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Black candidates face an uphill battle

February 13, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

It wasn't supposed to happen this way, this business about getting an African-American to run for a seat on the Hagerstown City Council.

As I imagined it, someone well-known in the black community for their public service would step forward and agree to run for the office. This candidate would do so knowing full well that it would be a lot of work for a part-time salary and that there would be great expectations of quick action.

And when that action didn't come quickly - in government things move slowly - the first black office-holder would be criticized as inept, or worse, a sellout. They would persevere, however, and when progress was made, their community would recognize them for it.

Black children would look up to that person and perhaps aspire to a council seat themselves, after that first person had debunked the idea that local government is only for white folks.

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Instead, we saw a relative newcomer to the area, the Rev. LeRoy Guillory, recruit a slate of candidates.

Guillory, who impressed some people early on with his statements honoring Memorial Recreation Center's long-time director, Ruth Monroe, has stumbled badly recently. First he accused a Herald-Mail reporter of being behind a series of hate letters sent to various local officials. Then he failed to get one if his candidates registered properly, the first duty of a campaign manager.

Another black candidate, the Rev. Haru Carter, who is running with the slate headed by mayoral candidate Richard Trump, has said little so far, at least in the public arena.

The whole situation reminded me of a conversation I had a few years back with a white reader about columnist Leonard Pitts, a black man who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

My white reader's argument was that Pitts' repeated stirrings of the pot of racial resentments does no good, and may do a great deal of harm. Let the issue alone for a while, he said, and quiet progress will take place.

That's what we've done in Hagerstown, really, in part because white folks like myself know enough to realize that we'll never know what it's like to be black in Hagerstown.

Only in the past 40 years have we moved beyond segregation toward equal opportunity. But black people would certainly agree that the civil-rights laws passed in the 1960s changed the law, but didn't change every white person's heart.

To someone on the outside, the black community here sometimes seems like the local farm community. Both want help, but not so much help that everyone is interfering in their business, as in "Get the drugs off the streets, but not by hassling every local person of color."

And so white folks like me stand awkwardly outside it all, telling ourselves that a lot of progress has been made, even though, unlike Frederick, there is noit really a black middle-class neighborhood here.

If Hagerstown isn't bad as described by the Rev. Guillory, things aren't as good as they should be, either. Why did it take a newcomer to persuade black local candidates to run for office? Why does Andy Smith, president of Brothers United Who Dare to Care, who wrote a long letter to the editor this week, believe that the deck is stacked against black people and black-led organizations?

A black member of the city council could go a long way toward bridging the gap between the races in Hagerstown. Not only would the black community see that there is a place for people of color in City Hall, white people would see a black person in a leadership role. I'm betting that after some initial apprehension, city residents would start calling the person who gets results for them, no matter what color they are.

But to elect a person of color, the black community has to turn out. Had they done so last March, W. Princeton Young, a black man appointed to the Washington County School Board, might have made it through the primary.

In that election, Young finished tenth in a primary in which only eight could move on to the general election.

There were 234 votes separating Young and the eighth- highest vote-getter, Barry C. Harbaugh. Young might have passed Harbaugh had there been a better turnout in District 25-1, in the heart of Hagerstown's black community.

In that district, where voters go to a polling place at Bethel Gardens, there are 662 registered to vote. The Washington County Board of Elections records indicate that 280 of those turned out. Of those who voted, Young got 55 votes, or 19.64 percent of that district's turnout.

If Young had been able to persuade the other 382 voters in that district to go to the polls and if had he gotten a majority to cast a ballot for him, he might have won.

Is it wrong to put all that weight on the black community? Shouldn't white people in other districts have voted for him, given his service in student-mentoring programs and with the correctional system?

Yes, but as Young found, having less than a year in office didn't give voters much time to get to know him. He also ran a low-key campaign.

With so many candidates running, a black candidate, especially one who is relatively unknown citywide, will have to run twice as hard to win a seat on the Hagerstown City Council. That's not right, but I believe it's the truth.

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