Victories pose a different challenge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When he takes office next month as Baltimore County's first African-American councilman, Kenneth N. Oliver will face more than the usual issues of crime, schools, traffic and economic development.

Oliver, the winner in a district redrawn to reflect the county's growing number of blacks, will face close scrutiny from whites and raised expectations from blacks, while handling the demands of the office, he said.

"It is a big deal" for blacks, Oliver said of his victory. He will represent the 4th District, which includes Randallstown, Woodlawn, Granite and parts of Owings Mills. "That's why we ran. We have been overlooked."

Last week's elections brought a number of firsts for African-Americans seeking public office. Besides Oliver's victory, Michael S. Steele was chosen lieutenant governor and Perry L. Jones Jr. was elected to the Carroll County Board of Commissioners.

For Jones, who began his political career 22 years ago as a Union Bridge town councilman and served as the community's mayor the past 12 years, race was not a factor in a campaign that focused on county growth.

"You're always going to have a little racism from both sides, black and white, but it's really not an issue here," said Jones, 50, who was one of three elected to serve at large on the Carroll board. "People don't seem to see color."

But the first-time elections of African-Americans to countywide offices were viewed as milestones by minority community leaders and politicians who had long been seeking local governments that better reflected their diverse constituents.

"Maybe we are getting to where Prince George's County began to go 30 years ago," said state Sen. Delores G. Kelley of Randallstown.

C. Vernon Gray, who was elected to the Howard County Council 20 years ago, said the new councilmen will face unique demands, expectations and scrutiny because they are the first blacks in countywide office.

"You get numerous calls from people wanting jobs, housing," Gray said. "He will not just be the councilman for his district -- he will be the councilman for blacks in the whole county."

While on the Howard County Council, which Gray is leaving this year after a failed run for the state Senate, Gray pushed for measures to help boost African-American student performance and to help minority-owned businesses bid on county contracts.

"That's one thing that wouldn't have gone through the process without Vernon there, or someone with insight into the African-American community in Howard County," Mary Lorsung, a fellow council member, said about the bidding measure.

Guy J. Guzzone, another councilman, noticed minorities felt more comfortable contacting Gray.

"Many in the minority community felt they could approach him easily, and that was a plus," Guzzone said. "But he was a councilman, and like any other, he brought his own perspective."

Dunbar Brooks, who was Baltimore County's first black school board president, said just sitting at the table during deliberations makes a difference.

"There's a voice there on the inside," he said.

In Baltimore County, there was a deliberate effort to carve out the black-majority 4th District. A fifth of the county's 755,000 residents are black, but the northwestern part of the county where many live was divided among a few districts.

The result, politicians and activists said, was ineffective representation of their interests, such as getting more shops and restaurants in the Liberty Road corridor or keeping good, experienced teachers in the schools.

"The county is changing -- we have a lot of diversity -- so we want to have the council reflect that," said Duane "Tony" Baysmore, president of the Foxridge Community Association in Randallstown, who campaigned for Oliver.

Anthony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said it was difficult to secure the predominantly black district.

"We had a battle with the County Council," Fugett said. "We had to dust off the Voting Rights Act. What we wanted was to make sure that African-Americans had the opportunity to select the candidate of their choice."

However, Baltimore County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, who backed Oliver's candidacy, said he expects the council to grapple with issues such as lean budgets and oversight of county government, which defy race.

"On the issue of having a black on the council, the importance is one more of perception than actual functioning," Kamenetz said.

Oliver, 58, a senior vice-president at the Development Credit Fund, a minority-owned lending institution, had chaired the county planning board. He expects to bring his background in finance and zoning to the County Council, in addition to his perspective as a black man.

"I will be bringing a different perspective to the council. I look at things through a different set of eyes," he said.

Oliver emphasized that his focus will be on the issues, especially attracting shops and restaurants to the Liberty Road corridor. He also plans to lobby for improving school buildings and decreasing class sizes, and controlling traffic congestion and crime. Still, he acknowledged that his service as the first black councilman will present its challenges.

"I don't know if the work will be any harder, but I'll always be under the microscope," he said.

Former Carroll Del. Richard N. Dixon, who retired as state treasurer this year, said being black never hurt him, not even when he first ran for office in 1978. Given that history, Dixon argued, Jones' victory in a county that is 95 percent white shouldn't be seen as a landmark in racial politics.

"Perry Jones won because he was the best candidate," Dixon said. "Race had nothing to do with it. See, people don't understand that because it's different in other parts of the state, but Carroll County is unique."

Still, Phyllis Black, president of the county chapter of the NAACP, said the victory was significant.

Black hopes Jones will be more sensitive than some past leaders about issues such as creating jobs for minorities and helping boost the performance of minority students, she said.

And she noted the symbolic importance.

"For African-Americans in the community, it is a big deal," she said.

"We're excited to see the community changing so that it's about who you are and what you do instead of race."

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