Council grapples with the color of city politics


Mike Curran was ready to throw a punch at the Baltimore City Council meeting Monday night. He didn't. But he was ready.

"I've never seen anything like it, and I've been in the council 14 years," Curran, D-3rd, said. "I thought it was very possible that fists were going to fly.

"I have never seen anything this bad-natured. This was just plain racial. And when Sheila Dixon took off her shoe . . . well, I guess nothing shocks me any more."

Councilwoman Dixon, D-4th, removed her shoe not, like Nikita Khrushchev, to pound it, but to make a point. "You've been running things for the last 20 years," she said. "Now the the shoe is on the other foot. See how you like it."

One possible interpretation of what Dixon was saying is that when whites were in power, they ran roughshod over blacks. And now that blacks have power, it is time for them to run roughshod over whites.

As its best, politics is not pretty. But racial politics has an ugliness all its own. Which is why Mayor Schmoke is now worried that a city already nervous about race relations may plunge into the abyss over this issue.

The fight is about redistricting. Which means it is about power and race.

Baltimore is about 60 percent black, but only seven of the 19 council members, or about 37 percent, are black.

Is this fair? Would it be more fair to have it the other way around? But don't people have a right to vote for candidates regardless of their race? And couldn't we all just ignore race and elect people based on their qualifications?

Yes, we could. If we lived in Disneyland.

But in Baltimore this is the way we do things:

All Baltimore is divided into six districts. Every time there is a new census, the districts must be redrawn to give them approximately the same number of people.

But it is also possible to alter the racial makeup of each district by shoving communities this way and that.

Under Mayor Schmoke's redistricting plan, three districts (the 2nd, 4th and 5th) would have large black majorities. Two districts (the 1st and 3rd) would have white majorities, and the 6th District effectively would be split 50-50 between blacks and whites.

Though other factors besides race are important to getting elected -- such as fund raising and political organization support -- the Schmoke plan was expected to produce anywhere from nine to 12 black council members.

This plan was criticized by blacks on the current council, however, as not going far enough to empower black voters. And Monday night, at that shoe-waving meeting, the City Council replaced this plan with one that created five majority black districts and only one majority white district.

A City Hall source told me Tuesday, however, that the council plan is badly flawed in that it does not take into account voting-age population, as the Schmoke plan does. The source went on to claim that the council plan could actually lower the number of blacks on the council to as few as five.

In any case, the council acted the day before public hearings on the matter were held, a move which lead Schmoke to denounce it as "the worst kind of back-room politics."

Which lead to the usual denunciations by blacks that Schmoke is not "black" enough and the usual charges by whites that blacks are trying to "take over" the city.

The trouble with all this, aside from the obvious ugliness, is that the citizens of Baltimore get the opportunity to vote with their feet.

Middle-class residents, both black and white, can decide they have had enough of city politics and city life and move, something that tens of thousands of them have done in the last 10 years.

This leaves a city increasingly made up of the "underclass," peopleof both races who need city services but who generate few tax dollars topay for them.

So it is not just politics we are talking about. It is real life. It is the real life of Baltimore.

Compromise is possible. Compromise that heals wounds rather than opens them is what both sides should be seeking. But when you've got the power, it is often difficult to see why you should compromise at all.

Mike Curran thought he had worked out a compromise in his district, which is about 42 percent black but does not have a black council person. In a meeting last weekend, Curran agreed that a black council candidate would run on his ticket and the district would be represented by two whites and one black.

The council decided it didn't need Curran's generosity, however. It redrew the district lines making his district 62 percent black, leading to the possibility that blacks could pick up two or even three seats.

"They [the black council members] got the votes they needed in the council," Curran admitted. "They got 10 votes [out of 19]. But this eventually goes to the mayor and he can veto it. And then they would need 15 votes to override it. And they do not have 15 votes."

If the mayor vetoes the council plan, however, the city's district lines revert to a 1983 map, which almost everyone agrees is seriously flawed. But if the mayor doesn't veto the council plan, it might end up in court anyway.

"I will challenge it in court," Curran said. "This is gerrymandering in capital letters. And I'll tell you, Dixon wants a total black city. Another Detroit. Another Washington, D.C. And they want to control that city."

Maybe so. Maybe some blacks want to control Baltimore like some whites used to control it. And why not?

But how that control is exercised is going to be the key to the future of this city.

Jody Landers, D-3rd, is not running for re-election to the council this year, but he told me something that everyone on the council would do well to consider.

"For the sake of the city and the good of the citizens, we should be trying to end racism in this city," he said, "not just change the color of it."

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