Reaching across the racial divide

Mitchell receives white support but trails among blacks

Baltimore Votes -- Primary: Sept. 11, 2007

August 13, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN REPORTER

It was a hot Sunday afternoon, and City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. was standing on a platform in front of a South Baltimore crowd, pounding away at the theme of diversity.

"That's what this city is about," the mayoral candidate boomed into the microphone. "Our diversity. That's what this campaign is about. Diversity."

For this predominantly black city - where race subtly imbues every aspect of politics - the message of inclusion clearly struck a chord with the sea of largely white faces in the audience. But in a city like Baltimore, white support is not enough.

According to the results of an opinion poll conducted last month for The Sun, white voters make up the bulk of Mitchell's support. But he still trails Dixon among white voters, though the gap is narrow and within the poll's margin of error. Mayor Sheila Dixon leads in every category, especially among black and female voters, according to the survey.

Experts say it is no surprise that Dixon has a large edge among female and black voters. She is Baltimore's first female mayor and one of two black female mayors at the helm of a major city.

Her support from women - black and white - is evident from campaign events that included a Mother's Happy Hour in Federal Hill, a fitness and line-dancing event, and a high tea at the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion. A Women for Dixon group is prominently advertised on her campaign Web site. At a rally Saturday, she stood on the podium hand in hand with a group of mostly black female elected officials.

"When you look at voting trends in Baltimore City, black women tend to turn out the vote in higher numbers than black men. They are one of the largest voting blocks," said Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs. "It's not just African-American women, it's also white women, who see an opportunity for women to register politically."

Some elected officials say they have noticed the racial split between the candidates.

"Sheila has a lot of strong black support," said 2nd District City Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., who has been knocking on doors for a couple of weeks in his re-election effort.

"Mitchell has a lot of white support," D'Adamo said. "I'm seeing it. I'm hearing it. That black vote and female vote is definitely going with Sheila. There's a lot of white support for Mitchell in my district. Here's the thing: Is the white vote enough to put you over?"

Most observers say no.

"Given the numbers you have in the city of African-American voters, one will need probably a third of the African-American voters," said C. Vernon Gray, a political science professor at Morgan State University.

More than 60 percent of the voters who said they would vote for Mitchell are white, according to the poll, compared with 25 percent for Dixon.

Meanwhile, 68 percent of those who said they would vote for Dixon are black, compared with 32 percent for Mitchell.

"To the extent that there is a white candidate in this race, he's it," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "White voters are more likely to vote for Keiffer Mitchell than black voters are because he seems more receptive to the white communities."

Mitchell's fluorescent campaign signs - though popping up all over the city - seem especially prevalent in white and middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods. As he knocked on doors last month one weekend in the Overlea and Rosemont East neighborhoods in Northeast Baltimore, many of the residents who came to the door were white. Most said they are planning to vote for Mitchell because they agree with his positions on crime and education.

Mitchell's canvassing schedule includes a mix of black and white neighborhoods. During one typical week this month, his schedule included the largely white neighborhood of Locust Point, in addition to Northwood and Ashburton, two largely black, middle-class neighborhoods. Last week, his schedule included door-knocking in Canton, Beverly Hills and Woodring.

"I'm campaigning all over the city. We're campaigning in black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods," said Mitchell. "We're campaigning in the precincts that we see as having high voter turnout. The ground we're covering is pretty diverse, and it's strategic."

Campaigning in higher voter turnout areas might naturally result in more of a white audience; black voters vote at two-thirds the level of white voters in Baltimore. But experts say that gaining ground in the black community - more than 60 percent of the city - is critical if Mitchell is to close the gap.

"It's hard for Keiffer to break out," said Steve Raabe, president and founder of the nonpartisan firm, OpinionWorks, which conducted the poll. "He's doing much better among whites, and that's where his stronger base of support is. You have to be able to transcend the African-American community to win the race, and he needs more than just a white base."

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