Monday, February 16, 2015

Old School to a T

(Baltimore) I think I became aware of Frank Conway, Sr. in the mid 70’s while waiting at the corner of Liberty Heights and Hilton Avenues for the number 51 bus. There screaming for attention was a
yellow banner with black lettering stretching nearly the entire length of his fence, “Elect Frank Conaway” It was a familiar banner every election season (changing offices he was seeking) and grew to include the entire Conaway clan. If you drove by at the appointed time you might see him waving and asking for your support.  On February 15, 2015 Frank Senior “went silently into that good night” never to emerge again to ask that we do more for the city he loved.

He is remember by his wife, his son and daughter, and extended family as the patriarch of a political family that rivaled the Mitchell’s. Their linkage to charm city was homegrown. Coming of age during a time when political power was denied to a Blacks.

The Emergence of Black Political Power in Baltimore

Frank Conaway, like many men of his time served in the military and took advantage of the GI Bill to get a degree from Morgan State College in 1960. He becomes a Math teacher at Booker T. Washington Junior High School.

These are heady times. The right vote in Baltimore comes in with a bang. Milton Allen becomes the cities first elected leader securing the position of State’s Attorney. The next big push is city council and the state house. Under the tutelage of William “Little Willie” and Victorine Adams they showed Conaway the ways of Metro Democratic Organization.  

The Metro Democratic Organization was different from the “Goon Squad.” Formed by Rev. Vernon Dobson, Larry Gibson, Clarence (Sr.) and Parren Mitchell, and several other community leaders this group was about planning Black political strategy. They used churches, the NAACP, Afro and a homogenized community centered near the Druid Hill Community.

Conversely, the Metro Democratic Organization was into patronage and helping those get jobs in city government. The group was about making change on the ground/street. No need for college degree to make change. For the high minded individuals Adams connection to unsavory characters was questioned. Make no mistake both groups were about bring change.

By 1970, Conaway used his connection to win a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates and eventually leading the Legislative Black Caucus. He would leave in 1975 but, returned in 1979.
During this period of inactivity he watched Harold Washington become Mayor of Chicago and that gave him "a renewed confidence in the political process." He would challenge Mayor William Donald Schaffer for his post. Conaway would drop out of the race.

During the 80’s Conaway seemed to constantly be under legal scrutiny. He beat back charges that his handing out of smoke detectors before an election was illegal. The Baltimore State Attorney also investigated charges about his skimming of insurance premiums turnout to be false.

Public service was a calling for the West Baltimore native. By 1988 he became the clerk of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. He would serve five terms. Between those terms he would run for Mayor of Baltimore.

Running for Mayor

Conaway would often boast he garnered more votes in the city than anyone else. He would put that to a test. In 2007, he challenged Mayor Martin O’Malley’s self-appointed successor Shelia Dixon. It was a crowded field (eight candidates)

Leading up to the primary (the de facto election for Mayor) there was talk of whittling the field. The top two candidates were Dixon and Councilman Keiffer Mitchell. According to reports Conaway initiated phone calls to convince some candidates to withdraw instead of splitting the vote. He was unsuccessful but, was convinced to support Mitchell. The date of the only televised debate was August 27, 2007 at Maryland Public Television.

I was on the panel with Jane Miller of WBAL TV to question the participants. Prior to the event, we go over areas we’d like to cover so we don’t repeat subjects. It was during this process we learned that Conaway may use this opportunity to endorse Mitchell. We were perplexed how it would be handled.

Jeff Salkin, the moderator, asked for opening statements from each candidate. When it was Conaway’s turn, he asked to make a statement. During his time he threw his support to Mitchell. Salkin then ask Conaway to step away from the podium and asked the other candidate to move over. The former candidate asked, “Are you throwing me off the debate?” “No, Mr. Conaway, you threw yourself off the debate,” says the moderator. It was a bizarre beginning to a debate.

This would not be the last time we would hear from Conaway as a Mayoral Candidate he reprises this role again in 2011. I ran into him during a radio interview and the guy who was dressed to the “nines” call me Mr. Robinson. I told him that wasn’t necessary. He pulled me to the side and wondered aloud, “Why the city would keep electing leaders who didn’t care about the city.” I couldn’t answer the question.

In December, I received word Frank Conaway was abandoning the Democratic Party. It seemed out of character but, as I looked back the issues surrounding him and the investigations of his family would make you question why stay in the Democratic Party. According to the political icon all I got "was a cold shoulder and the door." He would become the only Republican in a democratically controlled infra-structure in Baltimore.

Frank Conaway Sr. came of age during a time when some African-Americans were called “salt of earth.” They made their way when there were few options. He served his country and community in an honorable way. A true public servant in every sense of the work. “Rest well humble servant.”

Charles Robinson, III