Line forms for Baltimore mayoral vacancy

Two scions of Baltimore’s top civil rights families offer contrasting styles in their quest to run the city

Friday, Nov. 10, 2006

BALTIMORE — Mayor Martin O’Malley’s election to governor leaves a power vacuum in Maryland’s largest city, which a number of candidates are scrambling to fill.

By law, City Council President Sheila Dixon (D) will ascend to the mayor’s office in January, when O’Malley is inaugurated, and will serve out his unexpired term. But she is under investigation for contracting irregularities, and a veritable wolf pack of Democrats is thinking of challenging her in next year’s mayoral election. They range from veteran State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy to Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and NAACP chief who lost his bid for Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in September’s primary.

Add to the list of hopefuls two young and ambitious offspring of important Maryland civil rights families, Del. Jill P. Carter (D-Dist. 41) and City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell. Both are making the rounds to gauge the viability of their candidacy.

Carter’s straightforwardness

They are a study in contrasts.

Mitchell, 39, his 6-foot-5-inch frame making him look like an athlete, has been deliberate and cautious as the Democratic councilman in District 11. First elected to the council in 1995, he has generally supported O’Malley, even when a more antagonistic posture might have gained him temporary political advantage. He also campaigned for the re-election of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who lost his Democratic primary. He did so ‘‘because he is a good man and it was a sense of loyalty,” Mitchell says.

Carter, a petite 43-year-old with eyes that reveal Japanese blood among her ancestors, has become known as an outspoken populist, quick as a shark. She calls O’Malley ‘‘possibly the biggest megalomaniac I’ve ever encountered.” Mfume is among her targets as well. She says she has issues with the honesty of the former NAACP chief and congressman.

Jill Carter’s supporters — spearheaded by ACORN PAC, the political arm of a network of community organizations, and the Maryland Minority Contractors Association — predicted years ago that O’Malley would run for governor and might be elected. They wanted to be prepared for that eventuality. For that reason they tried to draft Carter, a lawyer, to run for City Council president in 2004 so that she would be next in line in succession. But Carter, who had been elected to the General Assembly only the previous year, refused.

Instead, she chose to concentrate on her legislator’s job and focus on issues that her father, Walter P. Carter, pursued before his death in 1971. He was a central figure in Baltimore’s civil rights movement, organizing demonstrations against discrimination throughout Maryland. At the time of his death, Carter was protesting predatory real estate practices.

Jill Carter’s top issues include O’Malley’s management of the Baltimore police department as well as various equal opportunity questions. It is not clear how those issues, once so seemingly explosive, will play now that O’Malley has triumphed and is moving on.

‘‘I can’t say enough good things about Jill,” remarks Mitchell Klein, an ACORN organizer who has since moved to New Orleans. ‘‘She is very principled.”

Carter’s detractors question her commitment to the Democratic Party, whose policies and practices she has publicly criticized. ‘‘We are losing our base,” Carter contends, saying that the party needs to be more militant in fighting for progressive goals and against injustices. In that regard, she says she liked the outspokenness of Kevin Zeese, even though the Green Party⁄Libertarian⁄Populist senatorial candidate was ‘‘not a viable option.” (He polled 1.5 percent of the statewide vote Tuesday.)

Mitchell’s politic approach

Mitchell is seen as more of a team player. ‘‘Keiffer has the ingredients of being star quality,” says state Sen. George W. Della Jr. (D–District 46) of Baltimore, a friend and ally.

For decades, Mitchell’s family was at the cutting edge of Baltimore’s civil rights movement. His great-grandmother, Lillie May Jackson, ran the local NAACP from the 1920s until her death in 1975; his grandfather, Clarence Mitchell Jr., was so legendary as the national NAACP’s behind-the-scenes manipulator in Washington that he was dubbed the ‘‘101st senator.”

Other relatives scored historic firsts for African Americans: His grandmother, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, was the first African-American woman to practice law in Maryland. Uncle Parren J. Mitchell became the state’s first black congressman; two other uncles, Clarence III and Michael, rose to the Maryland Senate but ran afoul of the law and ended up serving prison time for corruption. Yet another cousin, Clarence IV, was elected a delegate as a Democrat, then ascended to a senator’s seat before hitching his wagons to the fortunes of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

‘‘We are the black Kennedys,” Michael Mitchell once famously crowed, before he ran into legal trouble.

While this kind of history can be a burden, it also presents opportunities for Keiffer Mitchell, who taught history at his alma mater, Boys’ Latin, and now works for Harbor Bank as a business development officer. It also is clear in Mitchell’s City Hall office, which is filled with the family’s political memorabilia.

One yellowing poster advertises the 1967 ticket of mayoral candidate Peter G. Angelos and his City Council president running mate, Clarence III. ‘‘That was the first integrated ticket,” says Keiffer Mitchell.

Any viable candidate for a citywide office in Baltimore will need help from such money raisers as Angelos, a litigation lawyer who owns the Baltimore Orioles, and John Paterakis, who heads the nation’s largest chain of privately owned bakeries. Since both millionaires are close to Schaefer, Mitchell, because of his loyalty to the embattled comptroller, is guaranteed at least a fair hearing.

Mitchell’s centrist politics are likely to gain him bonus points among those behind-the-scenes money men, who had close connections to Ehrlich.

Mitchell describes himself as a ‘‘moderate, not anti-business” in his positions. ‘‘You have to govern from the center,” he says. ‘‘I always remember a lesson from my grandfather: you have to reach across the aisle.”

Despite his general support of O’Malley, Mitchell cannot be described as a ‘‘yes” man. He sided with Ehrlich on the state takeover of failing Baltimore schools and went against O’Malley’s decision to build a $305 million convention hotel, using financing from the city.

‘‘I look at things issue by issue. That’s the only way we can move forward,” he says.