Townsend will try to attend forum

Black officials' remarks highlight strained ties

Election 2002

July 13, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

As of Thursday evening, the Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for Governor campaign thought it unlikely the candidate would make it to an NAACP forum in Baltimore next week because of a conflict in Prince George's County.

As of last night, it suddenly seemed likely she would.

Usually, there isn't such hot interest in the lieutenant governor's public schedule. But negotiations regarding her appearance -- or nonappearance -- at this event reached mini-crisis proportions yesterday, underscoring her somewhat strained relationship with some prominent African-Americans.

Yesterday evening, the word from Michael Morrill, Townsend's campaign spokesman, was: "There are a lot of people trying to work this out. We want to go. We are going to try to make it work."

Some black leaders think that would be a very wise move, especially considering recent developments in her campaign.

"It's important," said Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat who has endorsed her candidacy. "She should have a very good excuse for not being there."

Del. Tony E. Fulton, another Baltimore Democrat who has not said whether he'll back Townsend or Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., her likely Republican challenger, agreed.

"If you don't have time to come talk to us about civil rights issues and civil liberties issues, are you really concerned, or are you taking us for granted?" he said. "To not come to an NAACP forum begs the question: Do you really care?"

Fulton is among those who have been questioning her choice of running mate: Charles R. Larson, a white, retired admiral who changed his voter registration from Republican to Democrat to run with Townsend. This week, four black Prince George's politicians, including Rep. Albert R. Wynn and state Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, canceled a campaign photo session with Townsend.

Branch said he has heard complaints that Townsend did not consult any African-Americans before picking Larson. "I personally was only hoping that it would be someone more of the Democratic Party," he said of her choice.

Others, such as Del. Salima S. Marriott of Baltimore, whose Campaign for Justice Under the Law is serving as co-host of the forum, are upset that Townsend has not been more responsive to policy concerns of many African-Americans.

"What we are expressing is: `We are loyal to this party, and you take us for granted. We're not just going to take the best of two evils. We're not going to work against you, but we're not going to enthusiastically embrace you. You're on your own,' " she said.

Meanwhile, Ehrlich has been openly wooing black voters and declaring some success in that effort. He chose an African-American running-mate, Michael S. Steele, a lawyer and chairman of the state Republican Party.

Ehrlich's campaign partly created the confusion over next week's forum by issuing a news release about his participation in the event -- and Townsend's, even though she never confirmed her appearance with organizers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The problem is that Townsend evidently agreed three months ago to be the featured guest at a fund-raiser Thursday in Prince George's County for Lawlah, an African-American lawmaker representing a predominantly African-American district. It starts at 5 p.m., the same time as the forum.

The NAACP event is sponsored by 69 state and community organizations representing blacks, Koreans, gays, women, lawyers, police, Latinos, Boy Scouts and Republicans, among others. The candidates will answer questions from a panel, said the event organizer, Neil E. Duke, NAACP vice president.

"I guess I would say: Can any candidate really afford to miss an event that has this wide-reaching importance to the community?" Duke said. "It's just not an NAACP event."

Ehrlich's campaign promptly got out word that she might not attend as evidence that Townsend fears debating him.

Morrill said that was nonsense and noted Ehrlich's failure to show up at two candidate events Thursday. One was at the Baltimore County/City Commission on Aging, and the second was at the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. Townsend attended both.

Townsend has said she will debate after the September primary election. Both candidates have primary opponents, but they are relatively unknown.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and Townsend supporter, said yesterday he was convinced Townsend would work out a way to attend both events Thursday.

After all, he added, the 2002 NAACP congressional scorecard rated Ehrlich an "F" for his votes on bills important to the organization. His 22 percent score was the lowest in the Maryland delegation.

"She needs to be there," he said. "She needs to be right there making it clear that she's an `A' candidate."

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