When Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes last week appointed Prince George's County Del. Lorraine M. Sheehan secretary of state, he set the stage for what could be an ugly battle fought over racial lines in Sheehan's legislative district.
As soon as Sheehan's appointment was announced, state Sen. B.W. Mike Donovan, of Sheehan's district, and Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller, the leader of the Prince George's senators, made it clear they wanted Martha Weber--their unsuccessful candidate for Sheehan's delegate slot last year--to fill Sheehan's now-vacated seat.
That sent Sen. Tommie Broadwater Jr., the county's only black senator, almost through the State House roof.
"We'll fight you on that, we'll fight you," Broadwater said angrily during a meeting of the senators after the Sheehan announcement. Because the district is 62 percent black, Broadwater believes the seat should be filled by a black, specifically Eldridge Spearman, a former aide to D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy and now a member of the county's Democratic Central Committee.
Donovan and Miller both believe in the political theory that holds that a state senator is king in his own castle--or district--and that if Donovan wants Weber, Donovan should get Weber.
Broadwater says he won't back down. "I don't want this to be a fight but the way they've handled this is just wrong," he said. "They didn't even consider a black. Last week, Mike had an opening for a delegate in his district, and he just gives it to Gary Alexander. That creates an opening on the central committee, and he wants that for Kirk Wineland.
"They never even consulted with me or with any of the blacks in the county. This county is changing and that district has a majority of blacks in it. I think at least one of every three appointments in this county should go to a black and that's not the way they're operating right now. The county's changing, and they've got to realize it and react to it.
"I've got nothing against Marty Weber, she's a perfectly nice woman. But she ran and lost. I don't think you should be appointing someone to a seat right after she lost an election for it under any circumstances."
Attempting to mediate this dispute, which will not finally be resolved until the central committee meets in the next couple of weeks to choose Sheehan's replacement, is Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D), who represented Donovan's district for 12 years, the last four as Senate president.
Hoyer called all the participants last week, counseling the often-volatile Miller to stay calm, but failing, at least in the first round of negotiations, to come up with a compromise solution.
There may, however, be a compromise developing. Donovan has always been a strong "pro-life" advocate in the debate over abortion and his endorsement of Weber, who is "pro-choice," has been met with a good deal of criticism among his supporters who oppose abortion. Sheehan was not only "pro-choice" but one of the leading spokesmen on women's issues in the General Assembly. The anti-abortion forces see this as major opportunity to pick up a vote.
Thus, they are urging Donovan to consider Gerry Perry, who is both black and against abortion. Perry also lost a race for the House of Delegates last fall but won many friends within the party by working for the central committee as a volunteer during the general election despite her defeat.
Her alliance with Donovan--she threw a party for him during the campaign--did not endear her to a number of blacks in the county who consider Donovan too conservative, but she could be the ideal candidate for him.
If Donovan backs away from Weber and agrees to endorse a black, he may do so by saying, "but I get to choose which one." That puts Broadwater in the difficult position of having either to turn down a compromise or to go to the wall with Spearman in a fight he may lose. Finally, there is one more sub-plot. Over the weekend, black members of the central committee endorsed Spearman as Sheehan's replacement. That upset a number of people within the black community who would like to have seen Ulysses Curry, a member of Coalition on Black Affairs, get the seat.
"You've got a dozen different scenarios working here and it all has to be worked out in two weeks," said a senator who is staying neutral in the fight. "It's just one seat, but it symbolizes a lot more. Broadwater wants to assert himself as the leader in the black community, and Donovan needs to recoup something for himself. What's more, this could divide the blacks in the district. The final outcome may not please anyone."