Mitchell backs away temporarily from threat to bolt the Democrats


State Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV has backed off -- for now at least -- from his threat to withdraw from the Democratic Party over a legislative redistricting plan he believes will hurt African-American representation in the General Assembly.

"After thoughtful and wise advice, I am postponing my decision as to whether to leave the Democratic Party until the legislative process of finalizing the redistricting map is completed," wrote Mitchell, who has voiced outrage over the past several weeks about the redistricting map proposed by a panel appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Mitchell, 39, who represents West Baltimore's 44th District, had said weeks ago that he would announce yesterday whether he would leave the Democratic Party and some time later whether he would become an independent or join the Republican Party in protest of the redistricting plan.

He declared he was staying put in a written statement at the annual pre-legislative luncheon in Annapolis of Democratic leaders. Many of his fellow politicians at the affair and party chairman Wayne L. Rogers urged him to stick with the party while the redistricting plan is being finalized over the next 45 days.

While seated at the luncheon, Mitchell dropped his head as U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes spoke about the strength of Maryland's Democratic Party. "We keep reading all these stories about Maryland being a Democratic state. There is a reason for that," Sarbanes said, quickly glancing in Mitchell's direction. "The voters of the state have elected Democrats."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening by law must submit his final redistricting plan to the General Assembly by noon today, the opening of the 90-day session. Unless the legislature agrees on an alternative, it will become law in 45 days.

The initial plan, as proposed by the governor's redistricting commission, threatened to eliminate four African-American lawmakers from the General Assembly, including Mitchell and two of the three delegates from his district. The changes to Mitchell's district were the result of population losses in that area of Baltimore.

African-American lawmakers and civil rights leaders said they would sue the state if the plan moved forward as initially proposed.

Legislative leaders say they expect the governor to make minor changes to the commission's plan before it is submitted to lawmakers so that two of the three African-American delegates in Mitchell's district have a strong chance to win re-election this fall. But the changes are not likely to improve Mitchell's chances in the potential contest he faces with Sen. George W. Della, whose 47th district would be merged with Mitchell's.

Mitchell said he believes the governor would not have agreed to make the changes that would help the incumbent delegates "had I not done what I did."

But Michael Morrill, a spokesman for the governor, said Mitchell's threat did not contribute to any changes in the plan.

If he stays in the party, Mitchell is likely to face tough challenges ahead in trying to mend relationships after threatening to leave.

Republican legislative leaders said yesterday that they understand Mitchell's decision to take his time and said they would invite him into the GOP, if he decides to leave the Democrats.

"We would love to have him join us," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Senate minority leader and an Eastern Shore Republican.

Sun staff writers Howard Libit and Tim Craig contributed to this article.

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