Old club looks to new blood in 45th

But Eastside Democrats dispute claim they forced senior delegate from ticket

September 03, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Del. Hattie N. Harrison bristles at the thought that leaders of the political club she helped found 30 years ago now think she is too old and feeble for the rough-and-tumble world of electoral politics.

"I'm not helpless," said Harrison, 74. "My thing is I have experience, and they need somebody down there who knows how to work for the city."

The Eastside Democratic Organization's decision to leave Harrison off its ticket for the Sept. 10 primary has forced her to run against her colleagues.

"That is a shock for everybody," said Harrison, senior member of the 45th Legislative District's delegation and the longest-serving African-American woman in the history of the Maryland General Assembly. "It's not a happy feeling, I'll be frank with you."

How the venerable chairwoman of the House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee found herself in this situation depends on who is asked.

Harrison, 74, concedes that she told her colleagues after the 1998 election that she would not be running this term if her health got in the way. She was in and out of the hospital early in her current term, recovering from knee replacement surgery and a herniated disk. However, she said she now feels up to another four years in Annapolis.

"So, I decided I was going to run," she said. "Then they said, `You're too old, and we need to move you out of the way and bring in some young people.'"

Harrison's slot has been taken by Vernon E. Crider, a state central committee member barely half her age.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, head of the Eastside Democratic Organization and chairman of the city's Senate delegation, said there was no move to push Harrison aside. He remembers Harrison vacillating between running and not running. In the end, EDO members picked another candidate to run in her place.

"It's not `throw mama off the train.' Mama got off the train, then when the train started rolling down the tracks, mama decided to get back on the train," said McFadden. "It was very disappointing to me. That's my political godmother. It's been very heart-wrenching for me because she's done so much for the organization and for East Baltimore."

The disagreement between Harrison and the EDO has put an interesting wrinkle in what otherwise might have been a relatively trouble-free primary for Harrison and her fellow incumbents, Dels. Talmadge Branch and Clarence Davis.

This also is not the first time the EDO has broken ranks with one of its members. In the 1991 mayoral election, the organization supported then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke instead of the challenger, Clarence H. Du Burns, the city's first black mayor and an institution in East Baltimore politics. Like Harrison, Burns helped found the EDO.

Davis, who has said this will be his last campaign, noted that there is a desire in some parts of the district for a change in the delegation.

"There's a strong feeling that Hattie has done her service and with her health problems and all, it's best that she accept another position to end her career as opposed to running for elective office," he said. "I think a lot of people encouraged her to run and here we are, and it is unfortunate because Hattie is a great lady and there shouldn't be that kind of contention around our electoral efforts here in East Baltimore."

The EDO has dominated East Baltimore politics for years, putting its members into office, controlling community development dollars and exerting virtual veto power over who sat in the principal's chair at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

The level of dominance in the district could diminish in the coming years because the 45th is no longer built around the impoverished core of East Baltimore that made the district the second-poorest in the state. The newly drawn district does not include Dunbar, or Johns Hopkins Hospital and its surrounding neighborhoods. In their place the district received the decidedly more middle-class sections of Northeast Baltimore that extend to the county line.

Many of the same issues from earlier years remain in the newly configured district. Public safety and education top the list, along with concerns for increased commercial development.

"I'm interested in making the community not only survive, but thrive," said John A. Dunn, a longtime community activist from Northeast Baltimore who has put his name on the ballot.

Several other contenders, some of them veterans of earlier campaigns, are also running in the primary. Democratic candidates Doris Minor-Terrell, Ronald M. Owens-Bey, Kevin W. Parson, Robert R. Stokes Sr. and Aaron Keith Wilkes are joined by Roxcelanna Nia Redmond, the lone Republican, in the race for House of Delegates.

Frederick A. Broccolino is challenging McFadden for the Senate seat in the Democratic primary. Gordon T. Gates, the Republican candidate, is running unopposed.

Branch, former head of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, said Crider is in for an especially tough fight.

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