Baltimore's (Political) Race Men

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Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon (Getty Images)
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.

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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.

It should be noted that blacks are not the only Baltimoreans conscious of the city’s racial dynamics. O’Malley's campaign materials were decked out in pub green when he ran for mayor. His Irish ethnicity was front and center in his campaign materials, including photos of his performances at Irish pubs as the lead singer of his Celtic band. O’Malley’s tactics stuck in the craw of many blacks in Baltimore, particularly because his stint as mayor was seen by many as a mere stepping stone to the governor’s mansion.

The few Republicans who’ve held statewide office in Maryland have not been above manipulating Baltimore’s racial politics. In 2006, when Michael Steele (now chair of the Republican National Committee) was the incumbent lieutenant governor running for the Senate seat vacated by Paul Sarbanes, his campaign released red, black and green campaign flyers on Election Day which falsely stated that the campaign of Steele and the Republican incumbent governor had been endorsed by various black Democratic current and former elected officials. The Steele campaign’s false literature sparked an outcry from the black elected officials who had been named in the flyers, and has led to ongoing efforts by Sen. Ben Cardin (who beat Steele in that race) to pass federal legislation making it a crime to knowingly disseminate false and misleading campaign materials. In that same election, the Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich bused in black, homeless men from Philadelphia to hand out flyers for the campaign at Baltimore polling places, in an attempt to give the governor's re-election bid the illusion of black support.

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Years earlier Steele caused an uproar when he claimed that during his participation in a campaign debate at Morgan State University (a historically black college in Baltimore), Oreo cookies were thrown at him on stage. Solid reporting has concluded that Steele's “Oreo event” never happened.

Now, Mayor Dixon—who by many accounts is doing a good job as mayor of this besieged but transcendent city (murders are down from this time last year)—is facing a possible conviction on charges that she failed to report the receipt of gifts from her boyfriend (who was a developer seeking contracts with the city) and that she used for her own purposes gift cards totaling $500 that were supposed to be donated to the poor. And Baltimore is plunged once again into its ongoing obsession with racial representation in the city's political leadership.

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But anyone familiar with The Wire (or who has seen the Ravens drop the last 3 games), knows that Baltimore has too many problems for us to waste efforts worrying over false rumors of racial underrepresentation in city government. First, it’s not clear that Mayor Dixon will be convicted. The “stolen gift cards” charge has understandably struck a very negative chord with lots of working class folks in Baltimore, but we haven’t seen the proof yet, and Dixon has proven herself to be a tough fighter. Even if she is convicted, City Council President Rawlings is teed-up to be the next mayor. Black Baltimoreans should be focused on ensuring that Rawlings is prepared to keep pressing ahead with Dixon’s successes (a return to community policing, renewed focus on improving the environmental condition of the city, having the guts to sue Wells Fargo, charging the lending giant with racial targeting in sub-prime mortgages in the city and to take an aggressive stance on those issues that need deeper and more effective attention (widespread youth unemployment, an absurdly high drop-out rate, lack of quality, affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage). I’m all for black electoral success. But it’s substantive representation, not cosmetic representation that will improve the lives of black people living at the margins in this town.

Ironically, all of this anxiety about the racial complexion of the city's leadership has deflected attention from what is perhaps the more interesting and certainly historic feature of Baltimore politics: It is the only major city in the U.S. in which all of the major citywide elected positions–mayor, city council president, district attorney and comptroller–are held by black women.

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Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.

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