Black support for Townsend erodes, poll finds

As Ehrlich reaches out, some leaders complain she takes vote for granted

The Maryland Poll

July 28, 2002|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Maryland's African-Americans were supposed to be the very bedrock of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's base, but her support in this staunchly Democratic voting bloc is showing surprising signs of erosion.

Since he entered the governor's race March 25, Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has mounted an aggressive effort to reach out to African-American voters - a constituency GOP nominees have been unable to connect with for three decades.

According to a Sun poll taken this month, Ehrlich might be succeeding. Over the past six months, Townsend's support in the poll has slipped significantly while Ehrlich has gained. More disturbing for Townsend, black political leaders are openly warning that their votes should not be taken for granted.

The Townsend campaign has "to quickly get back to basics," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, a Bethesda-based firm that conducted a poll for The Sun. "The one surprising goal that Ehrlich has been able to accomplish is the perception that he wants the African-American vote more - whatever it takes."

The poll shows that Townsend's support dropped from a high of 90 percent among African-Americans in January to 77 percent this month. Ehrlich gained 11 points to go to 13 percent African-American support during the same period.

The July 17-19 statewide survey of 1,200 registered likely voters was conducted by telephone and has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points. The margin of error increases for subgroups of the total sample, such as those used for specific ethnic groups.

While Townsend still holds a commanding lead among black voters, Democrats worry that 80 percent might not be enough to overcome the likely GOP nominee's expected strength among white suburban and rural voters.

Political observers say that if Ehrlich can get at least 20 percent, or 1 of 5 black voters, he has a shot at winning.

African-Americans - who make up 28 percent of the state's population - are expected to play a critical role in this year's election as they did in 1994 and 1998, when they helped secure Gov. Parris N. Glendening's victories over Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

In those races, 90 percent of African-Americans voted for Glendening.

But Haller and others said part of the problem for Townsend appears to be that some African-Americans do not feel motivated to vote for her because of questions about what she intends to do for minorities.

Some African-American political leaders have complained that Townsend is taking black voters for granted because of the civil rights legacy of the Kennedy family.

Indeed, Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a Baltimore Democrat who has been at odds with the Glendening-Townsend administration, endorsed Ehrlich over Townsend. Del. Tony E. Fulton, another Baltimore Democrat, has lavishly praised the Republican candidate - without a formal endorsement.

Most other African-American state officials have endorsed Townsend even as some openly criticized her for failing to articulate specific plans for meeting minorities' needs. Some also wanted Townsend to pick an African-American running mate, such as Montgomery County Councilman Isiah Leggett, and were disappointed when she chose retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, who is white.

Ehrlich countered by naming state Republican Party Chairman Michael S. Steele, an African-American, as his running mate.

Among Townsend's critics are legislators from the Washington suburbs, who plan to meet with her tomorrow to discuss their concerns.

Rep. Albert R. Wynn, an African-American who represents Prince George's and Montgomery counties, said he and three black state senators intend to urge Townsend to hire high-level minority consultants for her campaign.

Wynn said the black leaders will also call on Townsend to outline a detailed policy agenda that includes opportunities for African-American and Hispanic business development in the state, strong financial support for Maryland's historically black colleges and universities, appointments of minorities to high administration positions and increased drug treatment money.

"We can turn this around," Wynn said. "We can correct this. But you need the right catalyst."

"The issue is what policies and programs are going to be in place to benefit minority communities," he said.

Townsend has said she supports virtually all of the programs Wynn is calling for.

Part of the dispute with Townsend appears to be little more than political wrangling. Most of the state's black officials said they do not want to see Ehrlich win the State House because they fear he will not support their agenda.

"You have Mr. Ehrlich getting an F on the NAACP's report card," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore. "On the National Education Association report card he got an F. He didn't get a C. He got an F.

"The lieutenant governor's philosophy is closer to an A than an F. We've got to make sure an A candidate is elected."

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