In Md., Mfume’s in, Wynn Is Out

Posted March 14, 2005 at 6:45pm

Maryland’s fast-moving 2006 Senate race got its first official candidate Monday — and claimed its first victim.

After 72-year-old Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) threw the state’s political establishment into turmoil Friday by unexpectedly announcing that he would not seek a record-shattering sixth term, former Rep. Kweisi Mfume became the first candidate to enter the Democratic primary.

Mfume, who is also a former president of the NAACP, told a crowd of supporters at the Camden Yards warehouse in Baltimore on Monday that he wanted to “give a new voice to issues affecting everyday working men and working women.”

“I’m not looking for fame and I have no need to be validated,” said Mfume, who is 56. “I want to go to the United States Senate to make a real difference on behalf of the people of this state and the nation.”

Mfume’s announcement seemed to push Rep. Albert Wynn (D) out of the race. Wynn, who has long been preparing to run for Senate in the event of a vacancy, said his “instincts and intuition” told him that 2006 was not his year. Instead, he’ll seek an eighth term in the House.

Part of Wynn’s calculation may have been a fear that two or more strong black candidates could neutralize each other in the primary. About 40 percent of Maryland’s Democratic primary voters are black.

That same logic may also force out Rep. Elijah Cummings (D). Cummings, who succeeded Mfume in Congress nine years ago, was mum on Monday, but most political observers would be surprised if he stayed in a primary with Mfume in it.

While the Democratic race appears to be developing quickly, no Republicans have jumped into the fray, even as party leaders express optimism that they can compete in the heavily Democratic state. They are hoping to lure Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) into the race, though he is known to prefer to run for re-election in 2006 and for governor four years later.

“He’s really an obvious choice,” said Carol Hirschburg, a GOP consultant based in Baltimore. “If he were the candidate, the national party would come in in a big way.”

Steele, who is black, has gained a national following as one of the few black Republicans elected statewide, and could eat into the Democrats’ base in the general election, particularly if the Democratic nominee is white.

If the GOP doesn’t prevail on Steele to enter the race, the caliber of potential candidates drops precipitously. Republican insiders have cited state Senate Minority Whip Andrew Harris, Harford County Executive Jim Harkins and state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who took 34 percent of the vote as the GOP Senate standard bearer in 2004, as possible contenders.

But some Republican leaders in the state are touting Anne McCarthy, dean of the Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore, as a political newcomer with plenty of potential. McCarthy, the 46-year-old niece of former Illinois Rep. and Veteran Affairs’ Secretary Edward Derwinski (R), said Monday that she is contemplating the race.

“I need advice on what my next step should be,” said McCarthy, who is not expected to make a final decision until the summer.

Blair Lee, a commentator for WBAL Radio in Baltimore and The Gazette of Politics and Business, said Republicans don’t have to rush to find a Senate candidate, because they are unlikely to have a bloody battle for the nomination.

“They can sit and wait until July a year from now,” Lee said. “They won’t have a primary.”

Democrats, on the other hand, feel compelled to jump early in a scramble for money, name recognition and support.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D) will appear at a firehouse in Cockeysville this morning to announce the formation of an exploratory committee to consider the Senate race. And Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) said in an interview Monday that he will form an exploratory committee as well.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D) said Monday that the Congressman is pondering the race but does not expect to make a decision for at least a few weeks more.

Although his name has not been aired publicly, Marc Ginsberg, a one-time ambassador to Morocco under then- President Bill Clinton, told Roll Call Monday that he has been urged to consider the race, and that he is beginning to explore a possible candidacy.

Ginsberg, a founder of the Sutton Place Gourmet specialty-foods chain, has been active in state and national politics for more than a quarter century and now serves as managing director and CEO of Northstar Equity Group in Washington, D.C.

“There’s no harm in talking to some friends around the state,” Ginsberg said.

Given the large number of potential candidates, analysts are having difficulty handicapping the emerging Democratic race.

“I think the Democratic field is flawed,” said Lee, who predicted that Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley (D), who is currently running for governor in 2006, may be persuaded to switch to the Senate race.

“He’s a walk-in for the Senate if he runs,” Lee said.

If O’Malley stays where he is, Mfume, with a national profile and a rags-to-riches life story, must be considered a leading contender. He would be the favorite of many minority voters and plenty of white liberals.

Van Hollen, though only in his third year in Congress, is an ambitious and tenacious campaigner, an expert fundraiser, and would also attract plenty of white liberal support. But like Mfume, he may be a hard sell in some of the state’s more conservative precincts.

Cardin is considered risk-averse, and may not want to give up his safe House seat, including a senior slot on the Ways and Means Committee. He had prepared to run for governor in 1986 when he was state House Speaker, but was chased from the race and won an open House seat instead. A dozen years later, he came close to challenging a sitting incumbent in the Democratic gubernatorial primary but stopped short.

“He’s never had a tough election in 40 years,” one Annapolis insider noted. “Why would he start now?”

But at age 63, Cardin may have reached the conclusion that this is his last, best chance to win statewide office. He is well-respected in many quarters, and is a favorite of Jewish voters in all regions of the state. And because the lines of his district keep changing, he is better known to a greater number of voters than most Maryland House Members.

As for Ruppersberger, he is clearly hoping that several liberals enter the primary race, potentially paving the way for an upset. He could run strongest in blue collar and conservative areas.

Several analysts hold out the possibility that other Democrats could enter the race.

“If you want to serve,” said Derek Walker, communications director for the Maryland Democratic Party, “this is a seminal opportunity.”