Score one for Bob

July 21, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

AT BALTIMORE'S War Memorial auditorium Thursday evening, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. came away the clear winner on the applause and energy meters.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend performed well enough.

But in a predominantly African-American - and Democratic - audience, scorekeepers were keen to measure the audience's response.

It was no contest.

When Ms. Townsend left the stage, supporters in the first 15 rows or so of the huge, flag-draped hall gave her a standing ovation. The rest of the room, the vast majority, stayed seated.

And when Mr. Ehrlich came on with his more energetic and impassioned appeals, the response was boisterous and loud. Ms. Townsend's measured remarks - perfectly acceptable without the contrasting Ehrlich energy - left her performance seeming flat.

That observation wouldn't be worth much, but Ms. Townsend, the Democrat, should have been the clear winner. African-Americans in Baltimore and Maryland haven't voted Republican in decades. Democrats have an 8-1 voter registration edge over the GOP in Baltimore, where about 65 percent of the population is black. Republicans have seldom bothered to court the black vote.

This year, however, the GOP candidate is spending his Sundays in black churches, courting ministers and trying to line up support among black political leaders. State Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV endorses him, and others have said they're considering it. Mr. Mitchell's support has been of dubious value because of a reprimand he received from the legislative ethics panel for failing to disclose a $10,000 loan from the bail bond industry.

Mr. Mitchell's campaigners were on the street in front of the hall wearing orange T-shirts that read: "Continuing a Tradition of Excellence."

Mr. Ehrlich's more general appeal for black support continued inside the building with a projection of what he calls his "opportunity ticket." It seemed to resonate. He may have profited also from unhappiness with Ms. Townsend's initial decision to skip the NAACP forum.

After her departure, he urged his audience to see that his selection of a black running mate, Michael S. Steele, shows the emptiness of Democratic words. Ms. Townsend chose retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, who is white.

Mr. Ehrlich called her choice, in effect, an empty promise.

"We are not about platitudes," he said. "We are about a new political culture in this state."

Loud shouts of support and applause interrupted his presentation several times. It's possible, of course, that this crowd was heavily larded with chosen partisans. If that's the case, then the Ehrlich side did the best job of organizing - subtly underscoring another of his major themes: Democrats take the African-American vote for granted.

The Republican was careful, though, to say that it's not Democrats he's running against, not the Democratic Party. He's running against leaders who've grown complacent and arrogant - even his alliance with Mr. Mitchell dilutes that concern.

Well he might make that distinction in a state where Republicans can't win without Democratic support.

The GOP candidate seemed to score well on the question of inclusivity, though Ms. Townsend and Gov. Parris N. Glendening are credited with making record appointments of blacks, Hispanics and women to government positions. The lieutenant governor observed that minority businesses have benefited from set-asides in state contracts, which rose from 14 to 25 percent in the last eight years.

"Goals are wonderful. But if the capital isn't there, goals mean nothing," Mr. Ehrlich said.

Both candidates were frothy and unspecific when it came to explaining how they would pay for their promises. Ms. Townsend rejects slot machines as a revenue source; Mr. Ehrlich wants them. He said he is tired of seeing Marylanders vote with their automobiles, driving to Delaware and West Virginia to pump $400 million or so into the education programs or roads of those states.

But slots are probably two years away - if they're ever approved. Short of that money, neither candidate said how the state's gaping budget hole can be filled. And yet both are backing expensive new initiatives: more drug treatment and expanded medical insurance coverage, for example.

Mr. Ehrlich began his presentation by saying, "What if a real debate broke out?"

What, indeed.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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