If Mitchell leaves party, party likely won't care

January 03, 2002|By Michael Olesker

STATE SENATOR Clarence M. Mitchell IV, grandson of civil rights crusaders, son and nephew of pioneer Democratic politicians, proud descendant of a family once known as the black Kennedys, says he will withdraw from the Democratic Party. Soon we will discover if the Democratic Party particularly cares.

Offended that Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed legislative redistricting would expose him to an actual political fight for re-election, Mitchell announced last week that:

a) He will withdraw from the party that has long represented not only his family but the vast majority of his constituents; and,

b) He will ponder becoming a Republican or an independent.

He will do this, he says, because he believes the new redistricting map is markedly unfair to African-Americans. Roughly translated, what Mitchell means is:

a) He is mainly upset that the new map is markedly unfair to Clarence M. Mitchell IV; and

b) He wants to be romanced by the very Democrats who frankly have little use for him.

This is a pity on many levels, only some of which have to do with Mitchell.

It is a pity, first and foremost, because the newly proposed district lines, while drawn with much of the cold calculation and revenge we've come to associate with Glendening, are mainly a reflection of something greater than his antipathy for Mitchell. They're a sign of the continuing population exodus from the city of Baltimore and the continuing growth of the D.C. suburbs.

Is this Mitchell's fault? Yes and no.

At play are historic forces far greater than the efforts of a state senator from West Baltimore. The city's population plummeted during the past decade for reasons having to do with narcotics traffic and related crime and neighborhood deterioration, decayed housing, impoverished schools, high taxes - the usual modern urban suicides.

While Mitchell's not responsible for such conditions, it is part of the job description for any politician: Do something about it or face the consequences.

And, while it's unfair to blame Mitchell for the continuing West Baltimore blight, it is a fact that this remains perhaps the most troubled part of a troubled city. Some of this is residue from generations of institutionalized racism in Baltimore, but some isn't.

Years after the civil rights movement in which Mitchell's family played such an important role, and years into a revolution in which millions of black people have earned middle-class status and beyond, it is a fact of life that African- Americans are still disproportionately poor, unemployed, under-educated and in trouble with the law. This is not exactly a bulletin, is it?

And, while it's beyond any single state senator's power to change this, it is precisely within any legislator's power to play the game well - to impress colleagues with the need for help; to make the case when unfairness exists; to tap into the real sources of power and money for community help; and to tell the truth about problems.

That means pointing the finger - at those in power who do not help, and at those in the community who continue to make trouble and cause the continuing exodus.

Senator Mitchell is a bright young man with a prematurely bitter exterior. In recent years he has chosen for his headline fights such dubious efforts as defending former Sen. Larry Young, at a time when Young was taking money under the table from financially strapped Coppin State College that otherwise could have put scores of impoverished kids through school; and sticking up for strip-joint manager Kenneth "Kenny Bird" Jackson, whose family's El Dorado Lounge was bumped to make room for the big rehabilitation of downtown's west side.

At that time, Mitchell issued a cry for more black businesses in Baltimore - a great cause, an important fight - but somehow imagined a strip joint run by a guy with a dreadful criminal record was a suitable rallying point, and then threatened to withhold state money for downtown redevelopment if his man Jackson wasn't coddled.

Those are the signs of a politician who has lost his way. They are signs of a man who has lost sight of the real problems in his constituents' neighborhoods and schools and police stations.

So now, faced with redistricting and a tough fight for re-election, Senator Mitchell threatens to bolt his party. (He has not returned a series of calls to his legislative office and his cell phone during the past two days.)

His departure would be a shame. His constituents deserve a political campaign in which real issues are debated. And Mitchell is too young, and too smart, to throw in the towel so easily.

Mitchell's grandparents, Clarence and Juanita Jackson Mitchell, faced some of the most difficult problems of racism in America and refused to back down. His great-uncle, former Rep. Parren Mitchell, opened doors previously locked to African-Americans. Mitchell's father and his uncle Michael each brought determination and eloquence to the fight for racial and economic fairness.

It's impossible to believe that Clarence Mitchell IV, at the end of so much family history, would face a simple re-election bid and decide instead to take a hike. Particularly since so many of his foes would like nothing better.

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