Worcester may elect first black to panel County Commission picked by district


It has taken almost a million dollars, two appeals to the Supreme Court and a mountain of maps, legal briefs and ballots, but come Tuesday Worcester County voters will go to the polls to choose their county commissioners by district.

The result could be the first black commissioner in the county's 253 years.

The five commission races are the only ones on the ballot in this special election. The commission races were removed from last year's regularly scheduled election while Worcester fought to retain the countywide, at-large voting system it has had since before the American Revolution.

A three-year legal struggle over the system has not ended, but this week Democrat James Purnell, a black businessman and school bus driver, squares off against Republican incumbent Floyd Bassett, a white businessman and retired school guidance counselor, for the commission seat in District 3.

The election outcome is uncertain, as is the future of the newly created districts.

What is clear, however, is that political change has not come quickly or easily to this county along Maryland's easternmost reach, stretching from Delaware to Virginia.

"Worcester has the distinction of being one of the last stones that didn't get turned over" during the 1960s and 1970s civil rights activity, said Chris Brown, a Baltimore attorney specializing in voting rights cases.

The court battle began in 1992, when Mr. Brown, along with several Worcester plaintiffs and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit asking that the county elect its commissioners by district. The proposed system, the suit contended, would permit election of a black commissioner in a county where 21 percent of the 35,000 residents are black.

But the county resisted. The case wound its way to the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., which ordered a district election and chose a map that drew five districts, one for each commission seat.

The county appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined once to hear the case. This year, when the justices rejected race-based districting in a Georgia case, the county refiled its appeal. The case is on the court's docket now; the court could decide to hear the case and throw out the new map.

At-large voting, say its detractors, tends to dilute the effect of a minority vote. Also, the costs of countywide campaigning discourage many potential candidates. The dilution, they say, is evident in Worcester where blacks are one-fifth of the population but remain unrepresented on the county commission and underrepresented in county government.

As proof, Mr. Brown pointed to a recent survey that showed one black in the top 80 county jobs (ranked by salary).

Elsewhere on the Shore, Mr. Brown said, at-large voting has fallen to similar challenges: Cambridge, Somerset County, Salisbury, Easton, Hurlock.

"The rest of the country is using these districts -- and the Republic hasn't fallen," he said dryly.

Opponents of the district system include the county commission in Worcester, which has spent $753,513 in legal fees.

"We feel the voting system we have has served the county well over the years," said John "Sonny" Bloxom, a county commissioner. "Since 1742, we've had an at-large voting system."

Mr. Bloxom said he feared that dividing the county into districts would create factions and weaken county unity. He said the court-ordered districts also send a negative message to black county residents: "You can't get elected unless you have your own special district."

Running for office is not easy for anyone under the current system, said Mr. Bloxom. He ran three times before gaining a seat. He and others say such persistence, not court orders, is what should put candidates in office.

The districting issue is playing a large role in the new Third district, which is 58 percent black.

It was a defining issue, in fact, for the incumbent, Mr. Bassett, who first said he would retire after his current term. When the districts were announced, Mr. Bassett feared the Democratic candidate, Mr. Purnell, would run unopposed, so he filed at the last minute.

"My district is a stupid, ridiculously drawn district," Mr. Bassett said. "It cuts two towns [Berlin and Snow Hill] in half that have historically voted together."

On that, he and Mr. Purnell differ sharply.

"I think that it is ridiculous that the county commission still feels that way," Mr. Purnell said. "It's a waste of taxpayers' money," he said of their legal battle.

For many, the change to districts has been confusing.

"I don't think it's [a] good change," said Ann Horner Granados, who chairs the Worcester County Republican Central Committee. "To have an area gerrymandered the way this has been gerrymandered doesn't make sense to me."

During the September primary, she said, several couples told her their households had been split between two precincts, causing husband and wife to vote at different polling places.

Whether or not Mr. Purnell on Tuesday becomes the first black to serve on the County Commission, the election has left its mark on Worcester.

"At the very least, African-Americans are now going to have to be taken seriously in that district," Mr. Brown said.

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