Black candidates are few

February 10, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

It's been around 30 years since a black person ran for office in Hagerstown, as best as anyone can remember.

Black candidates are few in the Tri-State area. Most of the recent successful ones - the ones elected to office - have been in West Virginia. They include William Norris, who is on the Berkeley County Board of Education, and Violet Lowery and Timothy Robinson, who serve on the Charles Town City Council.

Charles Branson didn't seek re-election last year after 26 years on the Shepherdstown Town Council.

Larry Togans served eight years on the Jefferson County Board of Education before he and two incumbents were ousted last year.

Togans said that as he ran for office, he considered representation and perspective, being a "black voice." But the color of his skin did not win him a seat on the board, he said.


"People have to get more involved, find out what the issues are and get their names out there," said Togans, who simultaneously served as president of two PTA chapters.

Robinson said his concern about open-air drug trafficking in Charles Town spurred him to seek, and win, a seat on the city council 10 years ago. He got involved in other ways first, though, by attending meetings and supporting causes.

He thinks the drug problem has diminished, but not evaporated.

An automobile technician and minister, Robinson said his heart is set in his hometown, which has "too many walls, too many divisions."

Of the Tri-State counties, Washington County has the largest black population, at about 8 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Jefferson County, with about 6 percent, and Berkeley County, with about 5 percent, have smaller black populations, but more active chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The black population in Franklin County - where Scott Thomas is on the Chambersburg Borough Council - is about 2 percent.

Morgan County, W.Va., and Fulton County, Pa., each have black populations under 1 percent.

Different viewpoints

"It's very important that there be black candidates," said George Rutherford, president of the Jefferson County NAACP chapter. "Black officials have a different viewpoint, especially with issues like housing and unemployment."

J. Wallace McClure, who is white, said he tried to express a similar view when he ran for Hagerstown City Council about 10 years ago. Once, at a forum, he told a largely black audience that at least one of them should run.

"I said, 'You all could be part of black history. It costs you $25 to run for office,'" McClure recalled.

The reaction was skeptical and strong.

"I might as well have taken a swing at a hornet's nest," said McClure, who served on the City Council from 1997 to 2001.

Some people claimed a black candidate could never get enough support to win, but he disagrees.

"They're afraid of rejection," McClure said. "Almost everyone would say, 'I'm not elected because I'm black.'

"I wouldn't say I wasn't elected because I'm white. (I'd say) I was lazy and didn't get off my butt."

McClure said he fully supports getting a black person elected.

"They should make sure everyone should be (represented). We have an obligation to serve that area. (They should say) 'We are here. We're vocal.'"

McClure said he has tried to convince long-time friend Frank Beckwith to run for a council seat.

"A finer man you'll never find," McClure said.

Beckwith managed McClure's unsuccessful campaign for county commissioner last year. McClure pointed out that Beckwith advised him to put up campaign signs, which might have helped his caused, but he rejected the idea.

Beckwith said last week he is not interested in running for city council.

"It would be difficult, in my opinion, for a logically-minded person in our area to consider running for office if they don't have name recognition, at least," he said.

Locally, few black people, if any, have achieved such recognition, Beckwith said.

Also, "there are some negative connotations, feelings about people of color, that still exist," he said. "Whether they have any truth, they still exist."

Potential candidates

When potential Hagerstown and Washington County candidates are discussed, Stan Brown, Andy Smith and Willie Conyers are among the names that come up often.

Conyers said Friday that he has worked many years with the local NAACP chapter and helping county and state candidates, but he does not want to run for office.

Steve Swayne, who was elected to the Democratic Central Committee in Washington County last year, is another person whose name comes up often. However, Swayne said he has neither the time nor the energy to run for office.

Carolyn Brooks, coordinator of the HotSpots crime-fighting program in the Jonathan Street area, has been asked to run, too. She won't.

"Simply because once you get into that arena, people look for negatives," she said. "If they can't find anything, they make things up."

Brooks said she would rather make her mark as a volunteer.

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