D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy traveled here today intending to win new support for the D.C. voting rights amendment, but spent most of his time explaining to Jewish legislators why he met with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat last fall.
Fauntroy, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, and Council member Betty Ann Kane all appeared at the first hearing on the bill this year before a Senate committee, and vowed to work harder for Maryland's ratification of the amendment, which passed the Senate last year but failed by a single vote in the House.
Before any of them could speak, however, attention was focused on Fauntroy's talks with the PLO by U.S. Rep. Robert E. Bauman (R-Md.) who charged that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference president had "linked arms with one of the bloodiest terrorists in the history of this century."
As Barry hurried back to Washington, Fauntroy spent the rest of the day attempting to defuse the PLO issue in a series of statements and interviews and in a 90-minute meeting with five Jewish delegates -- three of them former supporters of D.C. voting rights -- who shared Bauman's view.
Time and again, the soft-spoken delegate repeated a standard defense. "I made that approach out of my desire to protect the peace and security of Israel and to urge the PLO to stop its killing of Israeli men and women," he said. "The PLO is attempting to undermine the governments of our friends."
The Jewish delegates were not moved by Fauntroy's conciliatory line.
"I've never been in favor of D.C. voting rights, but I voted for it last year in consideration of . . . the alliance of blacks and Jews," said Del. David Shapiro (D-Baltimore City) after the meeting with Fauntroy and black legislative supporters of the amendment. "However, now it is impossible for me to support someone who sings 'We Shall Overcome' with Yasser Arafat."
Another Jewish legislator, Del. Stephen Skiar (D-Baltimore City), said he might abstain from the vote unless further meetings with Fauntroy changed his mind, and Del. Paula Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), a sponsor of the amendment in the House last year, said she was now "undecided." s
Legislative leaders and the amendment's supporters said as the day ended that it was difficult to predict whether Fauntroy's activities would kill the amendments' chances in Maryland this year.
State Sen. Howard Denis (R-Montgomery), an outspoken opponent of the measure both this year and last said that Fauntroy may have lost as many as 20 votes in the House, in part because of the PLO meetings. "Some people who voted for it for the wrong reasons, last year are going to vote against it for the wrong reasons this year," Denis predicted.
Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell (D-Baltimore City), a sponsor of the amendment in the Senate, said that an informal poll by supporters showed that six votes had firmly switched in the House -- three for and three against -- while the votes remained the same in the Senate, which passed the amendment by three votes last year.
Both Gov. Harry Hughes and House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore City) today reiterated their support for the measure, and Cardin met briefly with Fauntroy and Kane this morning to suggest delegates who might be willing to help in the ratification drive. Cardin said later that he believed that only about 15 delegates could be persuaded to change their minds -- either for or against -- before this year's vote.
Because of the closeness of last year's vote, Fauntroy told the Jewish delegates that their decisions might be perceived "nationwide" as a renewed split between blacks and Jews. "I would be shocked if previous supporters of these rights would change their votes on the basis of that unprincipled position (of opposing the PLO meetings)," he told reporters.
"We're in a difficult position," said Sklar. "Only three of 24 Jewish legislators were influenced (by the PLO meetings), but because of the closeness, it takes on much more significance.
In addition to the reaction to his own political activities, Fauntroy will have to grapple with several other recurring objections raised by legislators if the Maryland ratification effort is to succeed.
Many Washington-area legislators are linking the voting rights issue to the commuter tax that Barry supports for the suburbs. Barry tried to calm those fears today by telling the Senate Constitutional and Public Law Committee that the commuter tax was at present "not a priority" for his administration.
Bauman also charged that the "kernel of this matter" was "the ambitions of three people" to become senators and congressmen. To that, Fauntroy responded that "perhaps the people of the 1st Congressional District should be denied representation" because Bauman is known to be considering a race for senator. "Bauman," said Fauntroy, "is crazy."