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Women show stronger grip in city politics


When Jill P. Carter launched her out-of-nowhere bid for the state House of Delegates, a lot of women she met on the campaign trail said they'd vote for her because she's a woman. Western High School grads pledged to back her because she's a fellow alumnae. Others promised support out of respect for her father, civil rights leader Walter Carter. A few said they were sold because she's pretty.

A curious coalition of feminism, school pride, family legacy and good looks may have helped make this political newcomer the top vote-getter in a hotly contested 41st District primary Sept. 10. But it's the first of these factors that has political observers buzzing because Carter was one of several black women who won big in Baltimore.

Girl power, some say, was finally at work in the city.

Black women will make up half of the city's six-member state Senate delegation, something decided in the primary because no Republicans are running for Senate in those districts in the Nov. 5 general election. That's up from two of the 10 city Senate seats black women filled before the recent redistricting.

Black women also prevailed in some hard-fought delegate races. And a black woman held onto the state's attorney's office despite months of sharp criticism from a white male mayor.

"This is probably one of the most exciting political developments we've had in a while," says Anthony W. McCarthy, associate publisher of the Baltimore Times.

Women turn out to vote more than men in Baltimore - 56 percent to 44 percent, according to a Gonzales/Arscott poll conducted in May 2000. But until recently, McCarthy notes, they mostly pulled the lever for male candidates.

"I think they deferred to male leadership," he says. "That was the example we were given in our homes, the example we were given in our churches. I think that's changed, the dynamic has changed, and it's playing itself out in these elections."

It's a long time coming, says Lena K. Lee, 96, of West Baltimore, who in 1967 became one of Maryland's first black female delegates. "I came along at a time when women didn't vote. So I have watched women fight for the right to be full-fledged citizens all of my life.

"I think the public has been won over and the public has become less prejudiced to sex than they once were," she says. "They look more now at what you're able to do."

While many hail the arrival of what's been dubbed "the girls club" in one of the toughest good ol' boy bastions, others say the group has a long way to go to make up for years of double-whammy underrepresentation.

Del. Salima S. Marriott of Baltimore notes that only four of the city's 18 delegates chosen in the Democratic primary are black women. That's down from the percentage before redistricting, when seven of 29 delegates were black women.

That has an effect on the way the house operates, she says, noting that until Del. Joanne C. Benson, a Prince George's County Democrat, became vice chairwoman of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee last year, no African-American woman had held such a senior position with a major standing committee.

Verda F. Welcome became the first black woman elected to Maryland's House in 1959 and Senate in 1962, where she served until 1982. But that did not open the floodgates in Baltimore.

"When Joan Carter Conway was appointed to the Senate [in 1997], she was first woman from Baltimore City since Verda Welcome," Marriott says.

Marriott blames the gender gap on reaction to a 1965 report about the breakdown of the black family by future New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. To counter perceptions of black America being a matriarchal society, there was a conscious effort in the community to move black men into positions of authority - at the expense of black female leadership, she said.

"That became a strategic movement after the report and into the '70s," she says. "Now I think people realize you have to have a holistic strategy that involves the considerable gifts and skills of African-American women."

Black women have been more successful on the city level, Marriott notes. Ten members of the 19-member City Council are women and eight of them are black, including the president and vice president. So are the city's comptroller, finance director and one deputy mayor. The council president and comptroller fill two of the five seats on the Board of Estimates, which controls city spending.

"You could argue that black women are running Baltimore City," says Carol Arscott, an Annapolis-based pollster. "Barbara A. Mikulski ascended to the U.S. Senate from a City Council seat. They're doing well and they're climbing the ladder."

Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh says she doesn't pay attention to a candidate's race or sex, she roots for the right people to get elected. And she does not expect the growing number of female politicians to coalesce around particular issues.

"We are diverse and we are of varying opinions and we do have varying agendas," she said. "I don't think necessarily the political skyline changes [with the primary results]. But in some sense it shows a commitment on the part of women to step out there and say, 'I can do this just as good as anybody else.'"

New delegate Carter also shrugs off talk of ascendant black women. "It's not so much the year of the black woman," she says. "It just so happened there were some really good candidates out there that happened to be black women."

But former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke says there is nothing wrong with taking pride in successes of long underrepresented groups. "Anybody who's running for office has to recognize that given our country's history, race plays an issue in some of these races," he says. "I don't think there's anything wrong with a certain amount of pride."

Schmoke calls himself "an early and strong supporter" of Lisa A. Gladden, a black woman who defeated white veteran Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, in the Democratic primary for state Senate.

"I was just very proud of her. I feel very old right now, but I watched her grow up. So I was not shy in saying, 'I'm proud of this woman and I want her to get elected.' I certainly wouldn't have voted for or supported her if her views on things were completely at odds with mine or I thought she was incompetent. [Race] wasn't a dominant issue. But it's still there. Don't let anybody kid you."

Jeanne D. Hitchcock, Baltimore's deputy mayor for intergovernmental relations, says she also takes pride in the growing number of black women, like herself, in public office. But, though she believes the new female senators and delegates will serve the city well, she is waiting to see them in action.

"I want to know how this power will be exercised," she says. "What does this mean for the advancement for the public good?"

McCarthy, of the Baltimore Times, says he is anxious to observe the women, too, to see if some are beholden to their male backers, just as old-timers such as Welcome and Lee were to the male-controlled political clubs and machines that put them up for office. State Del. Howard P. Rawlings poured tens of thousands of dollars into the campaigns of Gladden and Senator-elect Verna L. Jones.

"What you have seen is a majority of men kind of making the decisions, controlling the back rooms. And women have not been for the most part at those tables," McCarthy says. "I believe that women in Baltimore will really come into their political maturity when they have the power to direct the agenda. And the way they do that is by controlling dollars, developing political machines that have the kind of money to kind of set the political dialogue."

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