Some attribute the lack of black participation to lingering racial tensions. As recently as 1994, the Ku Klux Klan rallied on the courthouse steps in La Plata. On Thanksgiving 1999, an anonymous flier calling on "White Brothers & Sisters of Charles County" to kill blacks was distributed across Waldorf, the northern section of the county that is the center of the African American population. "No more [racial epithet] in Charles County!!!!!!" it read.
For older African Americans, segregation in Charles is a vivid memory . Margie Posey, 69, remembers being blocked from the front door of restaurants and "white-only" restrooms as a little girl. The school bus rumbled past her family's home in Malcolm but didn't pick up black children, so she walked four miles to sit on a soda crate in her one-room segregated school.
Members of the Board of County Commissioners, from right, Wayne Cooper, W. Daniel Mayer, Robert Fuller and Al Smith, and County Administrator Eugene Lauer listen to a resident at a hearing. The fifth commission seat is open.
(Matt Houston -- AP)
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"Things haven't changed that much here. I see them kind of going backwards," said Posey, the first African American to be elected to the Indian Head Town Council.
A tangible obstacle might be the county's voting system. While four of the five commissioners represent districts -- the president of the board has no district -- they run at-large, so the whole county weighs in on each commissioner.
Reginald Kearney, a black Baptist minister, ran for county commissioner out of the Waldorf District in 1998 and 2002. He carried it both times but narrowly lost when all county votes came in. Many jurisdictions have eliminated all-at-large systems over the years, in part because they make it difficult for minority voting blocs to gain representation. Charles's black leaders have proposed district-based voting, but the commissioners have blocked the measure.
"If you had district-only voting, the county would have already elected an African American," Kearney said.
To win the board seat vacated by Cooper, a candidate will have only to persuade members of the central committee, which will interview all applicants.
Patterson, an administrator at the College of Southern Maryland, said she will recuse herself from her role as chairman during the process. She's also avoided telling her mother about her goal to reach the board.
"I don't want to get her hopes up, or mine," she said. "I would be so honored and humbled to be selected. And I think I'd be a weeping basket case."