O'Malley's win helps bridge racial divide

September 27, 1999|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- It was the headline that launched a thousand telephone calls and e-mails.

Well, not quite. But, it apparently seemed like that many to E.R. Shipp, ombudsman for the Washington Post, as she described how the calls and e-mails "poured in throughout the day."

Some readers were outraged over a front-page headline of the Sept. 15 Post that summarized the outcome of the Baltimore Democratic mayoral primary election like this: "White Man Gets Mayoral Nomination in Baltimore."

"It made me cringe," said the first caller. "I was extremely disappointed," said another. It "added to the racial divide," said another.

Silly me. I actually was delighted when I saw that headline. Maybe I've been covering politics too long. I did not think it added to the racial divide. I saw it as a sign that the divide has narrowed, at least in Baltimore, a city that is two-thirds black.

Ombudsman's view

But Ms. Shipp, a longtime acquaintance who also is black, didn't like the headline, either. In her weekly column, she described it as "a rather boneheaded decision" and noted that the Post's own Deskbook on Style clearly states that "race and ethnic background should not be mentioned unless they are clearly relevant."

The paper also apologized in a "clarification" the next day that the headline "distorted the role of race in the election."

That's debatable. As one who keeps an eye on mayoral races in Baltimore and other big cities, I don't think the Post should be too hard on itself.

Just as it was big news when the College of Cardinals chose a Polish pope, it is encouragingly significant these days to see a mostly black city judge a mayor not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his candidacy.

Race hardly is irrelevant in the politics of Baltimore or any other major U.S. city. When the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper where I work, ran the headline "Gary Elects Its First White Mayor Since 1967" after Democrat Scott King was elected in that almost 90-percent-black Indiana city in 1995, I don't recall that telephones rang off the hook at the newspaper.

Maybe the relevance in Gary's case was more obvious, especially to those who know history. In 1967, Gary, Ind., and Cleveland became the first two major U.S. cities to elect a black mayor. Both events were considered to be great, progressive breakthroughs. At last, major cities were opening doors for blacks to reach the higher levels of political power.

Three decades later, black voters in many ways have turned away from racially oriented politics to results-oriented politics. Although a number of black mayors have exemplified this trend, it is most dramatic to the casual observer when black-majority cities elect a mayor who isn't black, as they did in Gary and Oakland, Calif., which last year elected former California Gov. Jerry Brown to its mayor's chair.

In Baltimore, Martin O'Malley, a 36-year-old lawyer, city councilman and guitarist in a Celtic rock band, seemed to many to be an unlikely choice for an electorate that is two-thirds black. When the race card was played, it mostly was against Mr. O'Malley. During the campaign, he was accused of being an opportunist, benefiting from a black vote split.

At one widely covered event, one of his opponents, City Council President Lawrence Bell, openly called on blacks to vote for a candidate who "looks like you."

But Mr. O'Malley took the high road, with a platform centered around an anti-drug and anti-crime agenda in a city plagued by both. In the end, he easily outdistanced his challengers with 53 percent of the Democratic vote. In Baltimore, a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-1, that's tantamount to election.

GOP opposition

In November, Mr. O'Malley will face developer David F. Tufaro, 52, a Republican, to see who will succeed Democrat Kurt L. Schmoke, who decided not to seek a fourth term.

Significantly, the hometown newspaper, The Sun, reported that black voters were more likely to vote for a white candidate in this race than whites were to vote for a black. That's hardly the first time that has happened.

If black racial politics of the past three decades are beginning to sound less resentful and more relaxed, it will be for the same reasons the ethnic politics of other groups have relaxed: More avenues have opened up for cooperation across racial and ethnic lines to confront common problems such as jobs, schools, crime and city services.

If so, that's happy news. Unfortunately, it does not fit easily into a headline.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/27/99

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