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Eastside Democrats' power politics help members succeed

Baltimore Sun

The Eastside Democratic Organization lacks a Web site, headquarters, a formal roster of members and even set meeting dates.

Yet when the Baltimore political club does meet, things happen. Influential member and longtime city Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young easily defeated a close ally of the mayor's recently to become council president. And Carl Stokes, the leader of an East Baltimore charter school, was appointed to Young's old seat with the group's support earlier this month.

For more than four decades, the group has shown enormous resilience, persisting and even thriving as other political groups have vanished. One by one, nearly all of the city's old Democratic clubs - vestiges of a time when political bosses swapped jobs for votes - have shut down. Much political organizing, both nationally and locally, has moved to the Web.

Yet the club remains a powerful voice on the east side - and in the city as a whole - drawing strength from decades-old allegiances formed at churches, PTA meetings and neighborhood picnics even as its leaders take new members under their wing.

Young, 55, is the first top-ranking City Hall leader to hail from East Baltimore since the late Clarence "Du" Burns, founder of the 40-year-old political club and the city's first black council president and mayor.

"As a young kid, I campaigned for a lot of those politicians," Young said of the club's first generation. "I used to hear them making promises, and most of the things they promised, they delivered on. They told me, 'Young man, we want to train you. You've got to learn the ropes before you can run for office.' "

The club traces its origins to the racially charged late 1960s, when Burns declared that East Baltimore's black residents needed their own political organization, said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, 63, the current leader.

"Du Burns envisioned an organization that was able to deliver for the people," he said. "A real tangible commitment to making life better."

Founders include the late Robert L. Douglass, the electronics company owner who became a city councilman, and Del. Hattie N. Harrison, who, at age 82, has served in the state legislature for nearly four decades.

The organization develops slates of candidates for local and state offices. It maintains strong ties to neighborhood groups, a career-placement program, a drug-treatment center and a community-development corporation founded by the club, McFadden said.

"We still live by the words of Clarence 'Du' Burns," McFadden said. "You serve the people, and you serve them well."

Burns, like Young, grew up in a humble household in East Baltimore and worked his way up the political ladder through hard work and personal connections. He earned the nickname "Du" because of his willingness to "do" what constituents and allies needed.

"Du was like a coach to the youngsters," recalled Harrison, who first met Burns as a teenager when he visited the candy store where she worked. "He taught the guys how to play basketball, football. He would go through and pick up all the kids in the projects - 25, 30 kids - and tutor them. He taught them good manners."

In 1971, shortly after the birth of his political club, Burns was elected to the City Council. He became the first black council president in 1982, and five years later moved into the mayor's office, filling the vacancy left when William Donald Schaefer was elected governor. Burns served as mayor less than a year, until Kurt L. Schmoke beat him in a close Democratic primary.

Burns' legacy includes the East Baltimore Community Corporation, a nonprofit he helped create, which provides job training and advocates for economic development. In a brief telephone conversation, Marie J. Washington, its executive director and the former leader of the Eastside Democratic Organization, said the EBCC was not affiliated with the political club. She declined to elaborate, but a previous corporation leader acknowledged a close and beneficial relationship between the two.

In 1998, McFadden and Harrison drew criticism for pushing through $950,000 in bond bills for Washington's multi-million-dollar Fair Chance Center on Gay Street, but the state ethics board ruled that they had not violated state law. The building currently houses the EBBC and several nonprofit groups.

In a 1979 interview, Douglass, the EBCC's co-founder, explained there was a "thin line that separates the corporate effort from the political effort."

"Basically, what we decided to do was use political power to deliver services to the East Baltimore community," he told The Baltimore Sun.

At times, the club has been roiled by infighting. In 1991, some members abandoned Burns to support Schmoke's bid for re-election. Harrison was dropped from the club's ticket in 2002, but she beat her Eastside-sponsored opponent, campaigning on the slogan, "Don't Throw Mama from the Train." She remains an "affiliate" of the group, but does not attend meetings because of health problems, she said.

And in 2003, Pamela V. Carter, a councilwoman and club member, ruffled feathers by challenging Young in the race for the redrawn 12th District.

"We have a pecking order inside the organization, and Bernard was next in line, and behind him was Pam Carter," McFadden told The Baltimore Sun at the time. "This disloyalty piece is bothering me."

The club also draws fire from other smaller organizations, which question whether the club serves the needs of all East Baltimore residents or just its members' personal interests. The group squelches the political careers of outsiders, they say.

"If you're not a part of their club, you're really shunned by them," said Aaron Keith Wilkes, president of East Baltimore's Darley Park Community Association. "Quite frankly, they do everything they can to ostracize you."

He attributes the group's success, in part, to political apathy among East Baltimore residents. "If there's ever high voter turnout, I don't think the EDO would do well," he said.

Wilkes was among seven candidates vying for Young's old 12th District council seat, which was awarded March 8 to Stokes, a former councilman and school board member. Stokes, co-founder and chief operating officer of Bluford Drew Jemison Math Science Technology Academy, received the support of the political club, McFadden said.

Stokes is not a member of the Eastside Democrats, but he is "an affiliate and a strong supporter," McFadden said. He said he told Young he supported Stokes' council bid because of his expertise in city government and education.

Some candidates said they felt the selection process - which included a lengthy interview in front of a City Council committee - was a farce, and Stokes' selection was a foregone conclusion.

"Why pretend there's some sort of process when you've already picked the winner?" said Ertha Harris, who also bid for Young's seat.

A longtime community activist and protegee of Bea Gaddy, the late councilwoman and advocate for the homeless, Harris has repeatedly sought and failed to win Young's seat.

Young denied that Stokes' selection was controlled by the political organization. "The EDO had nothing to do with the appointment of Carl Stokes. The council made their choice, and the EDO didn't have a vote in that," he said. "Carl Stokes was the better candidate. He knows East Baltimore."

The council president also denied that McFadden had recommended Stokes to him. When told McFadden said otherwise, Young said, "If there was a conversation, I must have forgotten it."

For now, the concerns of the Eastside Democrats remain the perennial problems of vacant homes, crime and unemployment, Young said. The decisions of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions - where Young worked for decades - have enormous sway over the area. East Baltimore Development Inc., a massive redevelopment effort led by Hopkins, has caused the relocation of many families.

But Young pointed to signs of hope, such as resurgence of the Oliver neighborhoodand the reopening of the American Brewery building. Ultimately, what holds the Eastside Democrats together, he said, is a loyalty to the neighborhood.

"Unconditionally, we love East Baltimore," he said.

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