Friday, May 30, 2008

NAACP gives Baltimore city delegation a ‘poor’ grade

Black caucus chairwoman: Report politically motivated

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If the Baltimore city delegation to the General Assembly was a student, it might dread showing its parents its report card from the Baltimore City Branch NAACP.

The Baltimore city branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on Tuesday announced that the city’s delegation received a ‘‘poor” grade of 55.9 percent on their voting record during the 2007 and 2008 regular legislative sessions and last fall’s special session.

Just one lawmaker — Del. Jill P. Carter (D-Dist. 41) — received a grade of ‘‘outstanding,” with a 95. Del. Melvin L. Stukes (D-Dist. 44) received the second-highest grade, an 80, or ‘‘very good.” No other lawmaker scored above 70, or ‘‘good.”

‘‘I think the process sucks,” said Sen. Verna L. Jones (D-Dist. 44), who received a grade of ‘‘fair” with 67.5. ‘‘I think it’s subjective. It doesn’t sound appropriate.”

The report ranked lawmakers based on their votes on 14 bills acted on by the legislature and one issue — a request for a federal civil rights inquiry into the 2007 death of Isaiah Simmons, a 17-year-old from East Baltimore who died while being restrained by staff at Bowling Brook Preparatory School in Carroll County. In January, a Carroll County Circuit Court judge dismissed charges of reckless endangerment against the school’s counselors.

The report, released at the branch’s general membership meeting Tuesday, gave a point value of 5 or 10 to each vote based on the branch’s view of their importance.

Branch President Marvin L. ‘‘Doc” Cheatham Sr. and Rodney A. Orange Sr., the branch political action chairman, wrote the criteria and compiled the report card based on votes in the General Assembly.

‘‘At the membership meeting we had overwhelming support and commendations for what we did,” Cheatham said.

None of the Baltimore city delegation attended Tuesday’s meeting, he said.

Grading lawmakers is a matter of accountability, Cheatham said.

‘‘Let’s not say we don’t like ’em because how they dress or how they look,” Cheatham said. ‘‘Base it on how they vote on issues that matter to us most.”

Those issues included the penny increase to the state sales tax and legislation putting the question of whether to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland on the November ballot. The branch opposed both measures, which were passed during last fall’s special session.

One bill, which requires the collection of DNA samples upon arrest for violent or serious crimes such as burglary, was rated out of 15 possible points because of its importance to the group.

The Legislative Black Caucus voiced concerns that an expanded state database of DNA samples could be used for racial profiling. The bill passed after caucus members convinced colleagues that samples should not be taken until formal charges are brought and should be expunged upon acquittal and that people should be able to use DNA evidence to seek a new trial after a conviction.

But Baltimore City Branch NAACP members felt that caucus members ‘‘did a 180 [degree turn] on us, because one day they walked out [on Democratic Caucus negotiations over the bill] and the next day they added on amendments,” Cheatham said. ‘‘The bill’s still the bill. We think it’s unconstitutional.”

The bill was signed into law earlier this month.

Legislative Black Caucus members ‘‘negotiated in good faith and individuals felt it was something they could support,” said Jones, the caucus’s chairwoman, who ultimately voted against the bill.

The bill was subjected to the legislative process, said Jones, adding that Cheatham’s refusal to accept that fact ‘‘I think shows some of his naiveté.”

As for the report, ‘‘It might be motivated by personal political interest,” Jones said, declining to say whose political interest was being served.

Cheatham said he has no political ambitions, but believes Jones was referring to his close friendship with former Sen. Larry Young, who was suspended from the Senate in 1998 amid corruption allegations, and who supported incumbent Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV in his failed 2002 primary re-election campaign against a challenge from Jones.

Branch members took two bus trips to Annapolis earlier this year and sent a series of faxes and e-mails throughout the session to tell the delegation its positions, Cheatham said. Jones was one of the few lawmakers to meet with members of the branch when they visited Annapolis.

The branch is considering a similar report card with the Baltimore City Council, he said. Branch members would likely speak with council members after the summer recess and grade them on a period from September through April.

Cheatham defended the report’s fairness.

One of the report’s surprises, Cheatham said, was the score of 70 by Sen. George W. Della Jr. (D-Dist. 46), who represents a district that has more white residents than most in the city, yet ‘‘did extremely well.”

Jones said she has questions about ‘‘the integrity of the [grading] process. ... For an organization such as the NAACP, when you constantly have to work in partnership, I think that’s an issue.”

‘‘I do not want to participate in mediocrity,” she said. ‘‘I’m for building up the community and not taking potshots.”

‘‘I’m glad some of them are displeased,” Cheatham said of Jones’ reaction. ‘‘Because it shows that they are being held accountable.”

‘‘I’m not above being judged when I need [to be],” Jones said. ‘‘I just want to be judged fairly.”