On July 28, dozens of local black activists, lawmakers and members of the clergy gathered in Annapolis to discuss the upcoming city election and the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The group was there to determine how best to celebrate the landmark legislation and at the same time increase black voter turnout in a city that is one-third black but has never elected a black mayor, and where blacks have only recently made significant inroads into the City Council.
After two hours of discussion, the group of 50 or so in the Radisson Hotel conference room came upon a solution designed to accomplish both goals.
"We decided to celebrate the Voting Rights Act by having an African American run in every ward in the city," said former city Carl O. Snowden, a member of a committee formed at the meeting to find candidates before the Aug. 1 filing deadline.
The committee fell short of its goal, but thanks in part to its efforts, the Sept. 20 primary and the Nov. 8 general election will feature the largest number of black candidates in the city's history. Nine black candidates are running for seats in six of the city's eight wards and for mayor.
Alderman George O. Kelley Sr. (R-Ward 4) is seeking to become the city's first elected black mayor.
Among those recruited was James R. Turner, a retired senior manager for the Defense Department who has been active on several city and county planning committees and boards. He is now executive director of the OIC Job Readiness Center of Anne Arundel County.
"I was given a phone call and asked if I would run," said Turner, 67. "After some careful consideration, I had some issues I was concerned with as a resident of the city, and I thought that would be the opportune time to get those issues addressed. So after talking to some friends, I decided to run."
Turner, who lives in Stone Creek in the city's predominantly white, upper-middle-class Ward 5, is unopposed in the Democratic primary and will face incumbent Republican David H. Cordle Sr. in November's general election.
Turner doesn't see the race -- or his reasons for running -- in terms of black and white.
"I'm not running as an African American. I'm running as an American who thinks he can be good for my ward and for the city," he said. "I'm not going to be talking about issues affecting blacks; I'm going to be talking about issues that affect every citizen in this city, and especially citizens in Ward 5."
Snowden said he hopes the Ward 5 race will provide a breakthrough for blacks. A black candidate has been elected from a predominantly white ward only once.
Other candidates recruited by the committee included Alice O. Johnson, president of the Bloomsbury Square tenants council, in Ward 1, and Robert H. Eades, a community activist and owner of the Neet-N-Klean Taxi Co., in Ward 2. Eades said he had been considering running for some time when the committee approached him. He had even changed parties a few years ago, becoming a Republican, in anticipation of a run against Democratic incumbent Sheila M. Tolliver, who has decided not to seek reelection.
"I wanted to bring a message of unity that I thought was missing from the Republican party," Eades, 49, said. "There has to be more unity among the races in Annapolis."
The city elected its first black alderman in 1873, and blacks held a city council position every year until 1909, when a General Assembly law went into effect denying blacks the right to vote if their grandfather had not voted. After that law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1915, ward lines that limited blacks to one City Council seat were drawn up.
In 1984, the Anne Arundel County Coalition of Tenants successfully sued the city under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had strengthened the federal government's ability to prevent state and local governments from denying black citizens the right to vote.
The lawsuit forced the city to create a second majority-black ward. After the 2000 Census, the city redrew the lines again under threat of an NAACP lawsuit.
Under the new lines, Wards 3, 4 and 6 became majority black, and the city elected three black alderman for the first time in 2001.
Of the majority-black wards, only Ward 3 will have a contested primary on Sept. 20. Democrat Classie Gillis Hoyle, the incumbent, faces Democrat Scott Bowling, a branch manager for CTX Mortgage Co. The winner will not face a challenger in the general election.
Wards 1 and 2 are the only others to be contested in the Democratic primary. The Ward 1 race pits Johnson against retired state assistant attorney general Richard E. Israel. In Ward 2, Debbie Rosen McKerrow, president of Chesapeake Estate Services Inc., faces Joseph "Zastro" Simms, a security officer and retired school counselor and retired director of the Stanton Community Center.
Wards 2 and 7 will have the only contested races in the Republican primary. In Ward 2, Eades faces David A. Hanson, president of House Check Professional Home Inspections, and Michael Christman, director of business development for Knowledge Management Solutions Inc.
In Ward 7, incumbent Michael W. Fox, owner of Fox Marketing, Sales and Service, faces challenger Laura Townsend, manager of fundraising research for Catholic Relief Services and a member of the Annapolis Republican Central Committee.