State Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV said yesterday that he will withdraw from the Democratic Party because he believes a proposed legislative redistricting map would hurt African-American and minority representation in Maryland.
Mitchell, part of a prominent civil rights family that has influenced several generations of local and national Democratic leaders, said he plans to make his official announcement Jan. 8 at a Democratic Party meeting in Annapolis. He said he has not decided whether he would become a political independent or join the Republican Party.
"I know what I don't want to be," said Mitchell, 39, an African-American senator from West Baltimore's 44th District. "I'm not sure what I want to be."
The announcement occurs a week after a panel appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening released a proposal for redrawing legislative district lines in Maryland. Under the plan, Mitchell would face a potential re-election contest against Sen. George W. Della Jr., also a Democrat, whose 47th District was merged into the 44th.
Political observers - including Mitchell's cousin, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. - have said they believe the governor's panel designed the redistricting plan to hurt Clarence Mitchell's re-election chances.
Mitchell and Glendening have been at odds over several issues, including the senator's decision last year to back a white Republican candidate for the Circuit Court in Baltimore County over a black Democratic incumbent supported by the governor. The Republican candidate won.
Even so, Mitchell's announcement yesterday shocked Democratic leaders, who said they believe he is overreacting to the redistricting proposal and called his decision a mistake. They said they hope he reconsiders and maintains his family's long tradition with the Democratic Party.
"There's no place for him in the Republican Party, absolutely none," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "If he takes the time to listen to some very wise persons, I think he'll rethink his decision. He's young and has a wonderful future ahead of him in the Democratic Party."
But Republican leaders have been attempting to draw Mitchell into their camp over the past several days. Last week, Republican Del. James F. Ports Jr., the newly elected House minority whip, sat at an Annapolis hearing on the redistricting proposal with his arm around Mitchell's shoulders.
Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said he will meet with Mitchell next week, probably Wednesday.
"He would absolutely be welcome within the big tent of the Republican Party," said Steele, an African-American. "Blind loyalty and allegiance doesn't get you a lot in a state run by Mike Miller and Parris Glendening. I think the GOP offers a viable alternative."
Sen. Martin G. Madden, the former Senate minority leader, applauded the move.
"Clarence Mitchell has always taken courageous stands in Annapolis on legislation, and he's taking a courageous stand politically this time," said Madden, who is resigning his Howard County seat before the start of the 2002 session.
Mitchell, known as "C-4" among his friends and colleagues, is the grandson of renowned civil rights activist Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. and the son of another former state senator, Clarence M. Mitchell III.
Clarence Mitchell Jr. was the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Washington Bureau during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, a critical period for landmark civil rights legislation.
Mitchell's great-uncle is Parren J. Mitchell, who was Maryland's first African-American congressman.
Miller, who spoke with Clarence Mitchell IV just before his decision was publicized, said Mitchell and his family have over the years proven to be "too progressive for the Republican Party."
"I told him, put his head down, buckle his armor and do what he thinks his grandfather would want him to do," Miller said.
Clarence Mitchell Jr. also was known for his ability to woo and work with Republicans. But Clarence Mitchell IV's decision to withdraw from the Democratic Party left many of his colleagues speechless.
"I have no comment until I talk to him," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the city Senate delegation.
As news of the decision spread, Keiffer Mitchell felt compelled to issue a news release to say that he planned to stay with the Democrats.
"I still believe in the principles of the Democratic Party and therefore I will remain a Democrat, and continue to work to strengthen the Democratic Party," Keiffer Mitchell said.
Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he believes Mitchell should delay his decision to leave the party until after the Governor's Advisory Commission on Redistricting has a chance to consider recommendations made at a hearing last week about the proposed map.
Branch said there are indications that the commission might change the map to increase the African-American population in the proposed 44th District, which could give Mitchell a stronger edge against Della.
Under the current proposal, the 44th District would have an African-American population of 53 percent.
Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.