Marylanders hope it won't happen here

November 18, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

The Louisiana campaign of former Klansman David Duke touched a nerve among Marylanders as no out-of-state contest has in years.

Black, Jewish and white Marylanders rejoiced to hear that Mr. Duke -- who spewed campaign rhetoric brewed from racial code words -- had been rejected decisively by Louisiana voters, 61 percent to 39 percent.

"Particularly because I'm black, I felt a tremendous sense of relief," said Walter G. Amprey, Baltimore superintendent of schools. "I think its going to make us all take a hard look at where this country is going."

"History shows us that this is the kind of time that produces haters like Duke who offer scapegoats for people's problems," said William H. Engelman, vice president of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

People from across the metropolitan area, from Ashburton to Essex, said that while they are happy that Mr. Duke was beaten, they do not think that his brand of racial politics has been exorcised from U.S. politics.

John Rutledge, who works at the Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point, spent part of Saturday evening with about a dozen other men at the Idle Hour Bar on Mace Avenue in Essex, wondering how the election would turn out.

The poor economy, which has forced many Essex residents to the unemployment lines in the past year, has engendered much sympathy for Mr. Duke in this predominately white, blue-collar community of one-story bungalows and pickup trucks.

Mr. Rutledge, who said that about 40 percent of the people in the bar were supporting Mr. Duke -- roughly the same percentage of Duke supporters in Louisiana -- said that stubborn remnants of anti-black hostility in Essex added to the level of Duke support.

"If you want my opinion, it was the white racism," Mr. Rutledge said. "I think the economy has something to do with it, particularly when it comes to civil rights and putting blacks into jobs through quotas."

He added, referring to Mr. Duke's appeal to racial fears: "I hope the United States hasn't slipped to the point that we would put someone like that into a high office."

Maryland has seen versions of race politics before.

Former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, for example, won Maryland's 1972 Democratic presidential primary after being shot in Laurel -- carrying six of the state's eight congressional districts.

And groups that monitor the activity of local extremist groups say that the groups' recent success in recruiting members may be indicative of a broader increase in racial intolerance.

"I think that, unfortunately, we have not seen the last of Mr. Duke or his politics," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Indeed, Mr. Duke seemed to be appealing to like-thinking people across the nation in his concession speech Saturday when he said, "The candidate may have lost, but the message goes out loud and clear across Louisiana and across the country. . . . The time has come to begin to heal the liberal welfare system that is causing crime, causing poverty, causing drugs, destroying the very basis of our lives."

Mr. Amprey said that blacks must also bear some responsibility for the climate of racial tension because too many blacks, bitter over actual or perceived racial injustices, often make innocent whites the target of their anger.

But the kind of veiled race appeals that propelled Mr. Duke into the Louisiana runoff election show no signs of gaining a foothold in Maryland, observers say.

Delegate Howard "Pete" Rawlings, D-Baltimore, said that even though Maryland's weak economy may breed anger among state residents, the level of political sophistication in Maryland's black and Jewish communities make it difficult for Maryland's politicians to successfully trade in racial demagogy.

"In order to spark this kind of animosity you have to have a lightning rod, and I don't see any David Dukes in Maryland or any on the horizon," Mr. Rawlings said. "I don't know of anyone in the state legislature or any county executive or anyone in the City Council who has resorted to using those kind of scapegoats."

But President Bush's successful use of racial imagery to further his 1988 presidential campaign by evoking the name of black killer-rapist Willie Horton is of concern to some Marylanders, who said Mr. Duke's success is only the Bush campaign's most visible progeny.

"I'm relieved and overjoyed, but I realize there is still a fight to defeat people who would out-Duke Duke," said Benjamin C. Whitten, the former head of the Baltimore Urban League.

He and others said that although Marylanders may be too sophisticated to spout openly hostile language, the politics of division may be making its mark in the state today.

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