No one vying to fill Gray's council seat

Several consider bid for post Democrat can't seek again

Term limit bars incumbent

Lack of successor for black councilman a surprise to many

September 09, 2001|By Larry Carson | By Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Everyone interested in Howard County politics has known for three years that east Columbia Democrat C. Vernon Gray's County Council seat will be up for grabs next year.

The five-term veteran and the council's sole African-American member cannot run for re-election because of a three-term-limit law adopted in 1992, halfway through his 20-year tenure.

But despite the advance notice, and with just a year until the 2002 primary election, no one has come forward to announce a run for Gray's council seat, though several are considering it. Neither African-American groups nor Democrats have endorsed anyone.

In contrast, at least two candidates are running for west Columbia Democrat Mary C. Lorsung's council seat -- including someone who began organizing before Lorsung decided last month to retire after this term.

In neighboring Baltimore County, black elected officials took only weeks this summer to unite behind Planning Board Chairman Kenneth N. Oliver as an African-American candidate in a new, majority-black County Council district.

In Howard, uncertainty over redistricting and the smaller county's more relaxed approach to politics might be factors, some say, but many observers are surprised that no one has come forward.

"We're still struggling for representation here. I think there needs to be a wake-up call," said the Rev. John Wright, an African-American activist who is pastor of First Baptist Church of Guilford.

"I'm kind of surprised that Vernon has not groomed somebody from the African-American community for that seat," Wright said, adding that an all-white council would be "appalling" because the county has a significant black population. "I think the best person that can represent me is a person who looks like me -- an African-American."

Howard County is 14.4 percent black, according to the 2000 census, and 21.5 percent of Columbia's population is black.

But Howard NAACP chapter President Thelma Lucas said her group would never try to find a successor for Gray. "We're not a political group," she said. "We would like to see an African-American or two on the council, but endorse someone? No."

Gray's view

Gray, a political science professor at Morgan State University and past president of the National Association of Counties, said it is not easy finding people active in community affairs who also want to run for office.

"In a sense, I'm surprised," he said. "If you look at the whole theory behind having district elections, people said there'd be an abundance of candidates for County Council. There haven't been."

The veteran councilman said it is "unreasonable for someone in political office to drag someone into the political process. They have to show an abiding interest [first]. Then, once they've identified themselves, they can be nurtured and brought along."

But others say an early, unified effort is required to build a political base in any county.

"I would think that any group that has been traditionally under-represented would need to start very early and build some internal consensus before you offer a candidate," said Baltimore County state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, who is black. "Barring that, you get a vacuum."

Although white officials can certainly represent blacks and vice versa, Kelley said, someone on the council from your own group "has that extra sensitivity and a trust level" for constituents.

Even Del. Frank S. Turner, a Gray ally who also represents east Columbia, conceded that "it's certainly an advantage to be out there early."

He and County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said politics in Howard County is not like the big-city version practiced in Baltimore, or in Baltimore and Montgomery counties.

"We don't do the [political] tickets. There's a different feel" in Howard, said Guzzone, who cut his political teeth in Baltimore County. "I see several potential candidates on the horizon."

Howard County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, said he is not worried about the lack of early consensus. "There will be a candidate," he said.

And Columbia Democratic Club President Neil Quinter said he is not surprised that no one has come forward. "We try desperately to put the slimmest pattern of organization on our political efforts," he said, laughing. "The election is a long way off," he added.

Possibilities arise

Several potential candidates are considering the race for Gray's District 2 seat, but none has made a decision, they said.

Calvin B. Ball III, 26, of Columbia and Cameron E. Miles, 39, of Ellicott City, both African-American, are among them. Miles is a state employee -- coordinator of Young Fathers/Responsible Fathers, which is a Baltimore-based program to teach young men to be better parents. A decade ago, he also worked as an Annapolis lobbyist for Baltimore County government. He lives south of Route 100 near Mayfield Middle School, in an area in District 2. But Miles said he is waiting for a final redistricting decision this year before deciding whether to run.

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