Blacks seek seat in Balto. County

Redistricting, rising minority population open door to council

Politics will play role

January 14, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Energized by a growing recognition of strength in numbers, Baltimore County's African-Americans want to make history by electing one of their own to the County Council.

A group of black county leaders has quietly organized with the express purpose of choosing an African-American council member.

There has never been one.

But when census figures are released this year showing that the black population has grown 40 percent in the past decade - and that one in six county residents is a person of color - the white men who represent the council's seven districts will look rather, well, unrepresentative.

"There is always a need for people to be empowered," said state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Democrat from Randallstown. "There is a need for people who have unique experiences to express their own perspective. I don't know any other community that would rather be represented by somebody who does not have their own unique experiences."

Kelley is one of about 20 contributors to the Progressive Reform Political Action Committee, which hopes to make the sometimes muted voice of black county residents better heard in coming months.

Under the county code, Baltimore County Council has 90 days to redraw the boundary lines of seven council districts after census data are released. That means the sensitive political exercise that will attempt to balance the survival instincts of incumbents with the reality of an increasingly diverse county should be completed by August. The entire council is up for election next year.

"Once we see the lines that the council has drawn, the idea is to pick a candidate and go for the seat in the district that has the largest concentration of minorities," Kelley said.

It won't be easy. Incumbent councilmen will have self-interest on their minds as they draw maps. Minorities could be concentrated in one district on the west side or spread among three. By law, the county executive cannot veto redistricting decisions.

"You can't say it doesn't get political," said County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat.

40% population growth

If projections prove accurate, this spring's census reports will show that the black population in Baltimore County grew 40 percent between 1990 and last year, from 85,700 to about 120,000. During the same period, the county's white population appears to have dropped from 589,346 to about 579,000.

Put another way, all Baltimore County's population gain in the past decade could be attributed to blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

It is a pattern that mirrors Baltimore City's demographic shifts of three and four decades ago: whites move to outer suburbs in search of bigger yards, better schools and safer streets, and minorities fill in behind.

In Baltimore County, the black population has spread mostly west from Baltimore City, into the neighborhoods of Woodlawn, Woodmoor, Lochearn and Randallstown.

And while west-side blacks point with pride to their median income, which is higher than the county average, many are not entirely happy with their community.

They worry that their public schools have been saddled with inexperienced teachers and inadequate facilities and supplies.

They say that poor planning and zoning decisions along the community's main commercial corridor, Liberty Road, have resulted in an unappealing mix of fast-food restaurants and automotive businesses. For a good meal or a fancy dress, they say they must drive to Owings Mills, Towson or White Marsh.

`Nothing really here'

"If my daughter needs a nice outfit, I can't get it out of Kmart. I can't get it out of Marshalls. There is nothing really here," said Deborah Sharpe, 35, a public school principal and five-year Randallstown resident.

Sharpe is also an aspiring entrepreneur looking to open a business along Liberty Road. She acknowledges she does not pay attention to politics but believes being represented by someone who looks like her would make a difference.

"If it was someone who would think like I would think and know the quality of life we want for ourselves, they would say, `Let's have a nice restaurant. Let's have a nice place to shop,'" she said.

While schools and shopping areas are undoubtedly important, many observers agree that the county's black community has yet to be galvanized by the type of issue that could lead to sustained political involvement.

"African-Americans have a tendency to relate to what is happening in Baltimore City, and don't tend to see what is going on in the political structure in Baltimore County," said Anthony Fugett, president of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Still, local government has an immediate impact on the lives of county residents. Baltimore County has no incorporated areas, so council members serve as de facto mayors for about 100,000 people in each single-member district. They field complaints about schools, streetlights and sidewalks.

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