Race Tension Vexes Contest For Senate In Maryland

By E.J. Kessler

Published May 20, 2005, issue of May 20, 2005.
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Racial tensions are simmering in Maryland’s Democratic senatorial primary race, in which a nationally known black leader, former congressman Kweisi Mfume, is squaring off against a white congressman, Ben Cardin, who is Jewish.

While the contest is still in its early stages, and other candidates — both black and white — may enter the race, the primary is proving awkward for Maryland Democrats, who are heavily dependent on black votes in state races.

Mfume, who headed the NAACP from 1996 until last November, is battling charges that he created a hostile environment for women at the group’s headquarters by giving raises and promotions to women whom he dated. Mfume has denied the allegations, contained in a report prepared for the civil-rights organization’s board, but he acknowledged this week that he had a “short-lived” affair with a woman who worked there.

The allegations have thrown Mfume on the defensive even as Cardin, a well-respected lawmaker from Baltimore’s suburbs, has gained momentum with a spate of important endorsements, including a nod from House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

The situation is proving especially fraught for Maryland Democrats because of their recent history. In 2002, the Democrats’ candidate for governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, rejected several African-Americans as running mates, choosing instead a Republican-turned-Democrat. The GOP, meanwhile, chose an African-American, Michael Steele, as its candidate for lieutenant governor on the ticket headed by Robert Ehrlich. The Kennedy Townsend-led ticket lost, embittering many African-Americans, who now insist their time has come.

After African-Americans “held their noses and voted for Kennedy Townsend, I don’t think they’re going to sit back and let the Democratic Party pick who gets on the ticket,” said Donna Brazile, a top Democratic strategist, who is African American. In a widely noted March 28 column in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Brazile wrote that Mfume “is more than another Senate candidate” — he’s “a symbol of how Democrats intend to treat qualified black candidates.”

“This is a great opportunity to remind them that African-American voters aren’t going to sit by idly and let one of their own be thrown to the curb,” Brazile said Tuesday, adding, “Republicans have no problem putting an African American on a ticket. They think it helps them to reach out to the center. Democrats sometimes get risk averse.”

The primary is complicated by the fact that the Republican National Committee’s chairman, Ken Mehlman — a Jewish Baltimorean — has declared it one of his prime objectives to reach out to African-American voters and promote African-American candidates, and has been urging Steele to enter the Senate race P side. “[T]he George W. Bush Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and the party of Frederick Douglass, is here today to compete,” Mehlman said recently during a speech at Howard University in Washington. “And we will persist, and we will continue this effort until we learn more, and achieve more, and succeed more in competing to win the African-American support.”

The RNC’s efforts are drawing praise in some Democratic quarters.

“Ken Mehlman is doing a great job of outreach,” said Clinton, Md., Democratic strategist Adrion Howell. “I wouldn’t take anything for granted. Who knows what kind of support Steele could receive?”

Howell, if anything, sounded more determined than Brazile that an African American be on the Maryland ticket.

“It’s time for the Democratic Party to put up a [black] candidate for statewide office and to provide the resources,” he said. “The black voting base has been very loyal to the Democratic Party. There needs to be something in return for that loyalty. If people perceive it as a raw deal, there’s a potential for backlash and weak turnout in Democratic bastions such as Prince George’s County and Baltimore City.”

Mfume’s troubles have fed a perception that his state’s Democratic establishment is looking to hustle him out of the race.

“There’s a lot of concern in the establishment Democratic Party that Mfume isn’t as strong a candidate in the general election as Cardin,” said Kevin Igoe, a GOP strategist and former executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. “If Kweisi loses in a high-profile nasty race, what does that do for African-American turnout? Also for the governor’s race? Some have concluded that they’d rather force Mfume out early than beat him in a primary.”

The disclosure of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People report has provoked bitterness in the Mfume camp. “It was clear that this story was timed and somebody wanted to make sure it appeared the day after Cardin announced,” Mfume adviser Joe Trippi said in an interview with The Gazette, a Maryland newspaper. Trippi, the former manager of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, said, “A lot of establishment folks in the Democratic Party are going to try and do everything they can to clear the race for Cardin.” While Mfume has not blamed anyone publicly for the disclosure, he told The Associated Press that “it clearly came from someone trying to throw dirt on me, destroy my reputation and put an early end to my campaign for the Senate. If that was their intention, then they’ve failed.”

Brazile cautioned that Mfume would have to deal with the allegations, as would any other candidate. “That’s politics. It has nothing to do with race,” she said.

The Senate race also comes as a Jewish and an African-American communal leader have been at loggerheads over a planned October rally of the Millions More Movement, the 10th anniversary commemoration of Washington’s Million Man March. A consortium of African-American groups, including the Rev. Lewis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, is convening the rally. The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, called on African-American leaders to reconsider their support for the rally because of Farrakhan’s involvement, citing the reverend’s many antisemitic speeches. But hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, chairman of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, criticized Foxman for his challenge, saying in a letter that he was “misguided, arrogant, and very disrespectful of African-Americans and most importantly your statements will unintentionally or intentionally lead to a negative impression of Jews in the minds of millions of African-Americans.”

In contrast to the debate over the rally, the tension in the Maryland primary race “is not black-Jewish,” said University of Maryland political science professor Thomas Schaller, a Cardin supporter. “It’s black-white.” However, he added that it could take an anti-Jewish turn depending on the dynamics of the campaign. Schaller said he expects Cardin to rack up some African-American endorsements.

Asked if the race was stoking black-Jewish tensions, Howell said: “Too often it’s perceived by many people of color that a lot of times ethnic nominees don’t get the full support of the Democratic Party. They don’t get behind them in resources, finances. If that’s the perception, that’s something that could manifest if people don’t think they’re getting a fair shake.”

Mfume’s troubles do not seem to faze his supporters. At the inaugural meeting of the African American Democratic Club of Prince George’s County, held last week, Mfume was treated like a rock star by the 400 activists who packed a hotel in Clinton.

Cardin’s campaign, for its part, is downplaying any bad blood between the candidates.

“The Democratic Party is fortunate to have a bevy of qualified individuals for a number of primaries that will be contested,” said Cardin’s political director, Jamie Fontaine. Asked about Mfume’s troubles, she said: “We don’t know what’s happening with Mfume. It would be inappropriate for me to comment.”

“Kweisi Mfume and Ben Cardin are friends,” she added. “They have a good relationship.”

Mfume’s campaign did not return calls seeking comment.

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