Ehrlich courts minority vote in gubernatorial campaign

Outreach to Latinos, blacks a bid to appeal to Democrat-tending groups

May 20, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Fulfilling a pledge to leave no vote uncontested, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took his campaign for governor to Maryland's Cuban community yesterday, delivering the keynote address at a ceremony honoring 19th-century revolutionary and martyr Jose Marti.

"We have brains, we have brawn, we have devotion and we have commitment," said Ehrlich, summarizing the life of Marti, a poet and intellectual who published a newspaper advocating Cuban independence from Spain and who died in battle in 1895.

Ehrlich, a Republican, was embraced by a crowd of 50 inside Baltimore's City Hall. The reaction was not surprising: Cuban-Americans generally are stalwart Republicans, with many harboring ill-feelings toward Democrats that stem from the Kennedy administration's Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961.

But the congressman and his supporters think Ehrlich can extend his appeal beyond minority groups that are inclined to vote Republican, and can win supporters among those who typically vote Democratic.

"First of all, you show up," Ehrlich said in an interview after the speech. "Republican candidates haven't done that much. Once you show up and meet people and get engaged, you're in the game. Once you're in the game, then it's issues."

Ehrlich said he has strong support among small-business groups, noting that many minorities and recent immigrants often look to get ahead through entrepreneurship. He said his backing of faith-based initiatives and family-oriented policies also would be appealing.

Gilberto de Jesus, a lawyer and former secretary of the state Juvenile Justice Department who spoke at yesterday's ceremony, said Maryland's Latino vote is up for grabs.

"We don't have a sense of being wedded to one political group or another," said de Jesus, who is of Puerto Rican descent. "Both political parities are beginning to recognize that they need to reach out and address our issues."

But Ehrlich faces a challenge as he tries to create a big GOP tent in Maryland.

"He's very new," said Jorge Giro, a Towson University Spanish professor. "He has to go out to the community. I don't think Hispanics know him."

The congressman is trying to change that, as events such as yesterday's demonstrated. Last week, he attended the rededication of Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Hyattsville, where Principal Adela Acosta includes information in Spanish and English on the school's Web page. Ehrlich also has been visible in the African-American community in Baltimore, appearing on radio shows and before community groups.

One of his campaign staffers concentrates on community outreach.

Those efforts could have an effect on Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in her bid for governor. Some Townsend supporters argue that the Democratic lieutenant governor should choose an African-American running mate, in part to counteract Ehrlich's push to win black votes -- which could be a swing group in the election.

Townsend staffers, too, say that they are campaigning heavily for minority votes.

"We have had organizations in these communities for months, sometimes years," said Michael Morrill, a Townsend campaign spokesman.

If Ehrlich is luring votes that might otherwise go to Townsend, the lieutenant governor is doing the same. She has had several campaign appearances in Ehrlich's 2nd District, including Friday, when she spent much of the day in eastern Baltimore County.

Yesterday, Townsend headed for the heart of Ehrlich's base, campaigning at an arts festival in Arbutus, the congressman's hometown. For the first time in the nascent campaign, the two candidates crossed paths, drawing a gaggle of onlookers.

"Everybody wanted to see what would happen," Morrill said. The candidates shook hands, exchanged greetings, and moved on.

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