An Issue That Mixes Politics and Race


ON JANUARY 28, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke unveiled his proposal for re-drawing the political map that determines the voting districts in Baltimore City.

In fulfilling a responsibility demanded of him by the City Charter, the mayor did something that he finds personally distasteful, shaking together two reagents that have been among the most explosive components of American society: race and politics.

Mr. Schmoke's plan involves few changes from the map created under former Mayor William Donald Schaefer by the redistricting of 1983, a redistricting that made mostly minor changes from the map that evolved in 1971.

But it is precisely because Mr. Schmoke has been reluctant to suggest more radical revisions of the council map that his plan has been so controversial.

That is because much of the city's black community believes that, for at least the past two decades, the way the city fathers have drawn the councilmanic boundaries has hindered the ability of blacks to elect candidates of their choice to the City Council. Although the city is roughly 60 percent black, 11 of the 18 council members elected from districts are white, as is the council president, who is elected at-large.

The local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union have said that the mayor's map would do what council maps have done since the 1960s -- dilute black voting strength in such a way that blacks would find it harder to win representation in the City Council proportional to their population.

The NAACP has said it will sue in Federal court to overturn the plan, which automatically becomes law in its current form unless the council amends it before the end of March. And the mayor's plan is likely to draw intense scrutiny when the council hears public comment on the plan at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.

Ironically, it is the evolution of the Fourth District -- which has been firmly in the control of black politicians for a quarter of a century -- that is said to undermine the political power of black Baltimoreans most. The district is more than 90 percent black and would remain that way under the plan the mayor is proposing.

Black political and civil rights leaders have said that because each district can elect only three council members, concentrating black voters in one or two districts -- the Second District also is believed to be more than 70 percent black -- allows whites to retain disproportionate strength in other districts. For example, the lines that bound East Baltimore's 1st District delineate an area estimated to be about 70 percent white.

Since the 1950s, the Fourth District has had the appearance of a bird on a roost, with its breast nested in the traditional West Baltimore heartland of the city's black community and its beak reaching north and west along Park Heights Avenue. With each of the three re-drawings of the councilmanic district boundaries that have taken place since 1923, the map has taken more of the appearance of a maturing turkey no longer interested in flight.

Its double chin and spreading breast extended further and further west and south with the redistrictings of 1966, 1971 and 1983, gobbling up the expansion of the black community into Harlem Park, Rosemont, Edmondson Village, Walbrook and Ashburton. At the same time, its wings have retracted from the east, relinquishing historically white neighborhoods in Bolton Hill, Reservoir Hill, Hampden and Woodberry.

The Fourth District's evolution as a "black" district is no accident. As early as 1953, black political leaders were frustrated that the city's large black population was so fragmented among the First, Second, Fourth and Fifth districts that blacks could not elect a single representative in council. Black politicians, such as former state Sen. Verda Welcome, began openly calling for the consolidation of black precincts into a majority-black Seventh District.

Meanwhile, white power brokers such as Northwest Baltimore political lord James H. "Jack" Pollack puzzled over how to prevent shrinking white majorities in the Second and Fifth districts from becoming black majorities.

"If any single factor has prevented City Council agreement on a reasonable plan to draw new lines for election districts, it is that of race," Evening Sun reporter Richard Frank wrote in 1962, after the council had wrestled unsuccessfully with a succession of proposed redistricting plans for more than a decade. "The problem confronting the councilmen has been one of creating new districts of nearly equal voting strength without turning any of them into predominantly Negro districts."

The solution that members of both camps arrived at in 1966 -- slow in arriving and far from being unanimously accepted -- was to further consolidate black voting strength into the Fourth, while allowing white political organizations to hold onto power in other districts.

Control over the highly-visible city legislative body has been coveted by the numerous and evolving political factions for generations.

That is because although the council has little direct authority under Baltimore's strong-mayor system of government, individual council members have been able to exert control over political patronage and to nettle often-phlegmatic city agencies into performing constituent services.

Aspiring politicians have used council tenures to spring toward higher political office. Gov. William Donald Schaefer honed his political skills as an envoy to City Hall from the Fifth District. Clarence H. "Du" Burns became the city's first black mayor by climbing the rungs from a Second District councilmanic seat. And U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski got her start in politics as a First District councilwoman.

Now, in 1991, critics of the mayor's plan are saying that Mr. Schmoke's unwillingness to offer a more radical restructuring of the city's councilmanic districts -- one that would more evenly disburse the voting strength of blacks now concentrated in the virtually all-black Fourth District -- would perpetuate black voting impotence in the First, Third and perhaps even the Sixth District for another 10 years.

They say that the mayor's plan is an effort to avoid antagonizing white political strongholds, upsetting a political apple cart that left undisturbed would seem likely to bring him political victory in the coming political season this fall.

But Mr. Schmoke last week said the battles for black access to council power have been solved by default, as integration saw increasing numbers of blacks move to neighborhoods that once were all-white.

With segregation in defeat, the mayor says, the prospects for electing more blacks in this and future years are bright.

Blacks already are the majority population in three of the six council districts -- the Second, Fourth and Fifth -- and would be at even strength in the Sixth District under his plan.

"They were developing a brief that should have been filed 20 years ago," Mr. Schmoke said last week, referring to a opinions that two legal experts gave to members of the City Council last week. The experts, Washington lawyers who specialize in voters' rights law, said that the district lines proposed in the mayor's plan -- which keep the Fourth District largely intact -- could be open to a court challenge because they frustrate black voting power.

Mr. Schmoke has said that the only impediment to increased black representation in the council is sufficient political organization to convert black population strength into votes.

Meanwhile, the mayor says a radical redrawing of the council map could antagonize neighborhoods and break up political alliances, possibly injecting racial tensions into a city that has largely moved away from racial confrontation.

Those concerns were made all the more clear to him earlier this month, when a meeting of mostly-white Bolton Hill residents, angry over his proposal to move their neighborhood to the Fourth District, argued that they preferred to remain in the Second District. They justified their view by contending they share interests with similar middle-class enclaves such as Charles Village, Mount Vernon and Tuscany-Canterbury.

"Once you start doing those radical redistrictings you get communities upset for months for no good reason," Mr. Schmoke said last week. "I don't want to fight yesterday's battles."

But in allowing the NAACP and other opponents to his plan to frame the redistricting question the mayor ceded the initiative and has struggled largely unsuccessfully to redefine the aims of redistricting in his own terms.

Thus, Mr. Schmoke has had difficulty persuading his redistricting opponents that the battle that has defined whole generations of black Baltimore politicians will finally be won not by the redistricting pen but by the sword of demographic change. He has struggled to get his message across that the growth in the city's black population and its expansion into traditionally-white districts means that blacks already have the numbers, if not the cohesiveness, to elect a black majority to the council.

Perhaps because of his trouble in conveying that message, or because his critics are not buying it, even the mayor's allies have expressed frustration and bewilderment that Mr. Schmoke has not used the redistricting process to boost black voting strength in areas of the city where blacks have not been able to elect a black to the council, such as the Third District.

Del. Kenneth Montague, who once ran for a council seat in the Third, said that now that blacks in the city have been able to elect a black mayor, the spectacle of having that mayor battle civil rights activists over redistricting has an ironic quality.

Puzzling over the mayor's strategy, Mr. Montague said: "For the NAACP to be suing a black mayor over a redistricting plan just doesn't look right."

Martin Evans covers City Hall in Baltimore for The Sun.

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