No longer the same in Somerset

Our view: In an Eastern Shore county with a troubled history of racial discrimination, voters embrace a new beginning

November 06, 2010

Craig N. Mathies Sr. made history this week, but hardly anyone outside his hometown of Princess Anne seemed to notice. Even as a lot of voters on the Eastern Shore were busy ousting incumbent Rep. Frank Kratovil, the Blue Dog Democrat, from Congress in favor of hard-line conservative Republican Andy Harris, some decided to elect an African-American as Somerset County commissioner — the first time that's ever happened.

How big is this? Perhaps no other county in the state has drawn more concern about racial discrimination than Somerset, site of the last lynching in Maryland. Although blacks represent more than 40 percent of the population (the highest percentage on the Shore and one of the highest in the state), the county has lagged its neighbors in promoting racial diversity, particularly at the ballot box.

Semper Eadem, Latin for "always the same," is the county motto and symbolic of the civil rights struggle that has taken place there. A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Somerset County NAACP noted that few blacks are employed in positions of authority by the county, let alone elected, despite a Voting Rights Act lawsuit two decades ago that caused the county to create a minority district.

Yet that district failed to produce a black county commissioner — until this week. Mr. Mathies, 55, pastor of Zion Baptist Church, broke that barrier when the Democrat defeated 73-year-old retired Maryland State Police Sgt. Van B. Muir Jr., a Republican, for the District 1 seat.

Mr. Mathies campaigned on economic development, quality education "with more parental involvement" and fair regulations. But he was also mindful of history. A past NAACP chapter president, he was a plaintiff in a 1993 lawsuit challenging Princess Anne's practice of allowing nonresident property owners (most of whom were white) to vote in town elections.

"The people in power — the ones who make decisions — are white. Here, the African-American community has never had any say," Mr. Mathies told ACLU officials last year when they were preparing their report. Thanks to his efforts, and the ballots cast by hundreds of voters, that will no longer be the case.

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