Townsend must contend for black votes

July 20, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

DEMOCRATIC gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend went to the podium Thursday evening to deliver her campaign message to Baltimoreans. Her forehead showed no signs of the browbeating it took to get her to the candidates' forum in the War Memorial Plaza building.

For two weeks prior to the forum, the Townsend camp had hinted she might not attend. Previous engagement in Prince George's County, you understand. Then the message that many black voters aren't completely sold on Townsend must have sunk in with someone on her staff. The lieutenant governor decided that yes, indeedy, she might be able to make that forum after all.

Smart move. No member of the celebrated Kennedy clan is automatically entitled to the black vote. Not from blacks who know, anyway. It was 40 years ago that Townsend's father, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, were in the midst of the crisis in Oxford, Miss. James Meredith had been admitted by court order as the first black student at the University of Mississippi. Rioters attacked U.S. marshals sent to protect Meredith. Federal troops had to be sent in.

The brothers Kennedy distinguished themselves by ordering the resegregation of some units. Black soldiers were either left behind or assigned to garbage details. The Kennedys didn't want to do anything that would offend the rioters.

"How does it feel to have an uncle and father who resegregated America's armed forces?" was not one of the questions panelists bothered to ask. Perhaps it's just as well. That was her uncle's and father's doing, not hers. Still, some campaign photos show her with her father. So maybe she deserves a little, as opposed to a lot of, heat for it.

She peppered the throng with platitudes as she spoke glowingly of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and of her plan to provide low-cost prescriptions for senior citizens. The latter is sorely needed, but Townsend didn't provide details on where, with a record budget deficit, the money to pay for this would come from.

Overall, she did well, as did her opponent, Republican Rep. Robert Ehrlich, who wasn't even thrown for a loop when a panelist asked him what he would do about the "disproportionate" number of black students suspended from school and arrested for crimes.

For those of you who weren't aware that the governor regularly pokes his - or her - nose into matters like school suspensions, the question might have seemed downright odd. And the issue isn't as clearly one of racism as the questioner implied. A black principal at an integrated state high school told me several years ago that his greatest disciplinary problems did, indeed, come from black students. But some black parents have told me their children have gotten into fights with white students, and only the black kids ended up being suspended.

It sounded like a question you wouldn't want to touch with the proverbial 10-foot pole, but Ehrlich handled it with grace. He had come to deliver a message targeted at Baltimore's African-American voters.

"This is a campaign that African-Americans should at least take a look at," Ehrlich told the assemblage.

One of those taking a look was Mike Scott, a young black man sporting a "Democrats for Ehrlich" T-shirt.

"I checked [both candidates] out, and I like his idea of bringing slot machines to the racetracks," Scott said. "I think that will bring in revenue and jobs." Scott added that there would be more money for drug treatment and job training. In the best-case scenario, taxes might also be lowered.

Joseph Bacote is a bit older than Scott. The 57-year-old "Democrat for Ehrlich" is a 1963 graduate of City College.

"I'm really tired of the Democratic Party taking our vote for granted," Bacote said. "Townsend hasn't made any commitments."

Bacote said Ehrlich has other pluses. He's a native Marylander. As a Republican governor, he could get much more from President Bush's administration than Townsend could. In the area of education, he favors Ehrlich over Townsend.

"I taught in the system," Bacote continued. "I saw how the system deteriorated because they lowered standards. When [the late TLC Beatrice executive] Reginald Lewis graduated from Dunbar [in the early 1960s], he went on to an Ivy League [graduate] school. He could handle the work because the standards were higher then."

Bacote has a son in Catholic school. Could he use the vouchers Ehrlich supports?

"I intend to," the Democrat for Ehrlich said with a smile.

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