Residents form political club for black Democrats

It's been more than eight months since Larry Walker finished last among the eight candidates vying for the four open Board of Education seats in the 2010 General Election, but some members of the black community are still wondering what went wrong.

"I think it's shameful that Larry Walker ran for the school board and came in first in the primary (after the two incumbents), but when the pedal hit the metal, something failed," Howard County Democratic Central Committee member Ethel Hill said. "Maybe part of that is our responsibility. Maybe we didn't get our community out."

Though uncertain what happened in Walker's case, Hill wants to ensure lack of support from the black community is not a problem in future elections. So she and eight other county residents have started the Thurgood Marshall Democratic Club of Howard County to represent the political values and expand involvement of black Democratic party members.

"If blacks don't put themselves out there as being interested and involved in the process, then it's just not going to happen," she said.

The club will encourage and endorse candidates for elected and appointed positions, take positions on ballot questions and other issues, and work to increase voter registration and turnout.

Existing political groups from both parties had praise for the new club and its goals.

"I think that a club that focuses in that area is needed," Howard County Democratic Party Chairman Michael McPherson said. "I would personally like to see whatever efforts are out there to turn out more of them in the Democratic column. I certainly don't want to give them to the Republicans, and the Republicans have had an African American club."

The black Republican club existed for a few years, but when its leader Delroy Cornick died nine years ago, so did the club.

"This might be a good trigger point to revive that club," Howard County Republican Club President Jeff Robinson said, after learning about the new Democratic club from a reporter. "I'm going to investigate that almost immediately."

Robinson said the addition of a black Democratic club may be a good opportunity for his group to have more dialogue with the opposing party.

"Anything that triggers more political conservation in the county is good not only for the political process as a whole but also the Republican party," he said.

Robinson also said he might be interested in working with the Thurgood Marshall club to conduct joint voter registration efforts.

Democrats hold a big edge over Republicans in Howard County in voter registration — 85,171 Democrats, compared to 54,531 Republicans and 34,668 unaffiliated voters, according to state Board of Elections statistics from June.

Of the county's more than 30 local elected officials (excluding court officials) only three are black: County Council Chairman Calvin Ball and state Del. Frank Turner, both Columbia Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who represents part of Howard County.

Turner said having a club that will encourage minorities to run for political office or serve on boards for the county or community groups is "a very positive thing. We've got to make sure the county moves forward, not backwards," he said.

Ball said he does not know much about the club, but he supports any group that wants to empower people to participate in the political process.

"I'd love to have a conversation about how we can engage more leaders for the future," he said. "There's always an opportunity to ensure that we have diverse, inclusive representation."

Mobilizing young Democrats

In addition to Hill — who became the first black to run for county-wide office when she unsuccessfully campaigned for school board in 1978 — the club's founding members include Kurt Blake, Anthony Cunningham, Ann DeLacy, Terri Hill, Valerie Gonlin, Marvin Lawson, Rachel Qualls and Jackie Scott.

The founding members will present their first-year goals at a launch event Sunday, July 24 at 2 p.m. at Starflight Enterprises in Elkridge. Cummings will serve as the keynote speaker.

The club, like other political groups, will have dues and hold fundraisers to finance its outreach efforts. Hill said club meetings will be held monthly, except during the summer months, and club members will reach out to the community wherever they can.

"Howard County is not that large and we have lots of connections in the community — lots of black organizations and lots of black churches," Hill said.

Though the group is focused on empowering the black community, Hill said membership will be open to Howard County residents of all races and backgrounds and the group will also endorse non-black candidates that share its goals and objectives.

One of the club's goals is to encourage younger blacks to get involved in the political process.

Former County Council member Vernon Gray, who in 1982 became the first black elected in Howard County, agreed there is "a dire need to get more younger African Americans involved in the political process," but said a conventional Democratic club may not be the best way to do that.

"In a way they're sort of moving against the tide because we know that young people are not persuaded by organizational, institutional mechanisms," he said.

To be successful at cultivating the younger generation, Gray said the club needs to employ modern outreach tools, such as Facebook, Twitter and social media sites. But even then, he cautioned, "taking the word to the people — that's hard work."

Looking to 2012

The timing of the club's formation presents an excellent opportunity to recruit more voters for President Obama in the 2012 election, McPherson said.

"We have the first African-American president who is under attack," he said. "We will be working to get him re-elected to a second term. Whatever it takes to get that accomplished, I'm supportive of that."

Hill said the group's founding members are already looking forward to 2012 and embracing the momentum Obama started to build in 2008.

Despite the support Obama garnered from the black community in 2008, McPherson said that generally, a high percentage of the registered black voters in Howard County don't turn out for elections.

A club tailored specifically to the black population presents to the opportunity to cater to their interests and turn out their votes, McPherson added.

Turner agreed that blacks likely have issues they feel are not being adequately addressed by the traditional clubs. For example, he said blacks generally have a greater interest in issues such as juvenile justice, minority contracting and the achievement gap.

"All of those are issues that directly affect the minority community," Turner said. "As much as I believe that many of these issues could be addressed by the majority Democratic party, I think at the same time it's always important that people recognize that there is someone else out there that is concerned about these issues and that will be at least vigilant to make sure these issues are addressed."

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