19 years after City Council redistricting, City Hall faces racial battle lines again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In 1971, when the Baltimore City Council carved up the city into new councilmanic districts, a number of black political activists objected that the so-called "New Plan" would dilute the voting power of the growing black population in the city's traditionally white districts.

They asserted that the plan was a thinly veiled effort to solidify white control of the Council, basing their charge in part on a Baltimore City Bar Association study that concluded there were serious questions of the constitutionality of the plan because, according to the report, it attempted to minimize the political influence of black voters.

But white political organizations, which dominated politics in four of the six councilmanic districts in 1971, pushed the plan through the Council. Even though Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III was sympathetic to black objections, he signed the plan into law.

Now, two decades later, a new mayor is faced with the task of revising district lines. And, as it was during redistricting in 1971 and 1983, race again is the issue, black politicians say.

Because many black voters in the city say the Council district lines still dilute black voting strength, City Hall observers wonder whether Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke might be persuaded to press for boundaries that might help more blacks get elected to the Council when he takes up redistricting next year.

They note that one of the mayor's most trusted advisers, Larry S. Gibson, worked on the bar association study, which became the basis of a lawsuit challenging the 1971 redistricting. Mr. Gibson denied last week that he had any interest in City Council politics, saying he was preoccupied with helping the mayor win re-election.

"I really don't know that much about it," Mr. Gibson said.

But some City Hall observers believe Mr. Gibson has waited tolong for the chance to reach the goal he set his sights on in 1971 not to press the mayor for more racially balanced districts.

But should Mr. Schmoke press for district boundaries that would help blacks, he is sure to draw resistance from at least some white Council members, whose political futures could be endangered by an increase in the number of blacks in their districts.

Several white councilmen have said race should not be a factor in drawing new councilmanic lines.

"I think it's a step backward to appeal to those kind of interests, measuring representation by the color of one's skin," said Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, D-3rd. "I'm against racial engineering in total."

"A black has just as much chance to win as a white does if he works hard," said Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., D-1st, who said that to include racial considerations in redistricting would be unfair.

Three councilmen -- Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, Wilbur E. Cunningham, D-3rd, and Timothy D. Murphy, D-6th -- are particularly vulnerable because they live close to their district lines. Should a shift in the boundaries place them in an adjoining district, it is unclear whether the city would permit them to run for re-election to their old Council seats.

The mayor has been ambiguous in discussing his intentions on redistricting.

He said that he does not want to engage in political engineering and that he would try simply to fulfill the requirement of redistricting -- to balance the district population numbers -- without drawing boundary lines through neighborhoods that do not want to be split.

In the same conversation, however, he said district lines should not thwart the power of any racial group.

"You can't really guide it that way because someone will accuse you of reverse discrimination," the mayor said of suggestions that he might try to help black candidates. "But you have to make sure the lines are not drawn to deliberately frustrate the voting rights of an identifiable group."

Black Council members Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, Agnes B. Welch, D-4th, and Carl Stokes, D-2nd, said unequivocally that the Council lines should be drawn so that each district more closely reflects the city's racial composition. Although 1990 census figures on race are not yet available, most observers believe the city is more than 60 percent black.

They say that black voters still are being cheated by the district lines, which create an almost all-black 4th District while allowing narrower white majorities to prevail in the 1st, 3rd and 6th Districts.

"I just don't think there should be a district that is 98 percent black," Mr. Stokes said. "That is outrageous."

The city was required to begin the practice of regular redistricting in the late 1960s, after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that voting boundaries must preserve the constitutional mandate one man, one vote.

The current councilmanic boundaries are the legacy of a bitter redistricting fight in the spring of 1971. White political organizations determined to hold on to control of the Council struggled against black activists eager to reap political power from the increasing number of blacks living in traditionally white neighborhoods such as Forest Park and the Liberty Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road corridors.

The 1971 plan shifted black neighborhoods out of the 5th District to eliminate a black majority there. It also transferred virtually white Locust Point from the 1st District to the 6th District, where the growth of the black population to more than 40 percent had resulted in increasing black political activity. At the same time, it consolidated white strongholds in the 1st and 3rd Districts.

An August 1971 attempt by a group of blacks to have the plan voided in federal court was dismissed when a judge said the challenge came too close to the elections and would cheat voters of their right to have an election.

Since then, attempts by blacks to overturn the 1971 plan -- and the 1983 redistricting, which essentially ratified the 1971 boundaries -- have been frustrated.

Today, 11 of the Council's 18 district delegates are white. "You end up that with a city that is two-thirds black, we have a configuration that produces a Council that is almost two-thirds white," said C. Christopher Brown, a lawyer who handles voter's-rights cases. "On its face, what we've got is not fair."

According to city law, Mr. Schmoke has until Feb. 1 to submit his recommendations for redistricting to the Council in the form of an ordinance.

The Council then would have 60 days to submit amendments to the mayor's bill. Unless the Council approves or rejects the bill within the 60 days, the mayor's plan takes effect automatically.

Already, though, Council members are trying to anticipate what the mayor might propose and are formulating their own suggestions for redistricting.

Mr. Bell has proposed enlarging the 4th District in a way that would include one or more predominantly white neighborhoods in some adjoining district.

Mr. Stokes has suggested a radical redistricting that would create six districts with majority black populations reflective of the racial composition of the city as a whole.

Despite the mayor's equivocations, Mr. Stokes said he believes Mr. Schmoke will use redistricting to encourage the election of blacks.

"The mayor didn't use those words, but I think his implications are clear that he would like to have racial balance on the Council," Mr. Stokes said.

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