Voters' choice: race vs. power

Senate: In the 41st, redistricting pits a one-term black delegate against an influential white incumbent.

July 14, 2002|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

The choice facing voters in this year's Democratic primary election in the city's new 41st District is this: Do they want to advance African-American representation at the expense of influence in Annapolis?

In 20 years, Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman has become one of the most powerful political leaders in Annapolis, with a level of influence rivaled, some say, only by the brashness of her tough, sharp-tongued style.

But African-American political leaders are prepared to lose her to elect a black candidate in the Northwest Baltimore district. Because the district is now 71 percent African-American, black leaders asked Hoffman, who was drawn into the district during this year's redistricting process, to move and seek re-election elsewhere or risk losing her seat in the General Assembly. She refused.

Hoffman, who is white, argues that Baltimore needs her influence in the state Senate, where she chairs the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, to ensure that the city continues to receive the money it needs for such programs as education, drug treatment and economic development, especially when the city is losing four senators because of major population declines over the past 30 years.

But to African-American political leaders another factor appears to outweigh Hoffman's experience: the longtime under-representation of blacks in the city, state and the nation, which prevented them from assuming positions of power.

As veteran Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings put it, people want representatives who "look like them, smell like them and think like them."

The 62-year-old senator now faces the fight of her political life against Del. Lisa A. Gladden, a 37-year-old one-term African-American delegate who works as a lawyer in the city public defender's office. And the race has the city buzzing over whether the entrenched senator, armed with more than $200,000 in campaign money and a wealth of experience, can defeat a black candidate in an overwhelmingly black district while running against the black political establishment.

Political observers expect a racially polarized election similar to the 1995 mayoral race between incumbent Kurt L. Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, when the vote was split largely along racial lines - signaling an uphill battle for Hoffman.

"It's going to be very difficult, not impossible, for Barbara Hoffman," said Donald F. Norris, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Is it more important to have a Hoffman in that position and through that position advance the city, or is it more important to elect an African-American?

"This question is nothing unique to African-Americans. That would be said if this were an Irish district, a Polish district, a Jewish district or any other ethnic group."

Hoffman might be helped by a third Senate candidate in the 41st District. Former Del. Frank D. Boston Jr., also an African-American, could take votes away from Gladden. Boston, 63, served in the House of Delegates for 12 years before challenging current 41st District Sen. Clarence W. Blount, who is retiring, in the 1998 election. Blount handily defeated Boston with 68 percent of the primary election vote.

Norris and other political observers see Boston more as a spoiler than a likely winner of the race because he has been out of office for four years, lacks financial support and upset many voters by challenging Blount four years ago. In addition to running against the veteran senator, Boston also challenged Blount's right to run in the district because he wasn't a resident any longer. The court rejected Boston's claim, further eroding his political stature in the district.

"Boston's not a factor anymore; he used to be," said Arthur W. Murphy, a longtime city political operative who has run campaigns in Northwest Baltimore. "He's going to get stomped."

Boston, Gladden and Hoffman are all Democrats. There are no Republican candidates in the 41st District race, so the Democratic primary will determine who goes to Annapolis.

The 41st District covers the northwest corner of Baltimore in a shape like an upside-down "L." Of the 108,521 residents in the district, 81,549, or 75 percent, are eligible to vote, said Karl S. Aro, executive director of the state Department of Legislative Services.

Almost 71 percent of the voting population is African-American, Aro said. The population is well-educated and is a leader in voter turnout among blacks and whites at 70 percent.

That's all a plus for Gladden, Murphy and Norris say, especially if blacks choose to vote along racial lines.

Gladden's challenge is to become known to more than half of the residents who are new to the 41st District.

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