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In city politics, women take charge

The Baltimore Sun

In a city where African-American women represent the largest bloc of primary voters, the prospect of keeping Baltimore's top four elected offices filled by black women never strays far from the campaign conversation.

So, on a stage in Druid Hill Park one recent Saturday afternoon, a group of elected officials - all women, all but one of them African-American - stood side by side and celebrated their joint success.

"There is a feeling all over this city that it is definitely ... the women's time to take over," said City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake.

Moments earlier, Mayor Sheila Dixon had reminded the crowd of her own history as "the first woman mayor of Baltimore City."

But their opponents say they're ceding no ground. All the candidates say they are reaching out to female voters of all races, a reliable group of voters with vast influence and organizing abilities.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Dixon's main opponent, has a "Women for Keiffer Mitchell" group that began with a fundraiser in the spring and has since been garnering support among women's groups ranging from attorneys to black sororities.

Michael Sarbanes, Rawlings-Blake's chief challenger, has a recently formed "Women for Sarbanes" group that held a series of simultaneous sign waves Wednesday at five locations and has held meet-and-greets at a popular Northwest Baltimore children's bookstore.

"We wanted to make sure that women are represented in Michael's agenda as he goes forward and contributes to the success of Baltimore," said Cindy Buxbaum, 49, who coordinates the group.

Rawlings-Blake held an event with professional women at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

"Women are the driving force behind the campaign," said Luke Clippinger, her campaign manager.

Dixon's "Women for Sheila Dixon" group appears to be the most organized, hosting a series of big-dollar events. Wednesday night, the group held its gala fundraising event at the American Visionary Art Museum.

"We really try to encourage our activists, the ladies who are out there talking to people on the streets, as well as those folks who want to give $1,000," said H. Frances Reaves, 53, one of the hosts of the event.

Dixon is not only the city's first female mayor but one of just two black women heading up the country's 100 largest cities. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin is the other, and she has helped Dixon campaign and raise money, appearing in Baltimore last weekend. Only four black women preceded them.

For Franklin, seeing a fellow African-American woman come to power is refreshing, she said.

"Women are underrepresented in executive positions across America, and have been for my lifetime and hundreds of years," said Franklin. "And I think when we find a woman who has demonstrated leadership ... then she is a strong and viable candidate."

More than any other candidate, Dixon's base of support is African-American women. Fifty-seven percent of the African-American women who participated in a recent poll conducted for The Sun said they would vote for her over the six other candidates running in the Sept. 11 primary election. Mitchell received 11 percent of that vote.

In The Sun's primary poll earlier this summer, voters were asked what impact Dixon's gender would have on their decision. A quarter of women said that they are more likely to vote for Dixon because she is a woman.

Rawlings-Blake, who is running with Dixon, received 37 percent of the African-American women's vote in the poll, with Sarbanes receiving 18 percent.

Among white women, the margins were closer. Thirty-seven percent of the white women polled said they would support Dixon, compared with 30 percent for Mitchell.

Sarbanes pulled a larger share of white women than Rawlings-Blake, with half of such voters saying they would vote for him, compared with 16 percent for Rawlings-Blake.

"Dixon's base is absolutely African-American women," said Steve Raabe, president and founder of OpinionWorks, the independent, nonpartisan Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll for The Sun. "She and Stephanie share a base, but Dixon is much stronger in that base, and it's definitely African-American women. I think a lot of them are looking at her as a champion."

Indeed, at the joint rallies that Rawlings-Blake and Dixon attended recently, a group of young African-American girls performed a cheer in honor of Dixon at every stop.

The girls, ages 5 to 8, chose Dixon as one of their local heroes, said Karen Waters, 35, who teaches the youths in a neighborhood performing arts group in West Baltimore.

Dixon frequently refers to the history-breaking moment when she was elevated to mayor in January, becoming the city's first female mayor. With her elevation, Rawlings-Blake was elected by her colleagues to replace Dixon as City Council president.

Rawlings-Blake and Dixon joined City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, giving black women title to the four most powerful elected positions in Baltimore.

It's the kind of history-making event that could be enough to lure voters still on the fence.

Delores Carter, a retired teacher who lives in Northwest Baltimore, says she remains undecided in both races.

"But I would like to see three women at the top," said Carter, 76.

Experts say black women traditionally turn out to vote in higher numbers than black men. And in a majority-black city, they are an especially important voting bloc.

"African-American women vote in the city," said C. Vernon Gray, a political science professor at Morgan State University. "They are very, very politically active and important."

At the Druid Hill Park event, the women on stage with Dixon and Rawlings-Blake included elected officials new and old.

Former 5th District City Councilwomen Vera Hall, 70, and Iris Reeves, 67, stood in the background.

"I've been in that role, the first woman to do something," said Hall. "It feels awesome. You feel like you've got to represent the rest of the women."

"When this opportunity presented itself with the governor moving on, if [Dixon] didn't decide herself, we were going to help her make that decision," said Reeves.

As Rawlings-Blake and Dixon joined hands with four fellow female officials and the crowd chanted, "Four more years," state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh quipped, "It's a women's thing, it's a women's thing."

"Guys just step aside, we're just doing it better," said City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector.

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