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What if, after the Redistricting, Blacks Lose Ground?


Shortly after the voting polls close in this year's councilmanic elections in Baltimore, someone in the city's black community is going to stand up and say "I told you so."

Back in March during the debates over councilmanic redistricting, a lot of brash predictions were made as to what a new redistricting plan would mean to the outcome of the election.

The plan -- designed primarily by Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd -- increased the number of districts that have a black majority population from three to five, leaving only one majority-white district.

Supporters of the so-called Stokes plan said their goal was to increase the number of black council representatives. In a city that is close to 60 percent black, only seven of the 19 members of the council are black. Council members who backed the Stokes plan at the time predicted that anywhere between "nine and 13" black council members could be elected if it goes into effect.

"This year, I think we'll pick up two black seats in the city, one in the 3rd District and one in the 6th," Arthur Murphy, president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said back in late March.

"The Stokes plan does not do what it is purported to do, which is increase black representation," maintained Daniel P. Henson, a developer and political confidant of Mayor Schmoke. "When you look up in December and see five blacks on the council, some of us are going to say 'I told you so.' "

Now that the withdrawal deadline has passed and the candidates and battle lines drawn for the summer campaign, just whose prediction appears to be closer to coming true?

The 3rd and 6th Districts were most affected by the redistricting plan, going from predominantly white to predominantly black. Framers of the plan felt the change would give them the best chance to elect a black from those districts, which had never before elected a minority.

But the large number of black candidates who have filed in these two districts could make it hard for a black to break through. And it could cost a black seat in the 2nd District.

In both the 3rd and the 6th, efforts to keep the field of black candidates down have failed. Black leaders expressed concern that a large number of black candidates would dilute black voting strength.

While blacks and whites register to vote in nearly the same proportion, blacks are far more willing than whites to vote for candidates of the other race.

Past voting patterns indicate that the outcome of elections in the city often are influenced as much by organizational clout as by a district's racial composition, and whites tend to have stronger political organizations. Those organizations can influence voter turnout and concentrate voting strength behind a slate of candidates.

In the 3rd, where there is a vacant seat, there are seven black candidates, five of whom are considered strong. These include George Brent, Nina Harper, Linda C. Janey, Maegertha Whitaker and Sylvia Williams. The two incumbents, Martin E. "Mike" Curran and Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, are joined by two other strong white candidates, Kevin O'Keeffe and Martin O'Malley. The key to a black winning a seat in the 3rd could be if any of the leading white candidates form a ticket with the a black and if Schmoke decided to campaign in behalf of black candidates in the district.

Down in South Baltimore in the 6th District, six black candidates are still in the race, with four of them -- Arlene Fisher and Gwendolyn Johnson, Rodney Orange and Melvin Stukes -- considered strong challengers. Joseph J. DiBlasi, Edward L. Reisinger and Timothy D. Murphy, the three white incumbents, will be endorsed by the predominantly white political clubs which have a history of getting volunteers out on election day. No black political clubs have sprung up in the district to do the same for their candidates.

Black leaders in the 6th hope to persuade voters in the black communities to vote just for black candidates. But past efforts to that have not proved successful.

In March, Mayor Schmoke and some of his political supporters hinted that the Stokes plan weakens the black voting base in the 2nd District. High-voting black precincts from the Waverly and Homestead-Montebello communities, they explained, were removed from the 2nd District, creating the possibility that whites could win two of the district's three seats.

The 2nd has enjoyed success in playing coalition politics that resulted in the district being represented by two blacks and one white since 1971. But this year, coalition politics between the predominantly white New Democratic Coalition of the 2nd District and the predominantly black clubs, East End Forum and the Eastside Democratic Organization, have broken down.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, a white physician who works in two medical clinics in the poor black areas of the district, has significant support among the NDC-2 membership although he did not get the club's endorsement. Dr. Beilenson ran an impressive campaign last year for the House of Delegates in the 43rd Legislative District before falling just short of victory. He is applying the same intensive door-to-door campaign this summer the 2nd.

Dr. Beilenson is one of four whites in the race, but only he and incumbent Anthony J. Ambridge appear to have the strength to win. Eight blacks have also entered the race including the incumbent Mr. Stokes. The other incumbent, Jacqueline F. McLean, is giving up her seat to run for city comptroller.

Despite all the predictions, the political jockeying and new political lines, the chances of increased black representation in the council boils down to one simple ingredient that black Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, D-4th, called "our bottom line: black candidates have to organize, get out there and campaign and black voters have to vote."

Patrick Gilbert covers city politics for The Evening Sun.

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