The Elkridge Club and the price of influence

July 17, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. went to an exclusive golf club recently for the same reason gangster Willie Sutton went to banks: That's where the money is. No news there.

But Mr. Ehrlich's campaign fund-raising excursion made headlines for another reason: The Elkridge Club doesn't have any black members. Never has. That revelation is startling, because many other exclusive clubs have scrambled to avoid similar controversy. Some have added one or two black members to inoculate themselves against charges of bias. It's not exactly integration, but it's moving slowly in the right direction.

Some say Elkridge has tried but couldn't get the black members it wanted. No one really knows because Elkridge emulates Henry Ford II: Never complain, never explain.

The club apparently did drop its "no black members" rule in the 1980s after Elkridge member J. Frederick Motz was appointed to the U.S. District Court. Judge Motz resigned from the club. He didn't want to face embarrassing questions during the confirmation process.

Clubs of this sort exist, in part, to assist members in their professional and business lives. And conversations there are likely to be part of a community's informal process of leadership and policy-making. Surely Elkridge did not wish to become an impediment to members or to that process.

Some argue - as did Mr. Ehrlich - that the club's membership policies are none of his business or ours. The governor should reconsider. At times, he has been concerned about such matters. Why would that role change at the club's entrance?

Because of its influential membership, the club is of interest to Marylanders and that membership should concern the governor for several reasons:

He is asking members of the club and their friends to contribute money to his re-election campaign. The take this time: $100,000. Part of the fund-raising deal is that voters get to see who's bidding for influence with mayors, senators, governors and others in public life. If the givers are polluters, or usurious lenders, or defenders of discriminatory behavior, the voters have a right to know and make whatever judgment they wish.

Mr. Ehrlich has based his own appeal on a precedent-setting inclusiveness. His lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, is the first black lieutenant governor in Maryland history. So when the governor raises money at a club where Mr. Steele might not be welcome as a member, the issue is properly before the voters to consider.

During last year's Republican National Convention, the governor criticized the entire Democratic Party for being racially insensitive. Now he says racial questions raised about a group of influential business leaders are of no concern to him.

The Elkridge Club has many things to recommend it, no doubt. Its members have included talented, generous and public-service-oriented citizens of the Baltimore region - men such as Judge Motz. It's the kind of place where big ideas get traction. The Greater Baltimore Committee held its organizational meeting there in the 1950s.

In that same decade, when the downtown Center Club was being formed, its membership was to be opened to blacks and Jews - an important breakthrough in a city where many businessmen's clubs did not allow Jewish or black members. The Center Club's openness was unavoidable because the federal government paid for much of the surrounding Charles Center renewal and federal rules forbid discrimination. But even with that leverage, the club did not take black members at first because its president, businessman and lawyer Clarence W. Miles, was worried that basic club expenses couldn't be met if wealthy white members stayed away because blacks were members.

Later, George L. Russell Jr., now chairman of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, asked a Center Club member - a prominent, philanthropic businessman - if he would support Mr. Russell's application for Center Club membership.

"No, but I'll vote for you," the man said. The support would have been public - a vote could be cast in secret. Mr. Russell eventually became the club's third black member.

In such grudging ways have Maryland and the nation repudiated the aggressively hurtful and damaging attitudes of the past. Integration and politics - the Ehrlich-Steele partnership, for example - have helped to move us along, but we remain a work in progress.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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