Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign found increasing support from African-Americans in Baltimore yesterday after the Republican gubernatorial candidate's decision last week to pick a black political official as his running mate.
The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of the 14,000-member Bethel AME Church, invited Ehrlich for a second visit yesterday so the congressman could introduce his running mate, Michael S. Steele, an African-American attorney and chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.
Although the invitation to return to the church was not an endorsement, Reid urged his congregation to vote for the candidate who will best serve Baltimore, regardless of party affiliation.
"For Baltimore, this election is extremely important, so we want to back out of the stereotypes" of political parties, Reid said as he introduced Ehrlich and Steele at his 9 a.m. service. "I'll be getting calls from people all over the city, asking me if I've lost my mind. But what else is new?"
Later in the day, Ehrlich and Steele responded to another invitation, this time to a crab feast at Martin's West with members of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity, which drew a crowd of more than 1,500 African-Americans. And some in the crowd received Ehrlich with open arms.
"I am going to vote for Mr. Ehrlich," said Sencerray Thomas, a 48-year-old Baltimore resident. "Personally, I don't think Kathleen Kennedy [Townsend] will make a good governor. Plus we'll have the first African-American lieutenant governor, which is a good thing."
While Ehrlich sees such support as signs of increasing momentum for his campaign, he still has a tough fight in winning over enough African-American voters to elect him to the State House. When asked yesterday whether they would vote for Ehrlich, some black Democratic voters said they would not cross party lines.
That's a problem Ehrlich has been working hard to overcome in this largely Democratic state, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one. In the past two Maryland gubernatorial elections, African-American voters overwhelmingly backed winning Democrat Parris N. Glendening.
But the Republican gubernatorial hopeful has been working feverishly to overcome a GOP voter registration deficit and the early strengths of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's candidacy - millions of dollars in her campaign treasury, strong support from the state's political establishment and the Democratic Party's strong hold on Maryland politics.
Ehrlich said he believes increasing numbers are listening to his message, as he and Steele work to convince people, minorities in particular, that the GOP is for all people. That message appears to have won a boost with last week's announcement of Steele as Ehrlich's running mate.
"Some folks responded to our campaign pre-Michael," Ehrlich said yesterday. "Some folks responded post-Michael. And some folks are dissatisfied with the Democratic Party's choice. Clearly there's momentum."
Support from residents in Bethel's Druid Hill neighborhood, in the heart of Baltimore, would strengthen Ehrlich's position. Ehrlich already received the endorsement of state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, who represents that community.
At Bethel yesterday, Reid told his congregation he intends to invite Townsend and Ehrlich back to the community after the primary election to discuss issues with the candidates. Townsend attended services at Bethel a week ago.
As the service was ending, Reid called Ehrlich and Steele to the front and laid his hands on them. "God said, `Pray for Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Steele,'" Reid said. "Prayer is not partisan."
But Michelle Shaw, a 36-year-old member of Bethel, said she was not persuaded to vote for Ehrlich.
"Everybody needs prayer," Shaw said. "That's all I can say. He needs prayer."
Shaw said she's a Democrat and will not vote Republican.
Doing the right things
Nathaniel Dowell, a 55-year- old Baltimore resident and church member, said Ehrlich is doing all the right things in his effort to reach African-American voters, but he said he believes convincing Baltimore's black Democrats is going to be tough.
"It's very smart on his part," Dowell said. "He should be able to touch all segments of the community.
"Do I think he's going to be able to move the members to vote for him?" Dowell asked. "That's on each member's part to decide."
Working the crowd at the crab feast, Ehrlich seemed to find many more strong supporters.
Chris Blake, a member of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity, said he invited Ehrlich and Steele to the feast to introduce them to "over 1,500 African-Americans."
Shaking hands and giving hugs, the Republican pair found a warm reception.
"I would consider voting for them, but it's really going to come down to the issues," said 44-year-old Baltimore resident Michael Graham, a registered Democrat. "The older I get, the more conservative I get. The Republican issues appeal to me."
Roy L. Caster, a Baltimore resident and president of Alpha Phi Omega, said his organization is not endorsing a candidate. But he thought yesterday's crab feast was a good opportunity for Ehrlich to meet people in the community and show that he is a viable candidate.
"Right now I'm not 100 percent sure that Kathleen is as strong a leader as we need at this point," Caster said. "Right now I'm leaning toward Bob."