Wilson sees his council loss as a small win for minorities

First African-American to run in the past 20 years

September 13, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Terry Wilson -- an African-American who was defeated in the primary election this week -- isn't stewing over his loss. In fact, he is celebrating what votes he received and is offering encouragement to other would-be minority candidates.

"I can't remember the last time there was an African-American in a council race," said the Crownsville resident and retired county police officer.

He lost the Democratic nomination in District 4 to County Council Chairman Bill D. Burlison, an Odenton resident and former congressman.

"I took a chance. I stepped forward," Wilson said.

For that, Wilson is proud. But the result of his defeat -- no minority representation on the council for at least another four years -- has black leaders worried.

So far, Sarah E. Carter, a Democrat from Pumphrey who died in 1998 at age 77, is the only minority to have served on the council. She was elected to an at-large district in 1974 and served until 1982, when a combination of forces, including elimination of the at-large seat and subsequent redistricting, weakened her support base.

Some black leaders argue that Carter's initial success -- she was able to tap into black votes countywide -- shows the need for a super-majority minority council district.

"I was watching that [Burlison-Wilson] race, and yes, it was disappointing that Terry lost," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It shows the need to redraw the [councilmanic] lines. We need a candidate who will be more attuned to our needs."

That's the same pitch Stansbury and other black leaders made a year ago when they offered a plan to redraw councilmanic districts to include two minority districts. The idea was to expand the council from seven members to nine.

Given that the county's minority population has grown over the past decade -- African-American residency increased from 50,525 in 1990 to 66,428 in 2000 -- the plan made sense to many residents, yet it was rejected by county officials.

African-American residents account for about 14 percent of the county's population; racial minorities, including white Hispanics, represent 20 percent.

"If the council had passed a redistricting bill, it would have greatly improved our chances," said Carl O. Snowden, a former Annapolis alderman and mayoral candidate who now serves on County Executive Janet S. Owens' administrative Cabinet.

Snowden, an African-American, said he knows all too well the challenges a minority candidate faces when running for elected office.

And no minority mayoral candidate or woman had ever made it past the primary race until last year, when then-Alderman Ellen O. Moyer beat out four opponents on her way to becoming the city's first female mayor.

In retrospect, Snowden said his 1997 mayoral bid, although unsuccessful, may have opened the door to someone other than a white male. The eight-member city council also includes three black members, the largest minority representation ever.

"I lost that election by 155 votes," Snowden said. "I am the only African-American who ever came that close to winning a mayoral primary."

That success hasn't translated into other offices countywide -- there are no minority members in the county's state legislative delegation.

Looking back, Wilson, 54, said that he might have fared better if more black voters had come out to the polls in District 4, an area that includes Fort Meade and Odenton, neighborhoods with a high concentration of black residents.

District 1, which includes the county's northernmost neighborhoods, and District 6, which includes Annapolis, also have high concentrations of black residents.

In an effort to help Wilson and other minority candidates, including those who ran successfully for seats on the Orphans' Court and Democratic Central Committee, NAACP officials held an election rally and candidates forum in Annapolis recently.

Stansbury said that minority voters often don't realize the importance of a primary election. That may have hurt Wilson, he said.

"Some people want to wait for the big one," Stansbury said, referring to the general election. "We've got to do more to encourage African-Americans to vote," Stansbury said.

In the District 4 race, however, Burlison's name recognition, as well as his door-to-door campaigning, helped him carry the primary. Burlison, 71, received 2,777 votes to Wilson's 1,114. Race was not an issue in the campaign.

A third candidate, Lee Hatfield, received 340 votes. Hatfield dropped out of the race too late for his name to be removed from county ballots.

Burlison will face Republican Michael Malone, an Odenton resident, in the Nov. 5 general election.

"I was disappointed, sure," Wilson said. "But we didn't lose anything. We won in a sense, because it was the first time in 20 years that a person of color had even tried to get on the council. We are still winners."

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