When Julian Jones took over as chairman of the Baltimore County Council earlier this month, it marked a turning point in more ways than one.
He’s the first African-American to lead the seven-member council — the county’s legislative body.
But more than that, Jones’ success in navigating the tricky shoals of political Towson reflects the growing sophistication and political muscle of African-Americans in this suburban jurisdiction of 831,000.
True, the Democratic majority on the County Council usually rotates the chairmanship among its members. But that wasn’t the case when Jones’ predecessor, Ken Oliver, also an African-American, served on the council.
Jones is from Woodstock in far western Baltimore County, but his district takes in much of Owings Mills, portions of Reisterstown and all of Woodlawn and Randallstown.
The district is spread out, stretching from the Baltimore City line to the borders with Carroll and Howard counties and from Painters Mill and Reisterstown roads south to Dogwood Road in Woodlawn. Roughly 60 percent of the residents in his district are African Americans.
Jones grew up in East Baltimore on Oliver Street, graduated from Dunbar High School and eventually received a degree in information systems management from UMBC.
He spent his career in firefighting but not within the county. During a 29-year career in Anne Arundel County, Jones rose through the fire department ranks — lieutenant, captain, battalion chief — to serve as division chief. He was the first African-American to do so.
He devoted his spare time to community activism as a PTA president and as president of a large community association as well as running a real estate business that rehabs and renovates housing.
Jones lost his first race for the council to Oliver by 98 votes in the Democratic primary in 2010. Four years later, he trounced the incumbent by 11 percentage points.
He’s friendly, deliberative and a conciliator — just what the council needs in its chairman.
Jones’ first term has not been without controversy. He’s been stuck in the middle of some heated development battles, especially council deliberations over Foundry Row and Towson Row.
He led the charge to prevent owners of the defunct Owings Mills Mall from signing on Walmart as the prime tenant of its new retail development. He also defeated an effort to ban circus animals from being a part of events staged each summer at Security Square Mall.
Jones is typical of the new generation of African-American political leaders — well-educated with solid careers and leadership in community groups.
Elections in the county used to be decided by the white, blue-collar Democratic vote in the east end — Dundalk, Sparrows Point and Essex.
That’s no longer the case. With the demise of manufacturing jobs tied to the giant Bethlehem Steel plant, the county’s eastern side has seen a loss of population and a distinct loss of Democratic voters.
The new fulcrum of county politics lies on the western side of Baltimore’s County’s horseshoe — directly in Jones’ elongated district.
The fast-growing African-American community today in the county — roughly 30 percent of residents — stretches from Catonsville far into Owings Mills, all the way to the Carroll County boundary line along Liberty Road. Its voting power has increased to the point that minority groups could determine the outcome of countywide races.
Jones’ focus, though, is on running the County Council through the end of 2018. But as the June primary and the November general election draw near, he could become an important player in determining who leads Baltimore County over the next four years.
Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.