Five Black candidates are running for Baltimore County Council council seats, months after community groups and advocates sued over a redistricting plan that they said would underrepresent Black county residents.

Baltimore County is 31% Black and almost 46% of the population is Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latino and Hispanic, but six of seven council members are white. The county has never had more than one Black council member, and has elected just two Black candidates, both men, in its history.

But candidates like Democrat Tony Fugett, a state budget department director who led the county NAACP branch for two decades, aims to change that when county voters head to the polls for the July 19 primary.

When he left his post as county NAACP president last year, Fugett, 69, said he was considering running for office eventually. He filed against 2nd District incumbent Izzy Patoka, 64, shortly after the council adopted a revised redistricting map in March that gave the 2nd a majority-minority population — with white residents comprising less than 50% of the population.

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The district was at the center of the lawsuit filed earlier this year by several plaintiffs, including Fugett, who said the council-approved map violated federal voting laws because it diluted Black political power by packing a high percentage of Black residents into the 4th District and splitting remaining Black voters among nearby districts. Plaintiffs, who included the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County and Baltimore County NAACP, wanted the county to create at least one majority-Black district in addition to the 4th.

Attorneys for map opponents demonstrated the 2nd District could be revised to create a majority-Black constituency, but the council maintained it couldn’t be accomplished without splitting communities. A federal judge subsequently blocked the county’s map and ordered that it be redrawn to either create another majority-Black district or at least a district in which Black voters have “an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice.”

Black candidates, mostly Democrats and first-time office seekers, are now running in nearly every district from Pikesville to Middle River, except for the solidly Republican 3rd and 7th districts.

Many Black candidates who have filed to run, like Fugett, say that the council — on which one woman and and one African American man currently serve — doesn’t reflect the diversity of its electorate.

When first-term incumbent Patoka joined the council’s unanimous vote to approve its maps, Fugett said he decided “there was nobody on the ballot I could vote for.”

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Black, Indigenous, Latino, Hispanic and Asian constituents who are old enough to vote outnumber white voting-age residents in the 2nd District by a few percentage points. Black residents make up 30% of the entire voting-age bloc — but dense Black and white communities are bifurcated by Interstate 795, Fugett notes, and have different issues and priorities.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all district,” Fugett said.

While many in Pikesville are eager to leverage tax incentives through state and local designations, Fugett said poorer communities inside the Baltimore Beltway, especially along Liberty Road, which is new to the 2nd District, have “been overlooked for years” as they grapple with languishing businesses and a food desert that stretches along the district’s western and southern borders — something he wants to change.

Patoka says the overarching concerns aren’t so different in neighborhoods across the district.

“People want their streets repaved, people want public safety,” Patoka, a Lochearn native, said.

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Any suggestion that he’s prioritized some constituents over others is false, Patoka added.

If reelected, Patoka said he’s considering incentives to bring in grocery stores with fresh produce to the Liberty Road corridor and would represent the area with “the same enthusiasm” with which he’s worked with the rest of his constituents.

In Central Baltimore County, realtor Shafiyq Hinton, 30, entered the Democratic primary to represent the 6th District within days of the map’s adoption. He quickly got the endorsements of County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., outgoing 6th District Councilwoman Cathy Bevins and Council Chairman Julian Jones, whose campaign contributions within weeks gave the first-time candidate an advantage over his primary opponents.

Towson area activist Mike Ertel and business owner and Overlea-Fullerton advocate Caitlin Klimm-Kellner are also running.

Hinton, a Parkville native, pivoted from a run for the seat of twice-elected Republican state Sen. Johnny Ray Salling when his residence was drawn out of the district. Hinton didn’t predicate refiling for a council seat on the redistricting lawsuit’s outcome, but was “paying close attention to it” as the filing deadline neared.

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Groups that have long been underrepresented on the council would be more inclined to engage with elected officials if voters believed their representatives had a broad range of experiences that are “reflective of our great county,” Hinton said.

“Certain communities, they feel left behind,” he said.

Hinton, who sells commercial and residential property, said that if elected, he would prioritize creating incentives for prospective first-time homebuyers, similar to Maryland’s mortgage program for low-income earners.

And in the eastern 5th District, Nick Johnson, 32, a former officer who left the Baltimore City Police Department a decade ago, wants to bolster efforts by the Baltimore County Police Department to recruit more nonwhite officers and devote more resources to police and community relationship-building initiatives.

Johnson — who’s also seeking office for the first time — echoed other candidates who said that people of color don’t have a seat at the county’s table.

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Danielle Singley, who is running for Baltimore County Council, speaks at a Randallstown NAACP Rally at the Baltimore County School Board in May. (Shan Wallace)

Two other Black Democrats are running in the primary. Crystal Francis, who chairs the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee, is running in the 5th District, and Danielle Singley, an officer with the Randallstown NAACP, is running in the 1st District. Republican Tony Campbell, who is Black, is running unopposed in the 6th District.

The results of the election could provide an argument for those still considering another legal challenge to the redistricting plan.

During court hearings in February and March, the county’s lawyers challenged map opponents to prove that prior council elections were influenced by racial polarization, as they had asserted. That proved difficult, given how few Black candidates have run.

“Following the primary, the plaintiffs’ expert team will analyze the results for evidence of racially polarized voting and then plaintiffs will decide whether it is necessary to refile,” said Meredith Curtis, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maryland, in an email. The civil rights lawyers represented plaintiffs in the case.

Asked whether the ACLU prompted candidates to file after the map was adopted, Curtis said the ACLU is not involved in political campaigns.

“Perhaps more Black candidates felt emboldened to run after the issues raised by the case [shined] a spotlight on the Voting Rights Act violations and need to address them,” Curtis said.

Fugett said the prospect of supporting further legal action is “not the reason that I went into the race.”

“Some people have suggested I was in it to be a statistic for just that purpose,” Fugett said. “I’m running this race to win.”

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Taylor DeVille covered Baltimore County government for The Baltimore Banner with a focus on the County Executive, County Council, accountability and quality of life issues affecting suburban residents. Before joining The Banner, Taylor covered Baltimore County government and breaking news for The Baltimore Sun.

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