With 24 candidates in the running, Tuesday’s special election for the Democratic nomination for the seventh district congressional seat is legitimately up for grabs, and could end up being quite the squeaker.
But it’ll have to go a long way to match the 1970 Democratic primary for that same seat, when the final numbers weren’t determined for more than two weeks and the winning candidate finished with just 38 votes more than the runner-up — giving Parren J. Mitchell a victory over nine-term incumbent Samuel Friedel by 0.05 percent out of 68,905 votes cast.
The groundwork for that election night had been established two years earlier when Mitchell, an urban studies professor at Morgan State, former city official and member of a family that had long played a prominent role in the struggle for civil rights, first ran against Friedel, who had represented the district since it was established in 1952. Friedel prevailed, winning the Democratic nomination by 5,500 votes. But Mitchell, in his first run at elective office in a district that was by then about 40 percent African-American, surprised many observers with his strong showing.
There was little doubt he would try again, and on June 10, 1970, he made it official. “On paper, [he] doesn’t look like a bad congressman," Mitchell said of Friedel, who had carved out a reputation as a liberal Democrat and a strong backer of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. “But the time for paper congressmen has passed. The incumbent is afflicted with an almost total inability to translate his paper liberalism into legislation.”
The race for the Democratic nomination was so heated that Marvin Mandel, who had taken over as governor after Spiro Agnew became vice president and would resoundingly win his first full term in 1970, broke his policy of remaining neutral in the primaries. “Sam needs all the assistance you can give him,” Mandel said at a testimonial dinner for Friedel, endorsing the man who had urged him into politics in the first place.
“The Governor knew whereof he spoke,” reporter G. Jefferson Price III wrote in a Sept. 3 Sun story headlined, “Re-Election Becoming Less Of A Sure Thing For Friedel.”
Voters went to the polls Sept. 15. As the votes came in that evening, it appeared Mitchell, 48, had once again come close, but fallen short. Reports in the next day’s Sun, although only about 15 percent of the vote had been tallied, said Friedel had “a sizable lead” over Mitchell and a third opponent, state Sen. Carl L. Friedler, and “appeared to be holding [his] own in the face of strong challenges.” On Sept. 17, The Sun reported that the unofficial totals gave Friedel the victory. Mitchell, despite getting nearly twice the number of votes in Baltimore City, “was overwhelmed in the white neighborhoods of Baltimore County,” the paper reported.
Friedel’s unofficial margin of victory: 138 votes.
But in those days before electronic voting, getting a final result could be a slow, arduous task. Over the next two weeks, handwritten totals from each voting place were checked and double-checked, then checked again to ensure they matched dials on the manually operated polling machines. Election Day “foul-ups” at some precincts in West and Northwest Baltimore led to charges of “election stealing and fraud from some black leaders,” The Sun reported on Sept. 22.
On Sept. 29, Mitchell was declared the winner by “an eyelash margin” of 38 votes, reporter Bentley Orrick wrote in the next day’s Sun. A stung Friedel asked for a House investigation of the results, alleging “widespread irregularities.” But six days later, the veteran congressman conceded. “Based upon preliminary indications from this investigation,” he told reporters on Oct. 5, reading from a prepared statement, “I believe no useful purpose would be served by any further challenge to the result.”
(Maryland’s 1970 Democratic primary was not kind to the state’s old-guard members of Congress. In addition to Friedel, George R. Fallon, who had served in the House since 1944, also lost. Paul S. Sarbanes would go on to serve three terms in Congress before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976.)
Friedel, who turned down a congressional offer to create a job for him after his defeat, died in 1980.
Latest Retro Baltimore
Parren Mitchell defeated Republican Peter Parker in November 1970 to become the first African-American elected to the House of Representatives from Maryland. He won that election by some 18,000 votes and went on to serve eight terms in Congress, retiring in 1986. He died in 2007.