Ehrlich shows up, bearing his and GOP's racial history

July 21, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON SOME THINGS, Robert Ehrlich is dead on the money.

He's on the money when he acknowledges that "my party" has not paid much attention to African-American voters for the last, oh, 40 years. And he's on the money when he says the Democratic Party instinctively takes black voters for granted. And he's on the money when he said, three nights ago at the NAACP gathering at the War Memorial, "This is a campaign that African-Americans should at least take a look at."

But he should hope they don't look too closely.

Ehrlich looked pretty good the other night. Following Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to the podium, smiling confidently at the big crowd that had walked in from the steamy downtown streets to fill every seat and all standing room in the big hall, Ehrlich had the swagger of a schoolyard jock who's been told that the little girl standing nearby thinks she can hit the ball as far as he can.

FOR THE RECORD - A column in Sunday's editions of The Sun incorrectly referred to Michael S. Steele as Maryland's first African-American candidate for lieutenant governor. In fact, two other African-American men - Dr. Aris T. Allen, a Republican, and former U. S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, a Democrat - have run for lieutenant governor. Allen ran in 1978 on a ticket with former U.S. Sen. J. Glenn Beall Jr., and Mitchell ran for lieutenant governor in 1986 with Stephen H. Sachs. The Sun regrets the error.

He knows that she can't; girls can't do that stuff, can they? But he's also aware that, on this night, he's playing on the little girl's home field.

"We're going to go places that Republicans have been afraid to go," Ehrlich said.

He did this merely by showing up for a gathering of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and he's done it by appearing on black radio stations, and he's done it by choosing Michael Steele as the first African-American to run for lieutenant governor.

All of those things are terrifically healthy, and all contribute to a political debate in Maryland that involves more than just Democrats talking patronizingly to black voters and Republicans pretending blacks do not exist, and the long-standing situation in which we have had -- since the days when Spiro Agnew was misperceived as a moderate -- essentially a one-party system in this state.

And this leads us to Townsend's problem.

She walked out there Thursday evening like a stranger. She was apologetic over a scheduling conflict that originally blocked her from appearing before the NAACP, and she spoke so earnestly that nobody would have known the truth of the matter: She was at home.

For 40 years, she and her family have championed every civil rights measure, every bid for equal opportunity, every gesture for economic fairness, that has come down the political highway. A lot of times, they did this in the face of overt Republican hostility dating back to years when both she and Ehrlich were still schoolkids.

She should have walked into the War Memorial last week like she owned the joint. She should have said: "You know me. We're old friends." Instead, she opened by muttering, "I had a previous commitment. I have to leave early."

The "previous commitment" was a fund-raiser she'd scheduled three months ago for Gloria Lawlah, an African-American state senator in Prince George's County. Members of the NAACP said they were miffed that Townsend would brush them off, no matter what her excuse. On the television news programs, dire comparisons were made for days between Townsend taking the NAACP for granted, and Ehrlich graciously showing that he cared.

But this is where Ehrlich has to do more than show up. He also has to defend a history -- his own, as well as his party's.

The NAACP issues legislative report cards on all members of Congress. It is a fact that, in the eight years Ehrlich served in Washington, his score was always lowest, or second-lowest, among all Maryland representatives. It never exceeded 30 percent. In the last session, Connie Morella scored a 61. Wayne Gilchrest, 33. Roscoe Bartlett, 28.

Ehrlich scored 22 percent.

For the record, Elijah Cummings scored 94 percent, and Ben Cardin, Albert Wynn and Steny Hoyer each had 89 percent. Agree with 'em or not, those numbers indicate why the Democrats have long felt confident of black voters, and the Republicans have looked elsewhere.

Does that mean blacks should automatically vote for Townsend? Of course not. There are issues that touch us beyond the racial divide. We're facing a huge state budget deficit, and Townsend was there when money was tossed around as if there were no tomorrow. And now she's standing against slot machine money, which could be a savior. There's a juvenile justice system in chaos, and it's been Townsend's baby. She says juvenile crime's down 28 percent; Ehrlich says somebody's been cooking the books.

These things matter. But in the matter of the American racial divide, we now have Ehrlich attempting to go where few Republicans have bothered to go. That's a healthy thing. But he has a history, and his party has a history. And beyond extending a hand, Ehrlich now has to explain why he would actually make a difference on race.

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