Baltimore's (Political) Race Men

Will embattled Mayor Sheila Dixon be replaced by a white guy or a Republican? (Plus: a brief history of B-More’s race-charged campaigns.)

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon (Getty Images)

As trial nears in the perjury and theft case against Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, city movers and shakers are quietly talking about succession. Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP. Cheatham has worried vocally that if the current mayor is convicted, the governor might appoint a white person (and/or a Republican) to be chief executive of this majority black, overwhelmingly Democratic city. It’s easy for battle-hardened race-men like Cheatham to believe that whites can’t represent blacks fairly in today’s America—but it’s worth questioning whether ensuring continued black presence in the mayor’s office should be the most pressing concern.

First, it’s not clear that Cheatham has anything to worry about. Local law provides for the city council president to take up the position of mayor in the event the sitting mayor steps down. (In fact, Dixon, who was city council president, first became mayor in 2007 after Mayor Martin O’Malley was elected governor.) The current city council president, Stephanie Rawlings, is also a black woman. The concern that a Republican might lead the city is also a tempest in a teapot. Baltimore’s Democratic roots go so deep that it’s often difficult to find sufficient Republican election judges to open the city’s polling places on time on Election Day—much less to find a qualified Republican mayoral candidate.

The well-known mayoral ambitions of white community activist Michael Sarbanes, the brother of Maryland congressman John Paul Sarbanes, and son of former U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) are perhaps behind Cheatham’s hand-wringing. Sarbanes challenged Rawlings for the city council president seat two years ago. That contest started the whisper campaign that the city might be poised to have another white mayor.

Cheatham’s concerns reflect black Baltimore’s ongoing concern about racial representation in the city’s leadership. As Baltimore shifted more than 20 years ago from a white working-class town with a strong black plurality to a majority black city (with a small, but rising Latino immigrant population), black voters and activists have focused steady attention on ensuring the success of black political leadership.

Candidates for citywide office know this. When Mayor Kurt Schmoke (now Dean of Howard Law School) ran for his last term in office and was challenged by a liberal white city councilwoman, his campaign released bumper stickers and placards in red, black and green that said, Mayor Schmoke makes us proud. In 1998, when now-Gov. Martin O’Malley—the white former city councilmember who succeeded Schmoke—ran for re-election, his challenger, Andre Bundley, a popular black educator, circulated flyers decorated in a kente pattern that proclaimed, It’s Our Thing, Do the Right Thing.