Ehrlich urges black voters to look his way

Gubernatorial candidate asks NAACP audience to reject Democratic Party

Townsend focuses on her record

Lt. governor notes crime by juveniles down 23%

July 19, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Standing on stage last night at an NAACP candidate forum, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made a bold plea to the hundreds of African-American voters in the audience to reject the Democrats, while Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend focused on the highlights of her eight-year record.

"This is a group that thinks they can take the African- American vote for granted!" Ehrlich shouted of Maryland's majority party.

"We're going to go places that Republicans have been afraid to go," he continued, noting his attention to issues such as drug treatment. "This is a campaign that African-Americans should at least take a look at."

The speech brought huge cheers from the Ehrlich camp inside the War Memorial building, which was transformed for an evening into a political battleground.

Ehrlich clearly was trying to exploit recent grumbling from some prominent black politicians who said they were miffed that Townsend has not been more responsive to concerns of black voters.

Ehrlich's remarks were preceded by those of Townsend, who gave a quieter, more restrained performance than her GOP opponent, and at times fumbled over her words - but whose supporters inside the auditorium appeared to outnumber Ehrlich's.

Also speaking at the event was Ross Z. Pierpont, a Republican running for governor, followed by a freewheeling exchange among three candidates vying to be the city state's attorney.

Townsend's message centered on the catchphrase of her campaign, "indispensable destiny."

"I believe that God put us here for a reason, and that each of us has a purpose," she said, while promising to fund education, increase minority business opportunities and help the elderly pay for prescription drugs.

Several of the questions asked by the panel concerned Maryland's juvenile justice system, which Townsend oversees as lieutenant governor.

In perhaps the toughest question of the evening, a panelist asked her "what went wrong" with juvenile justice boot camps where youths were physically abused, and what she would do to improve the system.

Townsend said only, "I believe very strongly that we should be held accountable." She noted a 23 percent reduction in juvenile crime in the past eight years, adding that the state has shut down Victor Cullen and Cheltenham - large, antiquated youth jails - and is focusing on smaller, "community-based efforts."

But Ehrlich charged that the crime reduction was a faulty statistic because it did not count juveniles who violated their probation for nonviolent crimes. His proof, he said, is "internal memos" he will make public.

Afterward, Ehrlich said his campaign intends to send Townsend a letter today challenging her to set dates for nine debates.

While some voters said they doubted Ehrlich could deliver on his promises, others were impressed.

"If they ever have [a debate], Kathleen will have to step up. [Ehrlich] is pretty strong. He's very persuasive," said Allegra Bennett, 55, a Baltimore author. "I'm still not sure who I'm going to support. I know I'm going to give him a chance."

Sun staff writers David Nitkin and Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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