For Mitchell, stakes are high, experts say

Threat to leave party may harm senator's political career

January 07, 2002|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Four years ago, state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV set himself on a course of political battles against Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Maryland's Democratic leadership.

He lashed out at Glendening for refusing to reinstate former Sen. Larry Young after he was expelled from the General Assembly for ethics violations.

In a dispute with another lawmaker, Mitchell also led an effort to kill a bill aimed at stopping racial profiling by police. And he helped a white Republican win a Baltimore County judgeship over an incumbent African-American backed by Glendening.

Experts say that now the senator from Baltimore's 44th District is gambling in a political game where the stakes for him are as high as they get. He has put his political future on the line with a threat that tomorrow he will announce he is leaving the Democratic Party because, he contends, the governor's proposed redistricting map is unfair to African-Americans.

Glendening's final plan will be introduced Wednesday during the opening day of the General Assembly session.

Mitchell, 39, says he believes his troubles stem from his refusal to play politics with party leaders. "What they're trying to say is you have to fit into a certain kind of mold. Well, I don't fit," he said.

Political observers say that Mitchell -- who under the new map would face a difficult challenge against Sen. George W. Della Jr., who is white -- is overreacting and doing incalculable damage to his career with even the threat of leaving the party of which his family has long been a part. He has flirted with the Republican and Green parties and is also considering becoming an independent.

"The tactic was unsound. He lost all credibility," said Arthur Murphy, a longtime Baltimore political consultant. Murphy predicts that if Mitchell runs for office as a Republican, he will lose.

Said political science professor Herbert C. Smith of Western Maryland College: "The question that voters have to ask themselves is, `Is Senator Mitchell doing all of this for personal ambition or for black voters?' "

Democratic leaders say that Mitchell's threat has rendered him "irrelevant." The governor has little to say about Mitchell, and no one in the party's leadership appears to be attempting to stop him from leaving.

"I don't know of anyone," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

But Republicans -- who would suffer serious blows in the redistricting plan that could cost them seats in the legislature -- are working feverishly to draw Mitchell into their camp with promises of support.

"Both of my arms are extended to welcome him," said Michael S. Steele, chairman of the state Republican Party.

It would be an unusual move for Mitchell to become a Republican after generations of devout Democrats, including such civil rights leaders as his grandfather, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., the NAACP lobbyist dubbed the "101st senator" in Washington, and his great-uncle Parren J. Mitchell, Maryland's first African-American congressman.

The state political career of Mitchell, known as "C-4," began in 1995 after a successful bid for a House of Delegates seat. He quickly rose in stature in the legislature, winning the Senate seat in the 1998 election after Young was expelled.

During the Young debate, Mitchell had called on the governor to support a move by the Democratic State Central Committee to return Young to the Senate. Glendening refused, and Mitchell publicly threatened to support someone other than Glendening in the 1998 gubernatorial race.

Mitchell said at the time that he considered himself "freed up to look at all options" because the governor had betrayed a friend by not reinstating Young.

Over time, the rift grew wider.

The senator broke from the Democratic Party in a hotly contested judicial race in Baltimore County to support white Republican candidate Robert N. Dugan for Circuit Court over the African-American incumbent, Alexander Wright Jr.

Wright was the first African-American judge on the county's 16-member Circuit Court bench. After the election, Wright -- whom Glendening appointed to fill vacancies on the District Court in 1993 and the Circuit Court in 1998 -- became the first sitting judge to lose an election in 60 years.

Many Democrats blamed Wright's defeat on Mitchell's support for Dugan. Wright was later reappointed by Glendening to a vacant District Court judgeship.

"Did I support a Republican judge?" Mitchell said. "Yes, I did. And I'd do it again tomorrow." Mitchell says he supported Dugan because he was a longtime friend, whose family had a history of civil rights activism.

Mitchell's list of political enemies was growing.

He received a harsh public lashing from Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a fellow city lawmaker, who referred to Mitchell as "the most despicable senator we have."

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