City candidates woo black clerical groups with eye toward political salvation


For many of the candidates running for office in Baltimore this summer, their days have become a series of frenetic sprints from crowded shopping centers to busy intersections to bull-roast picnics, gabbing and glad-handing with as many people as possible in hopes of picking up a few more votes.

Last week, however, a good number of them swapped the crowded venues for the quiet of two West Baltimore churches, hoping that low-key meetings with a handful of black ministers would bring them endorsements from two predominantly black clerical groups.

On Thursday, about 20 candidates for mayor, comptroller and the City Council spoke with about a dozen members of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance at the Emmanuel Christian Community Church on Lafayette Square, answering questions about how they would handle the city's future. Two days earlier, candidates met behind closed doors with members of the Baptist Ministers Conference a few blocks away at Enon Baptist Church.

The ministers, whose involvement in Baltimore politics goes back for decades, do not plan to announce their endorsements until Thursday. But for some of the candidates, those for whom a few hundred votes could make a difference between winning and losing, their very political futures might hang in the balance.

The two ministerial organizations, which represent about 300 rTC black clergy members in the Baltimore area, are a powerful force among black voters. The ministers preach to thousands of congregants every Sunday, many of whom vote with the same fervor with which they attend church.

Several ministers have said they will try to convince their congregations that the redistricting of the city's councilmanic map earlier this year, which resulted in five of the six districts having majority-black populations, will offer black voters a chance to send a majority-black delegation to the city council for the first time in Baltimore's history.

"I really think that is key," said the Rev. William E. Johnson, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference, who said the redistricting will have been in vain unless blacks go to the polls. "That is what redistricting was all about."

Black churches have been a cornerstone of Baltimore's black society since even before blacks had the right to vote. In the 1800s, they pressed for the abolition of slavery and helped smuggle slaves to freedom. Later, they provided much of the money and organization that allowed the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to flourish. And the political careers of several prominent black politicians, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Representative Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th, and former state Sen. Harry A. Cole were buoyed by the zealous support from black churches.

"It is the most powerful force in our community," said the Rev. Frank E. Drumwright Jr., director of the Morgan Christian Center on Hillen Road, who said his childhood memories include listening in on strategy sessions among Baltimore ministers that in 1970 helped elect Maryland's first black congressman, Parren J. Mitchell.

Mr. Drumwright, 34, who last year helped organize a letter-writing campaign among Morgan State University students to protest the Bush administration's civil rights record, said he will try to persuade his 200-member congregation to get involved in the upcoming elections.

"I recognize the sacrifices our ancestors made just for the right to vote," said Mr. Drumwright.

Still, Mr. Drumwright says he has been frustrated by a lack of ideas among the various candidates. "I'm not excited by the politics of this time," he said. "There are not a lot of new ideas."

The influence of Baltimore's black clergy was not lost on the candidates, many of whom took time out to visit with the preachers.

Mayoral candidate William A. Swisher, who spent Monday in shirtsleeves and loosened collar campaigning in Brooklyn and Highlandtown, was among those who cleared their Tuesday afternoon schedules to meet with the ministers, hoping to convince them he was worthy of their political blessings.

"Black ministers have a lot of influence in the black community, and the black ministers know where the problems are," Mr. Swisher said. "I feel it is my obligation to submit myself to questioning by the ministers."

"I'm sure our endorsement matters," said the Rev. Sidney Daniels, president of the ministerial alliance and a member of the Baptist Ministers Conference. "We speak from a record of involvement and concern, and we don't just talk about it. We've been in the forefront."

At least one of the candidates didn't think much of the ministers'

questions, however.

After emerging from a private meeting with the ministers that lasted perhaps 20 minutes on Tuesday, former Mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns said they asked him how he would solve some of the city's problems, like an ailing school system, crime and inadequate housing.

The questions troubled him, Mr. Burns said, because he doesn't have sure answers and doesn't believe any of the other candidates do, either. "The solution is -- I don't know what the solution is," said Mr. Burns, who is running to get his old job back. "I just know that something needs to be done."

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