Black coalition issues challenge to candidates

Focus on education, housing, justice, transportation, health care, economic development

October 14, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

With just 3 1/2 weeks until Election Day, a group of African-American political, religious and business leaders from Baltimore unveiled a six-point agenda yesterday challenging candidates running for statewide office to confront such concerns as racial disparities in criminal justice and black business development.

Led by U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, state Sen. Verna L. Jones and Bishop Walter Thomas of New Psalmist Baptist Church, the group has taken the name Strategic Alliance and comprises about 40 prominent African-Americans.

Candidate questionnaires will focus on the group's six areas of concern -- education, housing, social justice, transportation, health care and economic development.

The move comes as both parties make a last-minute dash to court black voters. Some state leaders have criticized the Democratic Party for a lack of diversity on the statewide ticket. At the same time, the GOP has nominated Michael S. Steele, an African-American, for U.S. Senate.

But leaders of Strategic Alliance stressed that their effort was broader than election-year politics.

"This is not about Democrats and this is not about Republicans," said Garland O. Williamson, president of the President's Roundtable, a group of prominent black business leaders, after the announcement at New Psalmist. "This is about equity. It's about equity in economic development, equity in education. It's about fairness."

Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said the group is not affiliated with any political party. Rather, he said, members aim to encourage a public debate and prompt policy changes.

"This is so much bigger than an election," said Cummings. "What we are trying to do is effect positive change, have accountability and empower our community." Leaders said the group took shape more than a year ago and plans to be a force beyond Election Day.

Sparked by the images of human suffering after Hurricane Katrina, members began meeting at New Psalmist Baptist Church, asking themselves what could be done about what they considered glaring inequalities in local black communities.

They discussed such issues as the city's troubled schools, strategies for strengthening the area's historically black colleges and universities, the soaring costs of health care and public transportation problems. What emerged was a demand for change.

"We're not being treated fairly; this is really the bottom line. We have not been treated fairly by politicians on the local, the state and national level," Williamson said yesterday. "When you look at this city, African-Americans and other minorities own very little of it."

Thomas said he hopes the group will encourage discussion among congregations and communities on the six issues.

The public will have an opportunity to take part in the discussion today from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at an education conference organized by the group at the Brown Center at the Maryland Institute College of Art, 1301 Mount Royal Ave.

"So often, people want to be a part of making their schools the very best they can be, but sometimes they don't know how to," said Cummings. "We're hoping the public will come out to be a part of this."

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