Blacks Could Be Senate Frontrunners in Maryland

Posted March 25, 2005 at 6:16pm

Maryland voters could make history next year if they nominate two top-tier black candidates for Senate.

Former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume (D) has already thrown his hat in the ring, and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is the Republicans’ first choice in the race to replace retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D).

But a Steele-Mfume match-up would be far more than a historic first. (The 2004 race between now-Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Alan Keyes was never close.) It would also pit two wildly disparate personalities, personal histories and political ideologies against one another. And Steele’s presence on the ballot could, more than anything else, threaten Democrats’ iron grip on a large and powerful voting bloc.

“The question is how much of the Democratic African-American vote could you get?” said Isiah Leggett, a former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party who has warned state party leaders for years that they need to recruit more minority candidates to run for high office.

Leggett, who is black, added, “I think the Republican vote would be there for Steele. The base vote would be there for him. How many Democrats can you pull aside?”

The same question may become relevant in Ohio’s gubernatorial race next year, when the Democratic and Republican nominees could wind up being black officeholders. Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell is a leading Republican candidate, and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman is the current Democratic favorite.

Back in Maryland, Steele’s tenure as Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s (R) No. 2 has, in a sense, already roiled the political waters in a state where blacks make up almost 30 percent of the population and have been a crucial part of the Democrats’ winning coalition for decades.

In 2002, the Democratic nominee for governor, then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, ran on a statewide ticket with nothing but white men, while Ehrlich selected Steele as his running mate. While exit polls showed that blacks who voted backed Townsend at about the same rate as it had been for the winning Democratic ticket in 1998 — 90 percent — the turnout in heavily black precincts was smaller than it was four years earlier. And based on his own analysis, Leggett believes the black vote for Ehrlich was actually about 13 percent.

Ehrlich defeated Townsend 52 percent to 48 percent, becoming the first Republican to be elected Maryland governor since 1966.

Since then, Free State Democrats have fretted about ways to hold on to the black vote and encourage more minority candidates to seek statewide office.

But it wasn’t until Sarbanes’ March 11 retirement announcement that an opening presented itself — and Mfume jumped in without hesitation.

In his announcement speech in Baltimore, Mfume, 56, said his decision to run was not made out of “any misguided sense of ego or entitlement.” But he did tell a USA Today columnist that it was time for Maryland Democrats to match their rhetoric with action by rallying around a black statewide candidate. And some Democrats believe that Mfume on the November ballot will help produce a record-breaking turnout of minority voters, benefiting Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.

“We made a serious mistake not having an African-American on the ticket” in 2002, Leggett said. “I think it was a serious blow when the Republicans put Michael Steele on the ticket. They were able to go around and say they were the party of diversity and the party of opportunity.”

Yet for all of the Democratic lip service about wanting a more diverse ticket in 2006 — and for all the respect Mfume engenders with his journey from street hood to national political leader — some Democrats privately worry that Mfume is not their strongest potential Senate nominee. And he will not have the Democratic field to himself.

At least two House Members — Reps. Benjamin Cardin and Chris Van Hollen — are seen as likely to run. Reps. Elijah Cummings and Dutch Ruppersberger and Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey are also contemplating the race. Cardin, Ruppersberger and Van Hollen are white; Cummings and Ivey are black. Some lesser-known candidates could also enter the fray.

Part of the Democrats’ skepticism about Mfume stems from the fact that he spent the past nine years leading the NAACP, the venerable civil rights organization based in Baltimore. Although it provided a national platform for Mfume, he is several years removed from the nitty gritty of Maryland politics. Mfume left Congress in 1996 after nine years, having previously served on the Baltimore City Council.

Moreover, Mfume started his career as a political insurgent and never ran with the benefit of a political machine. Today, Mfume does not have a political team around him. Minyon Moore, a leading national Democratic strategist who is a partner at the Dewey Square Group in Washington, D.C., is said to be helping him find a campaign manager. And he has never tested his political strength, and his message, beyond the boundaries of inner-city Baltimore.

“How on earth does a guy who has run as a Black Power candidate — what does he say to the other two-thirds of the state?” mused Blair Lee, a former Democratic strategist in Maryland who is now a commentator for The Gazette newspapers and WBAL-AM in Baltimore. “There are plenty of guilt-ridden white liberals who’ll feel warm and fuzzy voting for a candidate like Mfume. But not in Western Maryland. Not in Southern Maryland. Not on the Eastern Shore.”

A former top aide to a black Member of Congress who is now active in Maryland politics put it more bluntly.

“The Republicans would love to run against him in the general,” he said. “There are a lot of white people out there.”

Cummings, however, argues that Maryland is ready to elect a black Senator, pointing to Obama’s success last year.

“When you look at the demographics of Maryland, Maryland is a place where you could elect an African-American to the Senate, more obviously so than in Illinois,” Cummings said.

But race alone is not the issue. Mfume has admitted to drug use, multiple arrests and siring five sons out of wedlock when he was a disaffected street youth named Frizzell “Pee Wee” Gray. His inspiring transformation is in fact part of his political appeal.

But in a bare-knuckle Senate race, opposition researchers could have a field day, and voters who don’t already know Mfume’s biography could be shocked by what they learn.

“Redemption is all well and good,” the former Congressional aide said. “But arguably [Mfume] was a little more off the wagon than W was.”

Still, Patrick Gonzales, president of Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies, an independent polling firm in Annapolis, believes that Mfume “has put his past behind him.”

“I doubt it will have much of an impact on his campaign,” Gonzales said.

How Mfume matches up with Steele — compared to how a white Democrat would do against the lieutenant governor — is a topic of endless fascination among political analysts. Even most Republicans privately concede that without Steele in the race, Sarbanes’ Senate seat is likely to remain in Democratic hands.

“If it’s Steele and Mfume, unquestionably Mfume may have a leg up with respect to keeping African-American voters in the Democratic ranks,” said Alvin Williams, president and CEO of BAMPAC, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee dedicated to electing black Republicans to local, state and federal offices. “If it’s a Van Hollen, for instance, it’s an interesting question. I don’t think Michael will play the obvious [race] card here. But I think it will be implied.”

Steele’s personal history, in many ways, is as up-from-the-bootstraps as Mfume’s. Now 46, he grew up poor in D.C., and won a scholarship to the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, where he was elected class president. After spending two years studying for the priesthood, Steele turned to a legal career and became involved in Republican politics. He was chairman of the Maryland GOP when Ehrlich tapped him to be his running mate.

Steele’s own politics, however, are fairly conservative — a significant consideration in a state that gave Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) a 13-point victory over President Bush last year.

But many Republicans, and even some Democrats, see Ehrlich’s victory in 2002 as a sign that strong, well-funded GOP candidates can do well in Maryland. Williams said that Mfume, Van Hollen and Cardin may be too far to the left for a changing Free State electorate.

“They’d certainly be in the front row at the liberals’ convention,” Williams said. “They’d bicker about degrees among them.”

After first appearing to resist running for Senate — he has said in the past that he wants to seek re-election in 2006 and run for governor in 2010 — Steele told a Baltimore radio station last week that he will take a few weeks to contemplate the Senate race.

Ehrlich is expected to spend $20 million on his re-election campaign next year, and Steele stands to benefit if he runs for Senate. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is sure to make Maryland a top priority if Steele is a candidate.

“What is the downside for him?” Leggett asked. “If he runs for Senate and loses, [national Republicans] will probably get a job for him in Washington and you can still run for governor in four years. If you win, you’re a Senator.”