Did ads lay it on line or did they cross it? Tapping racial issues aided Glendening, but critics see polarization

Election 1998 : Maryland

November 05, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith and JoAnna Daemmrich | C. Fraser Smith and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Laura Lippman contributed to this article.

Well-crafted commercials suggesting that Ellen R. Sauerbrey was an enemy of civil rights drew a record number of African-Americans to the polls this week, but some observers believe the long-term price could be a more deeply polarized Maryland.

One of five voters Tuesday was an African-American -- and 90 percent of them voted for Glendening partly because they were fearful of Sauerbrey. Exit polls point to the black vote as Glendening's margin of victory.

"We won tonight," Glendening said after the result was clear, "because the people of Maryland stood up for a fair, just, inclusive and compassionate society."

Sauerbrey, Glendening's commercials said, would not have been so committed to an open society -- and might have allowed a rollback of civil rights laws passed during a generation of struggle.

The commercials were the best of their kind in this campaign, according to Ronald A. Faucheux, editor of Campaigns and Elections, a Washington based magazine.

"They put her on the defensive on an issue that gave her a David Duke-type smell," he said, referring to the former Ku Klux Klansman who ran for office in Louisiana.

"That was what [Glendening] needed to do to convince moderate to liberal ticket splitters that she shouldn't be their candidate," Faucheux said.

The commercials were aired in Maryland at a time when the U.S. House of Representatives was voting to conduct an open-ended impeachment inquiry of President Clinton.

Polls have shown that black voters give Clinton a 90 percent approval rating -- exactly the vote they cast ultimately for Glendening. So the ads became part of a potent turnout chemistry in the black community.

Some found the ads necessary.

"I think it is something to be celebrated," said the Rev. Chester Wickwire, the former Johns Hopkins University chaplain who was prominent during Baltimore's 1960s civil rights era. "I'm glad Glendening won. Ellen Sauerbrey and others have been trying to revive the Republican Party, but it doesn't appear it has been able to become very inclusive."

And some said many voters accept such ads as part of the landscape. "I think a campaign is a campaign -- people understand," said Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Montgomery County lawmaker.

But others found the tone disturbing.

"What he was doing was polarizing. A lot of people believed it -- and believing really got out the black vote," said Harrison L. Gross, an African-American and a retired Social Security Administration employee who lives in West Baltimore.

A Democrat, Gross declined to say who he had voted for -- but he thought the ads could create resentment among white Marylanders who believe Sauerbrey was damaged unfairly.

Republicans, not surprisingly, agreed.

Combative even as he conceded Tuesday night, Sauerbrey running mate Richard D. Bennett accused the governor of running a racially divisive campaign that had polarized the state, saying: "Politicians who seek in a moment of panic to polarize and divide people ultimately hurt themselves."

In an interview yesterday, Bennett said he felt Glendening "crossed the line" with his final-weeks attacks on Sauerbrey's civil rights record.

"When a reporter flat-out asked if he was saying she was a racist, he said no comment. You might as well call someone a racist," Bennett said. "You make these allegations and then you not only polarize African-American voters, but what is the reaction you get elsewhere? What is the reaction in the more conservative areas of the state?"

Bennett acknowledged disappointment that he and Sauerbrey failed to persuade more African-American voters to back them, despite months of campaign visits to black churches and neighborhoods. "I deeply regret how poorly we did in the African-American community," he said. "I really don't think anyone can say that we didn't reach out to the African-American voters."

U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican now left as one of the party's main standard bearers, added: "It was divisive. I think there's a national trend, when politicians on the left find themselves in trouble, they have begun to implement a very effective strategy of race and class divisions, and it works. It worked yesterday in Maryland.

"You've seen it taken to new heights in Maryland," he said. "The emphasis, the divisions in race, really outraged some in the black community, but it worked. The class warfare worked, the classic -- it's the Republicans are for the rich, and Democrats are for the downtrodden."

But many Democratic leaders and others strongly disagreed the election promoted racial division. They argued the opposite: that the Glendening campaign had built a broad coalition from typical Democratic constituencies, including labor, environmentalists, abortion-rights activists and others.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said she believes there was "clearly less of a divide now than in the previous election."

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