Schmoke on redistrict plan: Why the rush? Raucous council OKs improving odds for black majority.


Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke today took no formal position on a controversial new redistricting plan given tentative approval at a raucous City Council meeting last night, saying his staff is still studying whether the plan passes muster under federal law.

But the mayor voiced serious concern about passage of the plan without the kind of advance public hearings the mayor held on his own plan earlier this year.

"My concern was simply that the neighborhoods that have had their voting rights affected weren't given an opportunity to comment before the council voted on it," said Schmoke today.

"What was the rush?" he asked. "Why affect people's voting rights in that way without giving them an opportunity to be heard?"

Meanwhile, the redistricting plan drew criticism on the floor of the state Senate today. Sen. John A. Pica Jr., a Democrat and chairman of the city's Senate delegation, said the plan did not meet the needs of residents and was decided without adequate public notice.

The redistricting plan won approval at a heated council meeting last night punctuated by name-calling and political threats.

Passed on a 10-7-2 vote, it would greatly increase chances for electing a majority black council, and would result in a change of council districts for a host of neighborhoods in south and northeast Baltimore.

They include Hampden, Woodberry, Homeland, Hamilton and Gardenville, Locust Point and the South Baltimore peninsula, Waverly and Belair-Edison.

It also would return to their old districts two neighborhoods slated to move under Schmoke's plan: Ten Hills and Bolton Hill.

The plan, which completely revises one introduced by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke Jan. 28, was crafted by Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd. Stokes led members of the council's African-American Coalition through a hectic weekend of private meetings and phone calls to refine and drum up votes for the plan.

Schmoke said he had warned Stokes yesterday that the plan could set off a political firestorm if it were rammed through the council without public hearings.

"I said to him, 'If you vote on this plan tonight without giving the communities the opportunity to be heard, you're going to set off a lot of bad feelings and recrimination throughout the city -- both in the white community and the black community,' " said Schmoke. "But I couldn't get that point across to him."

The mayor also rejected pointed comments by Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, that Schmoke was an "embarrassment" to black voters.

"I don't think most black voteres feel that I'm an embarrassment, and the plan that I submitted afforded an opportunity for increased black representation," he said. "So I don't think that there was any justification for a personal attack."

Schmoke's comments about the short notice given the public echoed that of several council members, who said their constituents were left out of the process. A hearing on the plan was hastily scheduled for 4 p.m. today in the council chambers.

The Stokes plan does not displace any incumbent council members from their districts.

If the amended bill passes a final vote likely to come either Thursday or Friday, it would give five of the city's six councilmanic districts populations with large black majorities. Under Schmoke's proposal, only three of the districts would be predominantly black.

Currently, three of the districts -- the 2nd, 4th and 5th -- have a majority black population. And only seven of the council's 19 members are black, in a city that is 59.2 percent black.

During the heat of the meeting, Councilman criticized the mayor for his lack of support of the Stokes plan.

"For an Afro-American mayor -- who got into office on the sweat and blood of black voters -- to have the audacity to say this plan is unfair is something I can't understand," Bell said.

While the council's action concerned Schmoke, it cheered Arthur Murphy, president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who had threatened to sue if Schmoke's plan became law.

"I think it is a perfect plan," said a beaming Murphy, as he sat in the council chamber following the vote. "My hat goes off to the incredibly wonderful hard work of the African-American Coalition."

But while Murphy likes the plan, others are talking about bringing suit. Several communities in northeast Baltimore as well as some South Baltimore political bosses are contemplating a suit if the amended plan passes, sources said.

Councilman Martin E. "Mike" Curran, D-3rd, -- who rose from his seat to confront hecklers in the crowd three times during last night's meeting -- called the proposal "a rape of our neighborhoods."

His colleague, Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, said if the new plan is adopted it will drive the city's remaining middle class -- much of which lives in their district -- out of the city.

Jean Snyder, president of HARBEL, the community umbrella association which covers the Belair Road-Harford Road corridor, declined to comment directly on the new plan. But, she noted, "we have worked so well with our council members over the years and that is what has made our neighborhoods work."

The move to amend the redistricting plan was supported by a 12-member coalition of seven blacks and five whites. But the deal struck by the group was criticized by white council members from the 3rd and 6th districts, who said it smacked of the worst of "back-room politics."

"If the shoe had been on the other foot, if it was the 4th and the 5th district and the 2nd District [districts with black representation] being carved up, you would be on this floor angry about the 'injustice' that has been done," said Councilman Joseph T. Landers 3rd, D-3rd.

Bell offered a quick retort. "The reality is, my friend, that the shoe has been on the other foot for the past several decades," he said. "The reality is, some people aren't willing to bend until their backs are against the wall."

During the most heated flare-ups of the meeting, charges of racism were hurled back and forth between some black and white members of the council.

Cunningham dared Council President Mary Pat Clarke to campaign for votes this summer in northeast Baltimore "and explain to them why their neighborhoods were not allowed to be part of this process."

Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, said if Councilman John A. Schaefer, D-1st, who voted for the Stokes individual amendments but abstained when the full amended plan came to a vote, came into Locust Point this summer looking for votes, "I'll see to it he'll have a hard time finding one."

Council members in the 3rd and 6th districts also complained that their offers to field integrated tickets in council elections this fall in return for leaving their districts basically intact were ignored by the Stokes-led coalition.

Stokes, however, said that the offers of coalition tickets were vague and that they came late.

"It seems to me that someone hasn't cared about the African-American populations in the affected districts for 200 years," Stokes said. "The same can be said for women."

Stokes pointed out that when a vacancy occurred in the City Council's 6th District last year, the district's black community was not consulted. Instead, he said, political leaders in the district picked Edward L. Reisinger, who is white.

"When you ask them about the chances of a black being chosen, there is always somebody else in line," Stokes said.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad