Housing case may hamper Ehrlich

Blacks recall opposition to settlement with ACLU

`Full of racial overtones'

Election 2002

July 22, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

As Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. makes a pitch for black voters in his bid for governor, some African-American leaders say they haven't forgotten his vocal opposition six years ago to a plan to move poor Baltimore families to the suburbs.

Ehrlich's position on a 1996 legal settlement between the city and the American Civil Liberties Union is just part of the issue, critics say. Equally significant, they say, are the tactics Ehrlich and his political allies used to whip up opposition to the agreement and other housing proposals.

"It was very negative -- full of racial overtones and undertones and the general fear of blacks coming into the neighborhood," said Herbert H. Lindsey of the Baltimore County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "I think it is one of those issues that will kind of bubble up as we get into this campaign."

Ehrlich, the 2nd District congressman from Timonium, strongly denies that race had anything to do with his opposition to the settlement.

He was concerned, he said, that putting poor families in middle-class neighborhoods could hurt those areas. He also felt that the government should not give welfare recipients a free ride to the suburbs.

"It basically guaranteed a standard of living to some folks, where folks in the home next door had worked really hard to achieve the same standard of living," Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich, who is aggressively courting black voters, said he expects Democrats to use his stance to try to draw a wedge between him and African-Americans. He says he is ready for the attack and has no plans of changing his position.

"I do not want the American Civil Liberties Union running housing policy in my community, in my state and in my country," he said, noting that some Democrats have expressed similar concerns. "This is an issue we will be using in our campaign offensively, not defensively."

African-American leaders say Ehrlich's outspoken opposition to the settlement, which came two years after one of his political allies successfully derailed another federal housing program, reminded them of efforts to stop integration in the Deep South in the 1950s.

`People got hurt'

"I think people got hurt," said state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat. "When you force people to react on an emotional level rather than intellectually, I think it hurts government and it hurts people."

But other Democrats are urging Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the expected Democratic nominee, to refrain from attacking Ehrlich on the issue. These Democrats say it could backfire and divide the party by alienating white, middle-class suburban voters.

"In my community, the Democratic officeholders have worked very hard to preserve and protect neighborhoods. ... I have confidence the lieutenant governor understands this issue," said former Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat.

ACLU files lawsuit

In 1995, the ACLU filed suit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city of Baltimore, claiming that their policies resulted in segregated public housing and concentrations of poverty. Later that year, city and ACLU officials announced a settlement that called for demolishing and redeveloping four of the city's public housing high-rises.

As part of the agreement, some public housing residents were given the option of moving into white middle-class neighborhoods. The federal government would give the city 1,300 rent-subsidy vouchers that the former tenants could use to move into areas with low concentrations of poverty and minorities in either the city or the suburbs.

Several prominent Democrats -- including Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger -- also spoke out against the settlement, but Ehrlich played a leading role in trying to derail it.

Ehrlich, then in his first term, made his case in Washington by lashing out at former HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros. Back in his district, Ehrlich held public meetings on the issue, wrote opinion articles and held a televised debate with an ACLU attorney.

"In my view, suggesting that the only way to improve the lives of black Americans is to ship them off to live in white neighborhoods is an insult to blacks everywhere," Ehrlich wrote in The Sun in the spring of 1996.

`Quota-driven'

Ehrlich also was quoted as saying the agreement was "quota-driven, race-based, Section 8-style housing policy at worst" and "social engineering."

His efforts against the settlement came two years after his friend and confidant, Baltimore County Councilman Louis L. DePazzo, was one of three men who spearheaded what some call a racially charged campaign against the Move to Opportunity program. MTO was a federal initiative to move a small number of city public housing tenants to the suburbs.

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