more than almost any other section of Baltimore. Isolated at the southern end of Baltimore, the hill was first settled by black veterans who weren't wanted in other parts of the city.

For decades, residents have complained -- with considerable justification -- that white politicians have ignored their needs and looked the other way when police brutalized their children and nearby industry polluted their air.

Political districts have frequently been carved up in ways that have hurt Cherry Hill candidates. The neighborhood got its first black City Council representative eight years ago, and has never been represented by a black in the House of Delegates.

But there was Theresa Gwynn, a longtime activist in Cherry Hill, saying that while she liked Stokes and Bell, she would vote for O'Malley because he had the most positive campaign. "He's himself," she said. "In the debate, his answers to the questions were clear. He didn't straddle the fence, and he didn't attack anyone. That's what people want."

A few feet away, Lavinia Williams, a 41-year-old laundry worker at St. Agnes Hospital, admired her new car -- an $8,000, 1992 Buick LeSabre --, talked about her four children, and spoke with optimism about O'Malley.

"The people that want to vote for Bell just want to vote for him because his name rings a bell," Williams said. "Nobody really knows what he stands for or what he'll do. They vote for him because they see his name a lot and because it seems right. But I think O'Malley is the man. I feel good about him."

Despite their race and class differences, some residents said they even saw cultural bridges to O'Malley. Eddie Gregg, 46, who worked the corner of Bridgeview and Carver roads for O'Malley, talked about how much he and the 36-year-old from the neighborhood of Lauraville have in common.

"I sing, too," Gregg said with a smile, referring to O'Malley's role as a lead singer with a Celtic rock band. "I sing with an a cappella gospel group called Brothers in Christ Saved. It's not the same kind of music he plays, but hey, we're both singers."

Staff writers Jamie Stiehm and Tanika White contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 9/15/99

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