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Baltimore County Has More Black Candidates Than Ever

After the county’s voting history was derailed by a federal lawsuit over the council’s redistricting process, there is now an unprecedented number of candidates running for County Council seats.

(TNS) — In a suburb where people of color make up nearly half the population, six of the seven Baltimore County, Md., Council members are white. Voters have only twice elected a Black councilperson — both from the same west-side district.

The county’s voting history was detailed in a federal lawsuit brought by civil rights groups and residents last year after the County Council’s redistricting process. Now, more Black candidates are running for council than ever before: In five of the seven districts in Tuesday’s primary election.

“That is unprecedented in the county,” said Tony Fugett, the former head of the county NAACP and now running in the 2nd District Democratic primary against Councilman Izzy Patoka.

Fugett was a plaintiff in the 2021 lawsuit. In his first run for public office, he is emphasizing his business and management background and focusing on issues such as public safety, education and redevelopment of the Liberty and Reisterstown road corridors.

“What is paramount to me is to improve the quality of life for all of the citizens of the 2nd Councilmanic District,” said Fugett, a 69-year-old Owings Mills resident who works as director of the state Department of Budget and Management’s central collection unit.

The newly drawn 2nd District — which includes the communities of Pikesville, Owings Mills, Lochearn and Ruxton — was key in the redistricting lawsuit. As a result of the case, the county had to revise its political maps again, and the district’s Black voting-age population increased to 41 percent, up from about 30 percent in the county’s old plan.

That didn’t go as far as changes sought by plaintiffs, who wanted the county to create at least one additional majority Black district, as the 4th District is.

Patoka, who is white, was first elected in 2018. He said he is focusing on “the nuts and bolts of government” and running an energetic door-knocking campaign.

“Irrespective of race, a voter wants to meet their candidate on their front porch,” said Patoka, 64, who lives in Pikesville. “My message is, we’re going to continue to work on the basics: creating open space, being very aggressive on constituent services, making sure we have strong code enforcement.”

The primary election is July 19, with the general in November.

Fugett said he is hopeful people will consider each candidate’s merits in the council races around the county.

“I think that people, hopefully, are going to look at the character … of the individuals that are running in the races today,” Fugett said. “That’s what Martin Luther King fought for — it’s not the color of your skin, but the content of your character.”

Racial Voting Patterns

Still, county residents have a history of voting along racial lines.

The redistricting case alleged that political maps unanimously approved by the council last year violated the federal Voting Rights Act amid growth in the number of Black residents, who now make up about 30 percent of the county population.

The lawsuit alleged the county did this by “packing an excessively high Black population” into the 4th District to limit their influence in other parts of the county. Thus, attorneys argued, the county’s initial plan would let white voters control six of the council seats for the next decade, even though the county’s non-Hispanic white population fell from nearly 75 percent to 53 percent over the past 20 years.

Those suing the county included seven Black county residents and the groups Common Cause Maryland, the county NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County.

They pointed to evidence that white county voters have historically voted “as a bloc against Black preferred candidates.”

For example, in the 2016 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, “Black voters strongly preferred (Donna) Edwards while white voters strongly preferred (Chris) Van Hollen,” according to an analysis by political science professors Matt Barreto of UCLA and Kassra Oskooii of the University of Delaware.

It was not until 2002 that a Black councilman, Kenneth Oliver, was elected in the 4th District, which was drawn the year prior as the county’s first majority-Black district. The only Black member of the current council, Chairman Julian Jones, was first elected in the same district in 2014.

Other council districts have always been majority white, and voters in those districts never elected a candidate who was not white. The case delved into long-standing issues of county segregation and discrimination, and plaintiffs argued that a lack of representation has led to a council that is not responsive to Black residents — which county officials disputed in court filings.

Attorneys for the county contended that the initial maps did not dilute Black votes and that plaintiffs relied upon the “false premise that only Black candidates and all Black candidates are the minority group’s preferred candidates.”

But U.S. District Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby blocked the county from using the first council map and ordered a new plan.

After the county submitted an amended map, the judge concluded that the new 2nd District would give Black residents an opportunity to “elect a representative of their choice.” The community groups said the revised boundaries still don’t provide a level playing field.

“We hope that Baltimore County voters will buck the trend of [racially polarized voting] and that white voters will vote for well-qualified Black candidates, but the proof will be in the pudding in this election,” said Andrew Freeman, an attorney for those who sued the county.

State Sen. Charles Sydnor, a plaintiff in the case, said he thinks the lawsuit raised awareness among potential candidates.

“I would like to believe that it had an impact on people deciding to run, so that’s a positive for the county to have a larger selection of candidates,” said Sydnor, a Democrat who lives in Catonsville.

Both Fugett and Freeman noted that the political dynamics are different for Black candidates in each district.

In the 6th District, for instance, candidate Shafiyq Hinton, a 30-year-old real estate agent and health care sales representative, has the endorsement of County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and has raised far more campaign funds than others in the Democratic primary. In the same district, Republican Tony Campbell, 56, a political-science professor, is running unopposed in his primary.

But in the 1st District Democratic primary, Danielle Nicole Singley, 40, a program manager for the county aging department, faces candidates including one backed by the county executive.

In the 2nd District, Patoka has a huge fundraising advantage over Fugett, reporting more than $670,000 this month in his campaign account, compared to Fugett’s roughly $13,700 campaign balance.

On the county’s east side, two Black candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination in the 5th District: Crystal Francis and Nick Johnson. The seat is currently held by Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican seeking reelection.

Francis, 37, is the past chairwoman of the county Democratic Party and has had a passion for politics since she was a teenager. She said last year’s redistricting process helped push her to run for office — as did the news that the council’s only woman, Democrat Cathy Bevins of Middle River, would step down at the end of this year.

“We really need to make sure that women are at the table,” said Francis, an assistant director of program management at Georgetown University and former program analyst for the Social Security Administration.

Having people with different experiences is important in public policy “to develop solutions that are realistic,” said Francis, whose campaign issues include housing affordability and neighborhood safety.

Johnson, a former county police officer who is now a regional loss prevention specialist for a grocery chain, is focusing his campaign on issues such as public safety and protecting county waterways. The 32-year-old said he has encountered some social media comments with “racial undertones” while running for office, but many people have responded enthusiastically as he meets voters.

He said he drew inspiration from his childhood baseball coach, the late Kenneth Harris, who served as a Baltimore City councilman and was murdered in 2008.

Both Johnson and Francis said they also hope they can inspire others from diverse backgrounds to run for office in the county.

“Even if I lose, I have laid the groundwork” for others, Johnson said.

©2022 Baltimore Sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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