It's unlikely the smaller City Council will do business the old-fashioned way.

A shift in council alliances

December 09, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

A threatened coup for the City Council vice presidency has fizzled. Gone, too, are the rumblings over committee assignments and promises to buck Mayor Martin O'Malley.

And today, as the political restructuring that critics warned would balkanize Baltimore and produce an all-white council with some Republicans finally comes into being, there will be exactly two new faces among the 15 sworn in.

Even the pair of newcomers to what will remain an all-Democrat, majority black panel are hardly strangers to local politics.

Belinda K. Conaway of the 7th District is the daughter of the city Circuit Court clerk, the stepdaughter of Baltimore's register of wills and the sister of a 1999 council candidate. James B. Kraft of the 1st District has been active in Democratic circles for 25 years.

The only other nonincumbent joining the council in this morning's inauguration at City College can hardly be called a freshman. Mary Pat Clarke of the 14th District is a former council member who served for 16 years, eight of them as president, and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1995.

But council members say change is in the air, if only because the reconfiguration brought about by a November 2002 ballot initiative known as Question P will break up old district-based alliances and open the door to new ones.

"It ain't gonna be the council of old," said Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, even as he abandoned his upstart campaign to unseat Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake.

Question P cut four seats from the council and replaced six three-member districts with 14 single-member districts. The council president continues to be elected at-large.

By shrinking districts and breaking up political slates, the change promoted by a coalition of community and labor groups was supposed to make it easier for less-established candidates to win office.

Incumbent council members, who violated the state's open-meetings law in a failed attempt to thwart the measure, warned it would carve up the city into self-interested districts, lead to the ouster of many black incumbents and -- no less dire, in their view -- put Republicans on the council for the first time in 60 years.

None of that came to pass. Now council members say the main impact will be on how they interact with constituents and each other. Multimember districts produced natural alliances between council members. Now they will be wheeling and dealing based on issues and personal alliances, not common district interests.

"All of us will be maneuvering and figuring out how we get through and get city business done," Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said.

Since the election, some council members have vowed to stand up more to O'Malley, who, with the exception of a big tax package, had little trouble getting legislation through the council last term.

Council members said they were upset to learn recently that the mayor had withheld information from them -- about alleged domestic disputes in his former police commissioner's past, and in another case, the objections of O'Malley's cable television advisory commission to a 12-year deal with Comcast.

The challenge to Rawlings Blake as council vice president seemed to stem from that discontent. The vice president, while formally elected by the council, is traditionally the mayor's choice and acts as his floor leader.

Young and Councilman Robert W. Curran both said they wanted the post. Curran said he would settle for a plum committee assignment, heading the Land Use and Planning Committee, a position several others jockeyed for.

Neither Young nor Curran apparently got what he wanted, but neither is griping publicly. The land-use post will go to Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, according to other council members. Young not only dropped his quest for the vice presidency but started talking about harmony on the new council.

"I want unity," Young said. "I want peace on the council. So I just got out of the race."

New perspectives

Conaway and Kraft say they will bring new perspectives and approaches to the council.

"I don't owe anyone for getting into this office. That's a wonderful, wonderful position to be in," said Conaway, 37, a guidance counselor at W.E.B. Du Bois High School. "I am not beholden to anyone except the people I represent."

She says that includes her father, court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr., an outspoken critic of O'Malley who challenged the mayor unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate last month.

Conaway and her family -- husband Milton Washington, a toy store manager; and children Britani, 12; and Xavier, 7 -- live with Frank Conaway and his wife, Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway, in a big brick colonial in Ashburton.

"Daddy cooks, so I don't know how you ever get rid of anybody when you cook," Conaway said with a laugh.

Close family ties do not necessarily translate into shared political views, Conaway said.

"My father taught me to have my own mind, so I don't have to be influenced by his point of view," she said.

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