Advertisement
News

THE LIFE OF THE PARTY Vera Hall, leader of the state's Democrats, excels at the politics of achievement

Vera Hall, leader of Maryland's Democratic Party and the first black woman to head that office, explains how her political career got launched:

Potatoes, she says, and only a little facetiously.

Advertisement

These weren't just any old spuds, mind you, but delicious ones that were peeled, sliced, fried and served on a moment's notice to members of a West Baltimore political club.

Mrs. Hall cooked and served that potato breakfast in her home more than 20 years ago. After breakfast, club members were let in on a little secret -- Mr. Hall had forgotten to tell his wife about the Sunday morning meeting.

Advertisement

The men never forgot Mrs. Hall's composure in handling the unexpected guests. Soon, when the political club opened its doors to women, Vera Hall was one of the first females asked to join.

State Sen. Clarence W. Blount was leader of the group that appeared on the Hall family doorstep that day in 1970. He remembers the breakfast and to this day remains impressed with Mrs. Hall.

"She has gotten to be quite a savvy politician," says Mr. Blount. "She's unquestionably a hard worker. If she takes a job and says she is going to do it -- then she does it. And she carries people along with her. If you're lazy, you're not going to make it with her."

He adds that her cooking skills are unsurpassed, although "I don't know how much time she has to cook now."

Probably not much, considering that Mrs. Hall is a Baltimore City councilwoman in addition to being chairwoman of the state's Democratic Party.

Elected to the City Council in 1987 to represent the 5th district, Mrs. Hall, a 55-year-old with regal looks and an easygoing manner, became chairwoman of the party in November. She takes over at a fortuitous time, as Democratic President Bill Clinton takes office Wednesday.

"I'm excited about the possibility of getting back on track," she says, referring to the end of 12 years of Republicans in the White House. "But it's an awesome responsibility."

David R. Blumberg, the city's Republican Party chairman, disagrees that things are as bad as the Democrats would have you believe. Personally, though, he admires the Democratic chairwoman. "I find her easy to talk to," Mr. Blumberg says. "In fact, I live in her district. I'm very friendly with her personally, although politically we disagree."

Advertisement

At one time, the only dream Mrs. Hall had was caring for a husband and children and a house with a white picket fence.

When she envisioned this life for herself, she was a 19-year-old country girl in a small Southern farming community.

Born in Bolton, N.C., the former Vera P. Webb grew up with two sisters and two brothers. Her father, Wiley Webb, was the town barber; her mother, Kara Webb, a homemaker. Both are deceased.

Mrs. Hall says her mother was a typical woman of her day -- "a strong black woman dedicated to family and the community."

Of her father, she says it was his interest in politics and community service that made a lasting impression.

"He took people to the polls and taught them how to pass the tests," Mrs. Hall recalls of a time when for some African-Americans the right to vote came with strings attached. To be able to vote, they had to own property, pass civic tests and demonstrate that they could read.

Advertisement

"He also instilled a strong sense of being responsible for another human being," says Mrs. Hall. "He had a big Mason jar with a hole in the top. The jar was for people to put money in. He used the money for people when they got sick."

Her father also contributed to her life in a more unusual way. "He was the one that taught me how to cook," she says, laughing at the memory.

Mrs. Hall also likes to sew. It was this interest that led her to consider a career in fashion designing. "I can't imagine where I got the idea to be a designer," she says, explaining that there were no black role models at the time.

She enrolled in a private designing college in Raleigh, N.C., but eventually left the school. She thought the instruction was inferior. "I got very disillusioned," she says.

She was also in love.

The object of her desire was Lawrence Hall, whom she had met while in high school. And she had caught her future husband's eye. "Other kids would be carrying on, but she used to always be reading or doing something," Mr. Hall remembers.

Advertisement

The couple married in 1955, and three years later moved to Baltimore with their son, Reginald, who was then 8 months old.

It was Mr. Hall who joined the political clubs when they moved north. He didn't think his wife was interested in politics. But after that breakfast meeting, things changed -- with Mr. Hall's blessings.

"I try to encourage her in everything she likes to do," says Mr. Hall, who is a barber. But there are a few drawbacks to being a political spouse. "Naturally, she's gone a lot," he says. "But I've kind of gotten used to that."

Political traits

The Halls' 31-year-old daughter, Kimberly, says her mother has always had the traits of a politician.

"She doesn't take a lot of crap and she is not afraid of saying things," says Ms. Hall, an English professor at Georgetown University. "That's good for a politician, but not a particularly endearing quality in a mother," she adds jokingly.

Advertisement

Mrs. Hall's eldest sibling, Barbara Douglas, who lives in Baltimore, agrees that her sister has useful political qualities.

"She always liked to talk, and she always got her point across," says Mrs. Douglas. "And she was never afraid to try anything new." She remembers Mrs. Hall went out and got her driver's license when she was 17 -- and then got a job driving a school bus.

After the Halls settled in Baltimore, Mr. Hall encouraged his wife to go back to college, this time to major in education.

"My husband was the one who actually went and picked up the application from Coppin and brought it home," Mrs. Hall recalls. "I started back and did finish college. But while I was student teaching, I had my daughter. I never seem to do things the easy way."

She eventually taught in various Baltimore schools, spending the longest time -- 10 years -- at Hilton Elementary in West Baltimore.

"I took the view that dumbness is not inherent to being poor," she says. "There are dumb rich people just like there are dumb poor people."

Advertisement

Mrs. Hall points to a plaque in her office given to her by her son, who is now an orthopedic surgeon in Durham, N.C. It reads: "If you aim at nothing, you will hit it."

She served on numerous educational committees before going to the state Department of Education to work on a project to raise the reading scores of underachievers.

Rising in politics

She went on to serve as director of state relations for Morgan State University. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hall's star was rising in the political arena.

She was twice selected to the State Central Committee of the Maryland Democratic Party and became its vice chairman.

During this time, she also opened a business called Veranne with a partner, Anne Wilson. The two women designed special-occasion clothes and wedding attire.

Advertisement

When she decided to run for City Council, she closed the business. Two jobs, she could handle, she says -- three were too much.

Last June, Mrs. Hall thought she might have some free time when she retired from Morgan State University. But then Nathan Landow, the former head of the Democratic Party, resigned to work for Sen. Al Gore's vice presidential campaign.

Going after the high-profile political job of leading the state's Democratic Party was something Mrs. Hall thought she should do.

"Women and blacks complain about not being represented enough," she says. "So if you're the person in the chute, the only person there, how can you not step up to the bat?" she asks.

The job didn't come without tension. When Mr. Landow stepped down, there was talk among party members of Mrs. Hall co-chairing the committee -- along with a man. She

rejected the idea outright.

Advertisement

"I'm either going to move up or move out," she told members of the executive committee. She moved up.

THE HALL FILE

Occupation: Chairwoman of Maryland Democratic Party; Baltimore City councilwoman for the 5th District.

Born: Feb. 17, 1937.

Birthplace: Bolton, N.C.

Current home: West Baltimore.

Advertisement

Family: Husband, Lawrence; son, Reginald, 35; daughter, Kimberly, 31.

Previous jobs: Director of state relations for Morgan State University; Baltimore City schoolteacher; assistant to the superintendent of instruction at the Maryland Department of Education.

Hobbies: Sewing, cooking.

Education: Bachelor's degree in education from what is now Coppin State University in 1962; master's in education (with emphasis on reading) from Towson State University in 1971; additional classes at Towson State University, Loyola, John Hopkins.

Philosophy shared with children: "Don't ever let anybody define who you are. You define yourself."



Advertisement