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The woman in center of city election storm


Barbara E. Jackson, the city's elections administrator, is a very mild-mannered, unassuming woman. She is sitting in her office with her hands folded very properly on the desk in front of her, her posture just so. Plaques attesting to her community involvement decorate her office wall.

"I love this job," she is saying. "When I first started here, I didn't know anything about politics. Now, I understand how very important the voting process is. If we don't vote, we have no voice. If we don't vote, we have no way of holding public officials accountable."

As she speaks, she reminds me of the prototypical Sunday school teacher: proud without seeming haughty; good-hearted without seeming self-righteous.

Ms. Jackson, 50, started at the city board of elections as a part-time clerk in 1968. She worked her way up through the ranks, as an assistant registrar, registrar, chief clerk, and deputy administrator. She was appointed administrator eight years ago.

She is the type of person you would love to have as a neighbor or as a friend; or even -- maybe I should say, especially -- as a public official.

Yet for nearly seven months now, Barbara E. Jackson has been treated like Public Enemy Number One by some in the state Republican Party; she is repeatedly vilified on talk radio; she has been the subject of increasingly wild accusations that she masterminded a sinister plot to steal the election from gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey last November. Ms. Sauerbrey lost the election to Democrat Parris N. Glendening by 5,993 votes, one of the closest counts in Maryland history. Some of Ms. Sauerbrey's supporters have challenged the results ever since, targeting Ms. Jackson as the focus of their discontent.

The charges bring flashes of anger into this quiet woman's eyes. "I feel appalled. I feel insulted," she says. "Everyone tells me not to take the attacks personally, but when people accuse me of deliberately plotting to steal the election, of course I take that personally. How can I help but take it personally?"

By my last count, two lower courts and the state Court of Appeals have rejected the allegations of deliberate fraud, one judge attacking the Republicans for bringing a "frivolous" case to court.

But Ms. Sauerbrey's supporters fight on. They have called for an investigation by the state special prosecutor and the U.S. Justice Department. Daniel J. Earnshaw, a Republican lawyer from Harford County and member of the state elections board, has demanded Ms. Jackson's resignation.

They picked the wrong woman to mess with.

"I thought of quitting," she admits. "All kinds of thoughts went through my mind. But then I realized that too many people are counting on me. I'd be letting too many people down. If I quit, some people would think, 'Well, she couldn't take the pressure.' And others will say, 'Well, she must be guilty.' So, I'm not going to quit. I'm not going to let them drive me out."

Some people believe the attacks are racially motivated -- part of a national plan to suppress black voter turnout because blacks overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party. Mayor Schmoke, for example, charged in November that Sauerbrey's attacks followed a pattern of harassment designed to discourage blacks from voting in future elections.

Ms. Jackson agrees.

"I take it as a deliberate racial slap," she says. "They are calling the people of Baltimore liars, cheats and crooks. They are insulting me. They are insulting the office. They are insulting the city."

But the effort may backfire. Local groups such as Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development have made a special push to register voters this year. They plan to follow up by encouraging blacks to vote.

Meanwhile, several in the city have rallied around Ms. Jackson -- helping to fortify her against the seemingly endless personal attacks.

"In fact, when they held the Flower Mart in front of City Hall recently, a very nice woman made a special point of coming in to give me a flower," she says, smiling fondly. "It is gestures like that which make my job worthwhile. It helps me stomach the rest."

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