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7th long a 'fiercely independent' district


It was in Maryland's 7th Congressional District -- a diverse area that now stretches from Belair-Edison to Woodlawn, from Catonsville to Reisterstown -- that Baltimore-area black voters first demonstrated their power and made history.

Just 26 years ago, Parren J. Mitchell became Maryland's first black congressman after defeating a machine-backed, nine-term incumbent by a mere 38 votes at a time when blacks made up only 40 percent of the voters in the district.

The 7th has been regarded with a special reverence ever since.

Today, the district is a stronghold of black political power: Almost every elected official in the district is black -- and so is nearly every one of the 32 candidates running in the March 5 primary election for the congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Kweisi Mfume.

But the 27 Democrats and five Republicans in the race to replace Mr. Mfume will find a markedly different district -- demographically, geographically and even politically -- than the one in which Mr. Mitchell ran in 1970.

The only constant seems to be that since black voters broke the hold of a white Democratic political organization on the 7th, they have remained independent.

"It was never really controlled or beholden to anyone," said Mr. Mitchell, now president of the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc. "The mayor couldn't control the 7th District; former governors couldn't. It's been traditionally a fiercely independent district."

The district also remains overwhelmingly Democratic -- 83.4 percent, according to the most recent election board figures -- meaning that winning the primary election, just a month from now, is tantamount to winning the seat.

But Mr. Mitchell pointed out that much more has changed than has stayed the same.

"Then, it was the overwhelming unity in the black community" that elected him, Mr. Mitchell said. "This year, the number of candidates is the splintering factor."

A similar battle for the seat took place in 1986, when Mr. Mitchell chose not to seek re-election.

Nine candidates ran in the Democratic primary that year -- fewer than a third of the aspirants this time. Out of that fray emerged only the third congressman to represent the 7th -- Mr. Mfume, who is stepping down to head the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The ministerial factor

This year's field is a strong one that has brought out six elected officials from across the district, including Baltimore County, and five ministers, one of whom is also an officeholder.

That field may split the all-important vote of churchgoers in the district, historically a significant factor in winning the seat.

In 1970, for instance, ministers of the city's black churches first showed the strength of the pulpit, uniting behind Mr. Mitchell.

"They played an enormous role," Mr. Mitchell said. "Every church had announcements in their bulletins before the election, which was unprecedented."

It was a scene that was replayed in 1986, when Mr. Mfume, then a city councilman with little political base, won the important endorsement of the black ministers over two particularly strong candidates -- Wendell H. Phillips, a minister and member of the House of Delegates, and former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III, the congressman's nephew.

In the end, Mr. Mfume's share of the vote was more than that of Mr. Phillips and Mr. Mitchell put together, in part because of the ministers' support.

The Baltimore County factor

When Mr. Mitchell took the seat in 1970, the Baltimore County portion of the district was little more than a sliver on the Westside, mostly between the city line and the Baltimore Beltway.

The county now accounts for a quarter of the district's population and nearly matches that in terms of registered voters who go to the polls in higher percentages than city voters.

Mr. Mfume has never had any real competition since winning the seat, which was generally believed to be his as long as he wanted it, and the redistricting of 1991 did not anticipate his stepping down.

So the strength of the vote has never truly been tested in a congressional fight, and West Baltimore voters, who traditionally have coalesced behind one candidate, could be divided this time because of the size of the field.

"Every person who's running, or at least the vast majority, has at least a constituent base they can call their own," Mr. Mitchell said. "The winner will be the one who can dig into the constituency base of others."

One untested factor in this race will be state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a county candidate deeply rooted in the city's west side who will throw a new dynamic into the contest.

Seeing the importance of the county in this race, many of the political and community leaders in Catonsville -- a mostly white, middle-class, conservative area -- have banded together to form a bloc in the southwest elbow of the district.

That group maintains that the voters in Catonsville -- which is made up primarily of legislative District 47B and the adjacent District 12A -- could account for 15 percent to 20 percent of the total voter turnout in the primary. More than 42 percent of the Democratic vote in the Baltimore County portion of the 7th District -- nearly 20,000 Democrats -- lies in those two districts.

The Catonsville group has backed state Del. Elijah E. Cummings, the House speaker pro tem from West Baltimore, but Ms. Kelley has support there, as well as in her own district to the north. Ms. Kelley also may be able to count on the organization of Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, though at this point, he continues to hold his political cards close to the vest.

The changing 7th

The 7th District of 1970 included predominantly poor West Baltimore -- still the core of the district, made up mostly of black voters -- and county communities as diverse as the conservative blue-collar areas of Arbutus, Lansdowne and Relay and the wealthy of Pikesville and Stevenson.

But the district boundaries have changed three times since then, to accommodate population shifts reflected in the U.S. censuses of 1970, 1980 and 1990. They, of course, also were gerrymandered to include the highest number of black voters possible in the 7th, while balancing the political needs of the surrounding congressional districts.

The biggest change has been in the racial makeup of the district, which was reconfigured after Mr. Mitchell won in 1970 to become an all-urban district that included West Baltimore but also reached across the center of the city to the east and included an arm of turf that ran to the north.

After Mr. Mitchell took the seat, the district was redrawn to nearly double the ratio of black voters in the 7th -- to 79 percent. Before that, 60 percent of the 7th's vote was white, and two-thirds of that Jewish, much of it in Baltimore County.

Baltimore's population withered during the 1970s -- the 7th District suffered the greatest population drop in the state during that decade -- and the district was altered again, with the boundaries being moved out into Baltimore County.

That reduced the ratio of black voters -- a pattern that was repeated after the 1980 census -- but only slightly.

The 7th was squeezed westward after the 1980 census, mostly to accommodate then-2nd District Rep. Clarence D. Long, whose district was shifted to the north and east.

That forced the boundaries of the 3rd District, then represented by Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski, to be reshaped around the 7th, up into Northwest Baltimore and out to the county, and down through southwest Baltimore County into Columbia.

After the 1990 census, the 7th again was changed, much of it toprotect the 2nd District seat of then-Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Republican who had the ear of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, while accommodating other Democrats.

The district now is 71 percent black -- still among the highest percentages in the nation's congressional districts -- and stretches well into Baltimore County to include much of the black middle class in Woodlawn, Randallstown and beyond.

The 7th's history

The 7th District was created just 44 years ago, after a surge in the city's population during and after World War II.

Samuel N. Friedel, a former city councilman from the Westside, became the district's first congressman in 1952. Backed by political boss James H. "Jack" Pollack, Mr. Friedel managed for nearly two decades to hold off all challengers -- including Mr. Mitchell, whose first attempt to unseat him in 1968 fell short by 5,000 votes.

Then in 1970, Mr. Mitchell defeated Mr. Friedel in a bitter four-way Democratic primary fraught with Election Day irregularities that brought charges of illegalities from both sides. Mr. Friedel declared victory with a 180-vote margin on election night, but the formal canvass of vote showed that Mr. Mitchell actually had won.

Mr. Friedel conceded the election three weeks after the primary, and a week after he called for a House of Representatives investigation into the irregularities.

Mr. Mitchell's victory seemed to cap perfectly the preceding decade, in which the struggle for civil rights shaped the 1960s as much as any other issue.

The upset stunned Baltimore's white political establishment -- sending a message that the black vote in the city had arrived as a power, that it had a voice which no longer would be stifled.

It also surprised the black political establishment, such as it was then, by showing that potent new alliances could be forged -- such as those out of which the New Democratic Coalition political clubs were formed -- without the traditional white political machine.

And the significance of the win reached beyond the city and state borders.

"It was the first [in Maryland] in electing a black congressman and really set the pattern for so many other states, particularly Southern border states," Mr. Mitchell said. "I think it has been important to the nation, the kind of independence that has been associated with the 7th District."

Last day to register

Today is the final day for registering to vote in the March 5 presidential and congressional primary elections.

The Baltimore election board will be open for voter registration today from 8 a.m to 9 p.m. on the first floor of the the municipal office building at 417 E. Fayette St. The board also will hold a final voter registration push at Mondawmin Mall's Center Court from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Statewide, voter registration applications are available at a variety of locations including Motor Vehicle Administration jTC offices, public assistance offices, community colleges and post offices. Completed applications must be postmarked or returned local board of elections offices by 9 p.m. today.

For more information, city residents can phone 396-5550. Residents in other communities can call their local election board or the State Administrative Board of Election Laws at (800) 222-VOTE.

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