The new districts: 2nd


One of the ironies of a redistricting plan intended to "empower" minorities and the poor in areas where historically they have been locked out of the political process is that the new map threatens to upset the long-standing equilibrium of Baltimore's central 2nd District, which for two decades has been regarded as a model for successful racial coalition politics.

The immediate cause of this potential upset lies in the inability -- some say unwillingness -- of the black and white political clubs that traditionally have dominated 2nd District politics to agree this year on a slate of City Council candidates. But the deeper reasons go to the heart of the redistricting process and the political sea change in Baltimore since blacks became a majority.

Since the early 1970s, the 2nd District has regularly elected one white and two blacks to serve on theCity Council -- a ratio that mirrors the racial composition of the district.

This distribution of representatives was virtually guaranteed by a black-white coalition that worked through the 2nd District's established political clubs. The district's relatively liberal, relatively affluent whites were assured a voice on such issues as trash pickup, tree-planting and zoning enforcement for the mostly upscale neighborhoods of Bolton Hill, Charles Village, Mt. Vernon, Guilford, even though they constitute a minority in the district. Blacks, who populate the poorer neighborhoods of East Baltimore, gained representation proportionate to their numbers and white political support on the council for important issues affecting their communities. One result has been that the 2nd District gained the largest array of social service facilities of any area in the city.

Given this history, it is not surprising that the 2nd District historically has been a launching pad for both black and white candidates for citywide office. Three of the last four council presidents came from the 2nd, and this year a district councilwoman, Jacqueline McLean, is running for city comptroller. (McLean, however, has generally operated without club support.)

This year, however, there is at least a chance the 2nd District delegation's accustomed racial makeup could be stood on its head as a result of redistricting, leaving the district with one black and two white City Council representatives. If that were to happen, it would represent a stunning setback for the basic rationale underlying Baltimore's redistricting process.

To see why this paradoxical result is a real possibility this year, one must look to the club dynamics that have shaped 2nd District politics, and to a last-minute compromise during redistricting that -- inadvertently -- had the effect of introducing a wild card.

There are four main political clubs in the 2nd District: the New Democratic Coalition-2nd District (NDC-2); the Mt. Royal Democratic Club; the Eastside Democratic Organization (EDO), and the East End Forum (EEF). NDC-2 and Mt. Royal, identified respectively with City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and state Sen. Julian Lapides, are predominantly white. EDO and EEF, identified with former Mayor Du Burns and City Councilman Carl Stokes, respectively, are predominantly black. NDC-2 was a dissident faction of Mt. Royal until it broke away in 1969. Similarly, EEF is an offshoot of EDO that was formed in 1982. This history of schism has left a legacy of bitter organizational and personal rivalries that still exert influence on district politics.

Perhaps because their falling out was more recent, the rivalry between EDO and EEF is particularly vigorous. In any case, this year the two simply could not agree on a City Council slate of two blacks and one white proposed by NDC-2, a traditional coalition partner. Thus the coalition is at an impasse for the moment. Normally this probably wouldn't matter, but this year two things happened that could drastically alter the traditional pattern.

First, Councilwoman McLean decided to run for comptroller, leaving an open seat. Second, a last-minute compromise during redistricting moved the northern precincts of Guilford from the 3rd District into the 2nd. That decision was motivated by considerations unrelated to club politics, but it had the unintended effect of bringing into the district a popular white candidate, Peter Beilenson, favored by leaders of the Mt. Royal Democratic Club.

The upshot is that, other than incumbent Councilman Stokes, no black candidate has emerged who enjoys the full backing of the 2nd District's traditional black-white coalition. EEF and EDO are backing different candidates for McLean's open seat, which has also drawn into the race a large field of black candidates who could further fragment the vote. Meanwhile, the district has two strong white candidates, incumbent Councilman Anthony Ambridge and Beilenson, both of whom probably could do well among liberal whites and blacks accustomed to coalition voting.

Thus the scenario arises in which two whites are elected in the 2nd District and, despite redistricting, no blacks, moreover, are elected in the 1st, 3rd or 6th Districts. Such an outcome is entirely possible. In that case, the black minority on the City Council would actually shrink from 7 to 6, even though blacks constitute an electoral majority citywide. It would be hard to imagine a more bizarre ending for a redistricting process intended to finally give blacks their fair share of power.

Next Monday: The 3rd District

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