Former judge faults mayor on race issues

Russell: Pioneering black lawyer points to O'Malley's stance in a public housing case.

February 04, 2005|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

A pioneering black lawyer accused Mayor Martin O'Malley this week of trying to keep Baltimore's African-Americans "on the plantation" and said the city's other political leaders have failed to speak out against racial injustice.

George L. Russell Jr., a former judge and city solicitor, made the comments Wednesday at the University of Maryland, Baltimore during his speech at an event celebrating Black History Month and the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Here in Baltimore City, we have a dysfunctional school system," said Russell, a leader in the effort to open an African-American museum in Baltimore. "We have a police department that is out of control and cannot do anything about crime. And yet we have a mayor [who], when a federal judge said that something had to be done about the black and the poor all being centered in Baltimore City ... well, the mayor said he didn't want anybody to leave the city. He wanted to keep us all right here on the plantation.

"He's trying to leave," Russell added, referring to O'Malley's likely run for governor next year. "Every single day he's trying to leave."

O'Malley said yesterday that he was saddened by Russell's remarks, which related in part to the mayor's stance in a public housing discrimination case.

In that housing decision last month, a federal judge suggested that Baltimore's predominantly black public housing could be desegregated by giving tenants greater opportunities to live in surrounding suburbs. O'Malley, who is white, said at the time that moving city residents to the suburbs would undermine his efforts to reverse Baltimore's decades-long population loss.

"We disagree on the [housing] case," said O'Malley, who called Russell on Wednesday after hearing about his remarks. "I don't think he intended his words to come out in the mean-spirited way that they appeared. At the same time, that's how he feels. I'm trying to make our city grow. I don't want anyone leaving our city.

"I explained my position to him and tried to disabuse him of the notion that I am in any way trying to promote separate housing, segregated housing," O'Malley added. "That's not what I'm about. That's not what I've ever been about."

In his speech, Russell said the city's other political leaders had failed to speak out against O'Malley in the housing case - or to complain about an all-white class of recruits hired by the city Fire Department last year.

The comments had an effect, not just because the words were sharp, but also because Russell is well-known and widely respected. Many city politicians - as well as law professors who attended the speech - stressed yesterday how much they admire Russell, even if they took exception to what he said.

City Council President Sheila Dixon offered the rare rebuke to Russell.

"I think Mr. Russell's comments were unwarranted," she said, noting that the O'Malley administration has put minorities in leadership positions and increased opportunities for minority-owned companies in city contracts.

"The question is, where does Mr. Russell live?" she said. "Does he live in the city?"

Russell, who according to public records lives in Baltimore County, declined to talk with a reporter yesterday.

"I have no further comment to make," Russell said.

Russell was the first black judge on Maryland's Circuit Court in the 1960s and was later the city's first African-American solicitor and president of the Baltimore City Bar Association. Today he is chairman of the board for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

Some O'Malley supporters noted that Russell works as a lawyer with the firm of Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who has been at odds with the mayor.

O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who do not agree on much, agreed last March to put Russell in charge of a panel to overhaul the city school system, which was then in the midst of a financial crisis. When Russell turned down the appointment, he was flooded with phone calls from prominent Maryland politicians who urged him, unsuccessfully, to reconsider.

Andrew D. Freeman, a lawyer who helped tenants sue the city and federal officials in the housing case, disagrees with O'Malley's position in that matter. But he does not believe the mayor's stance stems from racism.

"I would not characterize the mayor's stance as racist. I don't think this mayor is racist any more than we thought that Mayor Schmoke was racist," Freeman said, referring to former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who is black and was a defendant in the suit.

At the same time, Freeman praised Russell.

"I've certainly got a lot of respect for him," he said.

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