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Campaign Beat

Young at Heart

He's Not on the Ballot, but the 44th District Race Is Still All About Larry

Tom Chalkley

By Molly Rath | Posted 9/2/1998

All summer long folks in the 44th District have whispered about former state Sen. Larry Young's role in this year's election. Some reckon he's using his influence to stage a comeback in 2002; others think he's simply using the election to call shots while he still can--while he still has community sympathy and respect, and a campaign war chest with $50,000 to burn. From his perch at WOLB (1010 AM), where he hosts a talk show, Young laughs off--and in characteristic form, sidesteps--the speculation about his motives.

"I think for anyone to project what I'm going to be doing in 2002 is a little far-fetched," he says. "I know it's early and I've only been here [at WOLB] three weeks, but I am happy here. Cathy Hughes [station owner]is going to teach me radio."

Whatever his intentions, this year's 44th District races are all about Larry Young. The electoral landscape would look very different if Young hadn't been booted from the Senate in January for using his public office for private gain. Young may have shied away from running for his old seat himself, but the race pits Sen. John Jefferies, who was appointed to the seat after Young's ouster, against Del. Clarence Mitchell IV, Young's most ardent public supporter during the past winter's drama. Mitchell's departure from the House of Delegates, in turn, makes for a wide open race as nine candidates, including incumbent Del. Ruth Kirk, duke it out for three seats. And as new schisms and alliances form, voters are probing candidates about their Young connections--signalling that such relationships might sway their votes--and candidates are either emphasizing their Larry links or trumpeting their independence.

Backstage, Young is helping to direct the scenario he created. He's using one of his fund-raising committees to bankroll the campaigns of candidates he supports and has formed a new political action committee to do the same. He says he plans to endorse candidates for the Sept. 15 primary.

The greater significance of all of this jockeying is where it will leave the 44th. On the eve of the millennial census and the ensuing redistricting, this sprawling inner-city district would benefit from a unified front in Annapolis, be it composed of experienced hands or new blood free of the old machine's grip. It's likely to get neither.

With more than 50 percent of its 96,848 residents living in households earning less than $15,000 a year, the 44th is the state's poorest legislative district. Stretching east-west across the city from Belnord Street to Poplar Grove Street and north-south from North Avenue to just west of Locust Point, it's also one of the least populated, with notoriously low voter turnout. In 1994 just 13,191 people went to the polls. Such demographics may sound grim for 44th residents, but they're gold to their representatives. As former state Sen. Julian "Jack" Lapides points out, the fewer the voters, the greater the impact of political appointments, such as notaries public and election judges. Along with tight political organization, that patronage clout has kept the 44th District machine--fueled by the Mitchell family and Young--in business.

In Young's absence, however, the breakdown of that machine is increasingly evident, and nowhere is the fight for control fiercer than in the Senate face-off between Jefferies and Mitchell.

It's a fight that dates back at least to 1994, when Mitchell ran for the House--solo. Young didn't include Mitchell on his ticket, instead supporting the three incumbent delegates, Jefferies among them. (Mitchell is quick to note that 20 years earlier his father, then-Sen. Clarence Mitchell III, kicked an eight-year incumbent off his ticket to make room for Young).

Mitchell beat Jefferies in 1994 and appeared to have gotten over his pique, serving as Young's loudest defender during the recent scandal. Some speculate that Mitchell assumed the mantle of chief zealot to position himself to take over Young's Senate seat which, prior to Young's appointment in 1988, had been held by members of the Mitchell family for 21 years. For his part, Mitchell now says he wasn't defending Young's actions, but was acting on his own belief that Young was denied due process.

Jefferies, meanwhile, was appointed to finish Young's term. He swore up and down that he didn't intend to run for the seat but was merely keeping it warm until Young returned in the fall. Such was the plan heading into the summer: Young would run for the Senate with Mitchell, Kirk and possibly 44th District State Central Committee member Jeffrey Paige on his ticket. (Del. Carmena Watson's decision not to seek re-election, opened up the spot for Paige, Young's longtime campaign chairman.) But Young kept delaying his decision to run. Mitchell--who had said he would run if Young didn't--got restless and registered as a Senate candidate on July 1, five days before the filing deadline. Jefferies followed suit, and somewhere in that time frame Young decided not to run and to take the job at WOLB.

"Around the first of July as I was reviewing the lay of the land--the legal problems we have, and looking at an economic base for myself and my mother--I was getting a sense that had I filed, in all probability I wouldn't have had any opposition, and if I did it would have been minuscule," Young says. "But it would have been a difficult fight for whatever slate I would carry and we'd be raising resources at the same time I was raising resources to pay my legal debts."

Caught in the middle between his two top loyalists, Young tried to get either Mitchell or Jefferies to withdraw, thereby averting a political split in the district. When he failed, he declared he would remain neutral. It wasn't long, however, before Young began quietly throwing his support Jefferies' way--echoing the alliances of 1994 and vexing the Mitchells, who still like to remind people that they gave Young his start.

"It's obvious that he's not supporting me," Mitchell says. "He hasn't come out and said it, but he has been in public with Sen. Jefferies and he has not been in public with me. Yet it was me placing my credibility and everything else on the line. When nobody else was willing to speak on his behalf, I did.

"People are going to have to make a choice. In 1994 the same thing happened, I ran on my own. People knew I was there for the senator and it's very awkward for them to know [that it is] not reciprocal."

Mitchell says there's a benefit to Young's lack of support--should he win, he'll be able to define his senatorship for himself. He says he has both the vision and the experience to lead the district into the next century. But while he's known for 20-some years of grass-roots activism in the district, Mitchell has not been an assertive lawmaker. He introduced five bills this past session, none of which made it out of committee, and none of which reflected issues about which he's most vocal in public, such as civilian review boards for police and city control of Baltimore's public schools.

Jefferies, meanwhile, pooh-poohs Mitchell's millennium-speak and says he is focused on the problems facing the district now. One reason he's running, he says, is that he wants to see through various bond bills he worked on last session. He is also pushing efforts to further establish the "living wage"--regulations to require government contractors to pay employees at least what it takes a family of four to stay above the poverty line--and to bring more small businesses to the district through government-funded inducements, particularly job-training assistance.

But talking about his opponent, Jefferies, like Mitchell, gets defensive. He says he's "running against a name" and calls Mitchell "confrontational." He flatly denies the widely held contention that Young put him up to this race. (Jefferies does refer to the former senator as an adviser.)

"Had I not run, this seat would automatically have gone uncontested. [The Mitchells] have a strong quest for this seat--that's why I'm running," Jefferies says. "It's very obvious the Mitchell family wanted to take over the district. They have one Mitchell [former WOLB talk-show host Lisa] running for delegate, one running against me, and they've got [City Council member Keiffer Mitchell] running for state central committee, so it's obvious what their plan is."

That may be, but Jefferies and Young do go way back. Jefferies is president of Young's political club, Citizens Democratic Action Organization (CDAO). They campaigned together for gubernatorial candidate Carlton Sickles in 1970 and both have close ties to Jeffrey Paige's father, former City Council member Sterling Paige. And Jefferies has a history of putting the interests of others before his own. In 1994 his campaign gave $12,500 to Our Neighborhood Team, the 44th District slate formed that year to re-elect Young, Kirk, then-Del. Elijah Cummings, and Jefferies. The donation was the slate's largest from another campaign, and one Jefferies apparently could ill afford; that same summer he had to loan his own campaign $6,000.

The Senate-race rivalry is reflected in the delegate race. Running on Jefferies' ticket are Young allies Jeffrey Paige and Rodney Orange Sr., president of the Baltimore City chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Orange has long been active in West Baltimore politics and in 1975 was Young's legislative intern while a student at Morgan State University. Paige, vice president and a founding member of CDAO, is the only candidate to receive Young money to date--$3,000 in July from Young's campaign committee, Friends of Larry Young II. Young says he plans to give another $3,000 to Paige's effort.

The only delegate hopeful campaigning with Clarence Mitchell is his sister, Lisa, who is running as an Independent, though her status as a candidate remains unclear. Of the signatures she needed to get onto the general-election ballot, half were invalid, according to the city Board of Supervisors of Elections. Lisa Mitchell is appealing the ruling and is continuing to campaign.

Running on her own for now but discussing ticket options is Arlene Fisher, a community-development consultant and president of the Lafayette Square Community Association. A CDAO member since the early 1980s, Fisher nonetheless says she's not working either with or against Young. Two other, relatively unknown candidates--Charles Neal, a West Baltimore community activist, and Walter Burgess, rector at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Poppleton--are also doing their own thing and seem ambivalent about their connections.

The rest, even those with Young ties, are steering clear of the Senate candidates.

"I want no connection to them," House candidate Anthony McCarthy says. "There's a lot of baggage in the 44th, so it's very important people know I'm doing this on my own. If there is going to be real change we have to call Larry Young and others out for the condition of this district."

McCarthy, a former journalist and the current director of community affairs at Church Hospital, has a distant connection to 44th District machine politics as former chief spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a product of the 44th establishment. Cummings has endorsed McCarthy in the delegate race. But apart from that, McCarthy says he is set on breaking the district's ties to its past and won't take Young's support in any form.

Verna Jones' House of Delegates campaign is largely managed by the family of Arnold Jolivet, head of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association

and a vocal supporter of Young during his troubles. But Jones also declares herself independent, saying she would only welcome Young's support if she knows his motives. And even incumbent Del. Ruth Kirk, who is close to Young as vice chair of CDAO and as a beneficiary of some of his strongest financial backers, is avoiding running on a ticket because she doesn't want any of the Young debacle clouding her campaign; instead, she and Jones are running on a ticket of their own. Young, meanwhile, says he supports Kirk and will give her money, and Mitchell says he's "carrying" Kirk as well.

Young, whose campaign committee has also contributed to the campaigns of about 15 candidates outside of the district, won't say how much he intends to spend on this year's 44th District races but will likely give the maximum amount to those he endorses. Asked if he'll spend the whole $50,000 wad, he's more decisive.

"Absolutely not," he says. "I'm just going to keep my powder dry."

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