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Democratic club looks to reinvent Baltimore tradition

Long gone are the days when Harry "Soft Shoes" McGuirk ruled South Baltimore's Stonewall Democratic Club as a benevolent despot, the last of the city's old-school political bosses.

So, too, is the era when the Curran family's United Third District Democratic Organization was dominant in the Northeast, and the Mitchell clan's Democratic Action Organization held sway on Baltimore's west side. The Independent Republican Coalition of Baltimore, once the largest GOP organization, was active for more than three decades. It held its final meeting two years ago.

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But a group of east-side political activists is reinventing the Baltimore political club, with the goal of getting more young people involved in politics. They have formed the BEST Democratic Club, which has been sponsoring events from happy hours for young adults to General Assembly trips for students as it reaches out for members.

"The next generation needs to step up," says Cory McCray, 32, a co-founder of the club. "We've got to figure out how to build that base for Baltimore back."

The dozens of Baltimore political clubs that once green-lighted political campaigns and rallied voters have fallen by the wayside — their clubhouses closed, their memberships dispersed. The state's Democratic and Republican parties count just four grass-roots clubs left in Baltimore.

That does not deter McCray, who in November won a seat in Maryland's House of Delegates. He said the new club grew out of a discussion three years ago among politically conscious friends who were disappointed by the low turnout in recent city elections. Only about 24 percent of registered voters cast ballots for mayor that year.

They formed a group they called the Baltimore Eastside Street Team. The club holds quarterly events at sites across Baltimore that leaders say draw more than 100 participants. BEST now counts more than 500 members.

"The best-kept secret is what was done in the '70s, '80s and '90s," McCray says. "That's go talk to people."

Some political observers say the demise of the clubs is one reason for the persistently low turnout in the city.

"At one time, Baltimore determined who was governor," said George Hendricks, 36, president of the BEST club. "We pretty much have to make elections relevant again to the people who aren't voting."

Baltimore, which has the state's fourth-largest population, typically votes at a lower percentage than any other jurisdiction in Maryland. In 1983, when political clubs still had influence, more than 230,000 people voted in the city's mayoral election. In 2011, the number was fewer than 75,000. The drop is much greater than can be attributed solely to the city's population loss of about 20 percent during that time.

In this year's gubernatorial election, voter turnout in Baltimore fell to about 40 percent.

The BEST club backed Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, a Democrat, but members say voters' wish for a different direction in Maryland politics is in line with their mission. Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, a Republican, campaigned on a theme of change.

"The resounding voice was that people were tired of 'politics as usual,' " Hendricks said. "We're tired of politics as usual, too. We started this club because we wanted to shake things up. My hat's off to Larry Hogan. He's going to see and hear from us. We're going to try to get our agenda heard."

In the Democratic primary, the club hosted a well-attended debate between lieutenant governor candidates Ken Ulman, Jolene Ivey and the Rev. Delman Coates. Over the summer, the group held a daylong training session for prospective candidates for lower offices called "Stop Waiting Your Turn and Win."

In the weeks before the Nov. 4 election, club members knocked on doors for Democrats in tough races in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. And the group gathered Democrats from around the state to promote 15 up-and-coming politicians.

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The club's founders want not only to energize young people to vote, but to put more into office. Several members have challenged older, incumbent Democrats.

BEST co-founder Jermaine Jones, 30, ran unsuccessfully against City Councilman Carl Stokes in the 2011 election, and club member Shannon Sneed, 33, came within 43 votes of unseating Councilman Warren Branch. McCray is the first of the club's original members to win office.

Former state Sen. Larry Young of Baltimore, who rose to power through Clarence M. Mitchell III's Democratic Action Organization but later split with the Mitchells, says he sees the BEST club employing tactics that brought success to old-school organizations: holding regular events and going door to door to meet people in the community.

"The other organizations today don't have the town hall meetings the way we used to," Young said. "That's where Cory and his group are stepping in, and they're doing great."

Political clubs have not disappeared. There are 24 Democratic clubs in Montgomery County, 18 in Prince George's and 11 in Baltimore County. Anne Arundel has 10 Republican clubs, Baltimore County seven and Calvert County six.

David R. Blumberg, former president of the Independent Republican Coalition of Baltimore, said clubs — political and otherwise — have faded because society has changed and people communicate more through email and social media.

"It's not just political clubs. It's social clubs and service clubs, too," Blumberg said. "I'm 60, and I realize there are people half my age that aren't in a club and will never join one."

Blumberg said he's glad to see an active political club like BEST spring up in Baltimore.

"I'm sitting here with a smile on my face," he said. "Some things fade away and you don't notice them until they're gone, and then you miss them."

The last Republican club left in Baltimore, Blumberg said, is the Hopkins Women's Republican Club.

Its 11 members meet for lunch once a month, according to club president Maureen O'Ferrall. "We're the last stronghold," she said. "We're quite proud of that fact."

The rise of neighborhood associations, the exodus of residents from the city and the changing habits of an electorate that spends more time on computers are among the reasons political clubs have lost their luster.

City Councilman Robert W. Curran also cites the demise of patronage jobs. As reformers legislated against what they saw as cronyism, opportunities to build a loyal political base diminished.

"You can't give out city jobs now the way you used to," Curran said. "That's how the clubs thrived."

Del. Brian K. McHale, a former president of the Stonewall Democratic Club — a Federal Hill organization with a clubhouse that featured portraits of McGuirk and Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson — says Baltimore lost something essential when the clubs folded. They provided people with a sense of community and opportunities to connect with those in government, he said.

"It was a place to come for people to meet the elected officials and tell them whatever their current issue or problem was," McHale said.

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BEST members say their goal isn't to replicate an old-school Democratic club, but to build a more progressive organization focused on young people.

"Those clubs weren't as inclusive," Jones said. "And they weren't as active. ... We continue to galvanize young people to come out and vote."

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