Baltimore County

In a county where blacks seldom get elected, change may be coming [Commentary]

Last week's primary election may have set in motion what could well be a watershed general election where Harford County is concerned.

This November, there will be significant number of African-American candidates on the ballot who have a credible chance of being elected, which seldom happens around here, as in almost never.

Nonetheless, history still will be working against James Thornton, the Democratic nominee for county council president; Curtis Beulah, the Republican nominee for the District F council seat representing Havre de Grace, Riverside and Abingdon; Cassandra Beverley, the Democratic nominee for House of Delegates in the single-seat legislature subdistrict 34B covering Bel Air and Abingdon; and Marla Posey-Moss, a Democratic nominee for House of Delegates in the two-seat subdistrict 34A along the Route 40 corridor.

To put these folks chances in perspective, only one African-American has ever been elected to a county government office, the late Dr. Lehman W. Spry, who won election to the northern Harford county council seat in 1974 and 1978, during the period when all council seats were filled in countywide voting. That's some feat, considering it's easier to get elected to the council these days, because a candidate only has to win the votes within the council district where he or she is running.

In 2008, Circuit Court Judge Angela Eaves won a full term on the bench over two white male candidates in a countywide race by winning both the Democratic and Republican primaries in what is essentially a non-partisan election. That was a pretty big deal, too.

In 2010, when the first elections were held for the county school board, Beverley won a seat representing the County Council District B area of Fallston and Abingdon, in another non-partisan election.

At the time, I considered Beverley's win a breakthrough for African-American candidates locally, albeit a modest one, if for no other reason than it happened two years after Eaves won her election. Taken together, those victories constituted a few small steps toward debunking a widely held view that black people can't win elections in Harford County outside of municipal races in Aberdeen and Havre de Grace. (And, by the way, when was the last time a black candidate won in either of those places?)

Despite the recent gains at the ballot box, an African-American has never been elected to represent Harford County in the Maryland General Assembly. Aside from Dr. Spry, no African-American has held a county council seat or the county executive's office or courthouse offices, such as sheriff and state's attorney.

According to the most recent U.S. Census estimates, about 13.1 percent of Harford's population of just under 250,000 is African-American (3.8 percent is Hispanic, 2.8 percent Asian.)

In more real terms, one in eight people who live in our county are black, although the amorphous way the census accounts for race these days, I think it would be safe to assume the ratio is probably higher.

Is it unreasonable to think that black people shouldn't hold some elected offices in the county? Not really, but demographics alone do not elect people to office, voters do, and thus there are many other variables at work, not the least of them party affiliation, place of residence and even the office being sought.

Without trying to assess the relative chances of each of the four African-American candidates on the ballot, I will say each has positives in their favor but also obstacles to overcome that don't have a thing to do with his or her color, background or qualifications.

Both Beverley's and Posey-Moss' names were on the ballot four years ago and both did well; even though Posey-Moss didn't win in the general election, she beat an incumbent in her primary.

Beverley and Thornton's names have been in the public eye because of their school board service and Thornton's brief prior service on the Liquor Control Board. Though Beulah hasn't run for office before, he's well known in what I'll refer to as the Sen. Nancy Jacobs wing of the local GOP, and that counts for something in the area where he's running.

Thornton and Beverley, however, will be trying to beat Dick Slutzky and Del. Susan McComas, respectively, who are known among voters, have won multiple elections and are in the county's majority party, the Republicans, whose candidates tend to draw plenty of votes from among independents and Democrats alike.

The fact that Slutzky won his three previous terms on the county council among voters from only the Aberdeen, Churchville and east Bel Air areas doesn't necessarily enhance Thornton's chances. Voters in the county's northern and western sides are as used to touching the names of Republican candidates as voters along Route 40 are for the most part used to picking Democrats.

Subdistrict 34B, where Beverley will be trying to unseat McComas, has about 29,400 voters, based on primary eligibility (likely more by the time the general election rolls around), of whom 12,800 are Republicans and 10,500 are Democrats, leaving 6,000 voters unaffiliated with either party. Because Beverley was able to win four years ago among voters accustomed to voting straight Republican, she shouldn't be underestimated, but neither should be McComas. It's a Bel Air-centered district, after all, and McComas was winning elections as a town official for several years before she moved on to Annapolis in 2003.

For Posey-Moss, the same circumstances that essentially led to her defeat in the 34A general election four years ago are in play again this year, namely a strong candidate on her own ticket and the prospect that one of the two seats likely will be won by a Republican.

The other Democratic nominee, County Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, well outdistanced the four other candidates in the primary, finishing 450 votes ahead of Posey-Moss, albeit in a smaller sample than what we'll see in November. But this year, the top candidate among the Republicans is an incumbent, Del. Glen Glass, who has built up a significant base of support from across the district during his first four years in Annapolis. Glass was thought to be the outsider in 2010 but proved otherwise when the votes were counted.

The outcomes in the election for delegates in 34A and 34B a for the district's State Senate seat could be influenced by how much effort and money the statewide Democratic Party and its gubernatorial standard bearer Lt. Anthony Brown, bidding to become Maryland's first African-American governor, put behind getting Mary-Dulany James elected to the Senate and Lisanti, Posey-Moss and Beverley elected to the House. From what I can gather, these are seats the Democrats really want to win.

Curiously, in any other year, Beulah might be considered the favorite to win his race for the county council seat being vacated by Lisanti and become only the second black person to serve in the 42 years of the council's existence. While the big turnout factor for the Anthony Brown team could work against him because he's running in a solidly Democratic district, he also wouldn't be the first Republican to win in that district.

There is a fifth African-American candidate on the local ballot, Jansen Robinson, of Edgewood, who is running for the District A seat on the Harford County Board of Education. As only Robinson and Fred Mullis, of Joppa, filed for the seat, there was no primary contest and the two will square off in November in a non-partisan election. Robinson lost to Bob Frisch for the same seat four years ago by a two to one margin. (Following redistricting since the last election, Frisch's home is now in District B, where he is running to return to the board.)

I once wrote that all politics in this country (and to large degree in Harford County) revolves around race. It will be interesting to see if past racial barriers to getting elected in Harford get chipped way this November, maybe even come tumbling down. Truthfully, in 2014 I shouldn't have to write a column on this subject, but things are what they are.

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