Del. Frank Conaway (D-Baltimore), chairman of the Maryland General Assembly's 20-member black caucus, was holding forth last week at a table in the House lounge, trying to round up black delegates for an upcoming vote on kerosene heaters. He wasn't having much luck.
"You commit too early!" he admonished one colleague who already had promised to vote on the opposing side. Conaway quickly abandoned the whole effort, and later sighed, "I backed off. I don't understand how people can give you their word and then double-cross you."
Just a week earlier, in a bold show of unity, Maryland's black House delegates had marched off the floor to protest a committee decision to slice minority business loans from the state budget. The committee quickly reversed itself and the money was restored.
The difference in those two scenes underscores the limitations of unity in a caucus defined by race, but made up of politicians as diverse as the black community itself.
Of the 188 legislators in Maryland, 21 are black, giving this state, with a 22 percent black population, the highest percentage of blacks in any General Assembly in the country. Their constituencies range from the poor families on public assistance to upper-class black professionals on Baltimore's affluent Sugar Hill. They represent blue-collar laborers on Baltimore's East Side and federal government workers from Prince George's county. They are products of their churches, their labor unions, their civic groups and of bickering city political machines.
The blacks in Annapolis bring with them the often divergent values of former civil rights activists, educators, and business professionals. They also are politicians with the same egos and ambitions as their white counterparts, a situation that pits caucus members against each other in a political arena where opportunities for black advancement still are limited.
Efforts to turn this diverse group of lawmakers into a powerful legislative bloc has been stymied by a longstanding split between the east and west sides of Baltimore. Four of the state's black legislators are from Prince George's County and the rest are from Baltimore, underscoring the truth that Maryland's black politics remains synonymous with the black politics of Baltimore city.
The fissure reflects Baltimore's split between the traditionally more affluent and militant West Side bourgeois with their poorer first-generation East Siders from the rural South. The geographic dividing line is Charles Street. The West Side is the old-line black establishment--home of the Afro-American newspaper, the NAACP and the Pennsylvania Avenue shopping district, which was the entertainment center for blacks once barred from downtown. For decades, this area has been dominated by two family groups, the Murphys and the Jacksons-Mitchells. "The Mitchells," said one black delegate, "are the black Kennedys of Maryland."
The East Side blacks were migrants from the rural South. Long shunned by the West Siders, in the 1960s they formed a black political organization, which allied more closely with the white establishment and was rewarded with access to a white-dominated city hall and generous city services.
Del. Walter R. Dean Jr. (D-Baltimore) described the split this way: "The term 'black power' came from West Baltimore. Black people who didn't like the word 'black' but preferred 'colored' were from East Baltimore.
"This is the ideological split that transcends East and West," Dean said. "The feud is unresolved in the black political community between Booker T. Washington and W. E.B. DuBois."
On some issues--such as low-income mortgages or autonomy for predominantly black Morgan State University--black legislators find common ground.
But beyond that, unity collapses. "Except on a clear race issue," said Del. Howard P. (Pete) Rawlings, a black caucus member from Baltimore, "it is very difficult to get a consensus among blacks."
Blacks dismiss the suggestion that there should always be black "unity"--a hypocritical notion, they say, since white politicians are not similarly held to task when they differ. Emphasis on the discord, delegates here said, assumes that the "black community" is a monolith, without the same range of ideas and opinions that is found in other groups.
Black delegates also complain that while there is disarray in their ranks, a predominantly white State House press corps too often overlooks black accomplishments and reports only on caucus spats.
Del. Hattie Harrison (D-Baltimore) listed among the caucus' unsung accomplishments the passage of the D.C. voting rights amendment, the Martin Luther King birthday resolution, and independence and full funding for Morgan State University.
Another success this year has been in the redistricting battle in Maryland. While Baltimore city will be reduced in next year's General Assembly session to nine districts from 11, blacks still will command overwhelming majorities in their current four districts. Also, blacks are looking for gains in Prince George's County.
But black legislators here agreed that there is a problem, in fact and in image, of a divided, feuding black caucus.
One example of a family fight going public was the highly visible resignation from the caucus two years ago of veteran West Baltimore Del. Troy Brailey--now the only black legislator who is not a caucus member. Brailey, an old-line unionist, resigned after accusing the caucus--under the leadership of East Side moderate Sen. Robert Douglass--of having lost its purpose as an advocate for the black community by trading off votes to promote the special business interests of its more moderate wing.
Another problem, Del. Dean said, is an absence of a black agenda, which gives "the appearance of disunity."
The caucus' leadership is blamed for this. Past caucus chairmen, many said, have either been too identified with one of the rival Baltimore factions to create harmony, or a consensus choice too weak to rule. "We need a healing force," said Baltimore Del. Larry Young.
The current chairman, Conaway, has been criticized for a combative style. Many say that his chairmanship of the Metro Democrats West Side organization prevents him from transcending the political feuding. In fact, he is a party to it--he is talks openly of challenging the incumbant black senator from his district.
" Some people say I display a kind of arrogance, a kind of toughness," said Conaway, a Baltimore insurance professional. "And I guess that's accurate."
The caucus has a rule that official positions can be taken only if all members are in agreement. Thus, on many of this year's more controversial General Assembly issues, there has been no official black caucus position. Blacks have split on raising the ceiling on interest rates, and on increasing the gasoline tax and the drinking age.
Individual black legislators, however, have made significant accomplishments, especially in helping shape the state budget and social policies. Several, like Harrison and Sen. Clarence Blount, chairman of the Baltimore City delegation, have moved into the leadership. But still, no blacks head standing policy committees. Many argue that blacks are not being groomed for leadership in the important steppingstone of vice chairmanships.
The rivalries between black political forces in Baltimore often serve the interests of Prince George's blacks--who walk delicately between the city's warring parties while advancing their own leadership opportunities. As a result, the likely choice to head the black caucus next year is Del. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's), the current vice chairman.
As others before him have found, he will be responsible for dealing with the split between black legislators in Annapolis, a clash of styles that keeps blacks from becoming a political force within the State House.
"They have a lot of political infighting," Exum said. "And we don't necessarily agree with that. Even though we're all black, we have our own political kingdoms."