Reaching across the racial divide

The Baltimore Sun

It was a hot Sunday afternoon, and City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. was standing on a platform in front of a South Baltimore crowd, pounding away at the theme of diversity.

"That's what this city is about," the mayoral candidate boomed into the microphone. "Our diversity. That's what this campaign is about. Diversity."

For this predominantly black city - where race subtly imbues every aspect of politics - the message of inclusion clearly struck a chord with the sea of largely white faces in the audience. But in a city like Baltimore, white support is not enough.

According to the results of an opinion poll conducted last month for The Sun, white voters make up the bulk of Mitchell's support. But he still trails Dixon among white voters, though the gap is narrow and within the poll's margin of error. Mayor Sheila Dixon leads in every category, especially among black and female voters, according to the survey.

Experts say it is no surprise that Dixon has a large edge among female and black voters. She is Baltimore's first female mayor and one of two black female mayors at the helm of a major city.

Her support from women - black and white - is evident from campaign events that included a Mother's Happy Hour in Federal Hill, a fitness and line-dancing event, and a high tea at the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion. A Women for Dixon group is prominently advertised on her campaign Web site. At a rally Saturday, she stood on the podium hand in hand with a group of mostly black female elected officials.

"When you look at voting trends in Baltimore City, black women tend to turn out the vote in higher numbers than black men. They are one of the largest voting blocks," said Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs. "It's not just African-American women, it's also white women, who see an opportunity for women to register politically."

Some elected officials say they have noticed the racial split between the candidates.

"Sheila has a lot of strong black support," said 2nd District City Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., who has been knocking on doors for a couple of weeks in his re-election effort.

"Mitchell has a lot of white support," D'Adamo said. "I'm seeing it. I'm hearing it. That black vote and female vote is definitely going with Sheila. There's a lot of white support for Mitchell in my district. Here's the thing: Is the white vote enough to put you over?"

Most observers say no.

"Given the numbers you have in the city of African-American voters, one will need probably a third of the African-American voters," said C. Vernon Gray, a political science professor at Morgan State University.

More than 60 percent of the voters who said they would vote for Mitchell are white, according to the poll, compared with 25 percent for Dixon.

Meanwhile, 68 percent of those who said they would vote for Dixon are black, compared with 32 percent for Mitchell.

"To the extent that there is a white candidate in this race, he's it," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "White voters are more likely to vote for Keiffer Mitchell than black voters are because he seems more receptive to the white communities."

Mitchell's fluorescent campaign signs - though popping up all over the city - seem especially prevalent in white and middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods. As he knocked on doors last month one weekend in the Overlea and Rosemont East neighborhoods in Northeast Baltimore, many of the residents who came to the door were white. Most said they are planning to vote for Mitchell because they agree with his positions on crime and education.

Mitchell's canvassing schedule includes a mix of black and white neighborhoods. During one typical week this month, his schedule included the largely white neighborhood of Locust Point, in addition to Northwood and Ashburton, two largely black, middle-class neighborhoods. Last week, his schedule included door-knocking in Canton, Beverly Hills and Woodring.

"I'm campaigning all over the city. We're campaigning in black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods," said Mitchell. "We're campaigning in the precincts that we see as having high voter turnout. The ground we're covering is pretty diverse, and it's strategic."

Campaigning in higher voter turnout areas might naturally result in more of a white audience; black voters vote at two-thirds the level of white voters in Baltimore. But experts say that gaining ground in the black community - more than 60 percent of the city - is critical if Mitchell is to close the gap.

"It's hard for Keiffer to break out," said Steve Raabe, president and founder of the nonpartisan firm, OpinionWorks, which conducted the poll. "He's doing much better among whites, and that's where his stronger base of support is. You have to be able to transcend the African-American community to win the race, and he needs more than just a white base."

Dixon leads by more than 30 percentage points over Mitchell, according to the poll. The two are among a field of eight Democrats vying in the Sept. 11 primary, which likely will determine the city's next mayor. None of the other six candidates garnered more than 4 percent in the poll.

Overall, Mitchell received the support of 26 percent of the white voters polled, compared with Dixon's 31 percent. Nine percent of the black voters polled favored Mitchell, while 57 percent said they would support Dixon.

The remainder of the vote is split among the 28 percent who are undecided and the six other candidates - four of whom are black.

Mitchell says he doesn't know why his message - focusing on crime and education - has clearly resonated more with white voters, outside of the fact that Dixon has represented West Baltimore longer and has been elected at the citywide level.

"We're at a day now in politics where we can't be worried about color of skin," said Mitchell, who contended that Gov. Martin O'Malley's win as mayor in 1999 proved that race is no longer a factor in city politics.

"That's not what my family is about," he added. "My family's about civil rights."

There are no firm figures of the racial breakdown of voter turnout because voter registration figures are not available by race.

Mitchell's popularity in the white community can be explained partly by his home district.

Mitchell, a three-term councilman who lives in Bolton Hill, represents the 11th District - which includes the downtown business district and Inner Harbor, Mount Vernon, Bolton Hill and Otterbein. But the district also includes Reservoir Hill and less affluent and diverse neighborhoods in West Baltimore.

"His district embraces part of the central business district," said Crenson. "He has good relations with the business firms, mostly controlled by whites."

Some observers question why Mitchell's campaign does not have more traction among black voters given his family's legacy.

"I'm somewhat surprised because of Keiffer and his family and their history," said Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. "But it's not enough just to have a name like his. It means that he really hasn't cultivated much of a base in the black community. But I think a lot of this also has to do with the current mayor, who has a strong advantage as an incumbent."

The Mitchells are among the best-known political families in the city, a connection of which he reminds voters in a recent television ad.

Mitchell's grandfather, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., was a leader in the civil rights movement and a Washington lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The Baltimore Circuit Courthouse on the west side of Calvert Street is named after him. His great-uncle, the late Parren J. Mitchell, was the first black member of the House of Representatives from Maryland.

Others point to Mitchell's background as appealing to white voters. He graduated from Boys' Latin, a private school in North Baltimore, where he later taught history. And his wife, Nicole, used to teach Spanish at the Gilman School, an elite, private school in North Baltimore.

For Mitchell, "this campaign is not about race.

"We should be long far ahead of those days where people want to worry just about race in a city as diverse as ours, if we want to have a city that will move forward," he said. "This is about making our city safer and smarter."

And that, he said firmly, is a message that resonates with voters black and white, poor and affluent, educated and not educated.

Sun reporters Doug Donovan and John Fritze contributed to this article.

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