No clear leader in 44th District

Jones ahead financially, backed by top Democrats

`I think it'd be a toss-up'

Mitchell has name but is at odds with his party

Election 2002

August 26, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

For 40 years, no matter how strong their position, members of the Mitchell family have approached each election as if they were the underdogs.

But in the case of state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV's bid for a second term from Baltimore's 44th Legislative District, that beleaguered feeling may be as much a reflection of reality as pre-election anxiety.

Saddled with a reprimand from the General Assembly's ethics committee, and having alienated most of his fellow Democratic lawmakers with his backing of Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Mitchell is facing a stiff challenge from one-term Del. Verna L. Jones.

With less than three weeks to go before the Sept. 10 Democratic primary, Jones has a large lead in money, with financial and political backing from labor and General Assembly colleagues like House Appropriations Committee Chairman Del. Howard P. Rawlings and retiring Senate majority leader Clarence W. Blount.

"We're going against everybody - the unions, the Democratic establishment, Rawlings," acknowledges Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Mitchell's cousin and unpaid campaign coordinator.

Regarded as one of the most competitive state senatorial primaries, the race as yet has no clear-cut favorite, many say.

"If the election was held tomorrow, I think it'd be a toss-up," says Kenneth L. Webster, who is managing the re-election campaign of Del. Jeffrey A. Paige, also in the 44th.

Both Jones, who says her post on the House Appropriations Committee helped her get resources for the community, and Mitchell, who emphasizes his willingness to stand up for what he believes in, go door to door almost every night.

"I'm not going to act like it's easy," says Jones, 46. "I'm running against a name."

For his part, Mitchell, 40, scoffs at the advantages in endorsements and money of his lesser-known but less-controversial rival. "Means nothing to me," he says, "What matters is whether you get out and touch the people."

One factor that makes predictions difficult is the district's new boundaries. The 44th now encompasses the Johns Hopkins Medical complex on the east; Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park on the west; and a large part of southwest, including Morrell Park and Violetville. Nearly half the district's precincts are new.

Both Mitchell and Jones are proven vote-getters.

Running for public office for the first time in 1994, Mitchell won one of three House of Delegates seats by finishing second in a primary race that included three incumbents. In 1998, he got 53 percent of the vote in winning a Senate race against John D. Jeffries, who had been appointed to the seat after Larry Young was expelled from the Senate for ethical violations.

In her first bid for office, also in 1994, Jones failed to win a House seat. But in the 1998 House race, she garnered more votes than any of the 44th's General Assembly primary candidates, including Mitchell.

Fund raising

In this race, Jones raised $62,833 between November and Aug. 6 and had $47,354 on hand, while Mitchell raised $13,906 and reported a cash balance of $1,721, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Mitchell, however, had two fund-raisers after the reporting period ended.

Since filing July 8, Jones has gotten big contributions from Harriet's List, a Maryland group dedicated to electing women to public office ($6,000); the Service Employees International Union ($5,500) and Friends of Pete Rawlings ($3,000). The campaign committee of Clarence W. Blount, the retiring Senate majority leader, gave $700.

Mitchell's largest contributor is the Ehrlich campaign, which gave $3,000.

Mitchell does have one important intangible asset: the family name. His grandfather, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., whose name adorns the city courthouse, was a civil rights leader in the 1960s; his great-uncle, Parren J. Mitchell, was Maryland's first elected black congressman.

"I come from a long line of freedom fighters," Mitchell says.

But the family's legacy has been tarnished since the 1987 corruption convictions of his uncle Michael B. Mitchell Sr. and father, Clarence M. Mitchell III, both former state senators.

And Clarence M. Mitchell IV has had his own troubles.

In February, he was reprimanded by the Assembly's ethics committee for failing to disclose a $10,000 loan arranged by three businessmen with issues before the legislature.

On the campaign trail, Jones raises the issue of Mitchell's rebuke by the General Assembly obliquely, if at all - raising questions among some observers about her instincts to go for the jugular.

Prodded during an interview, however, Jones is less restrained, saying, "I have more core values espoused by his family. I mirror those; he doesn't."

"I'm trustworthy and I'm a hard worker - that's a difference between me and my opponent," she adds.

Mitchell remains unrepentant about the ethics committee's reprimand and says the matter has "been beaten to death."

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