Ehrlich reaches out to blacks with fund-raiser at nightclub

Effort to woo Democrats gaining ground, some say

August 22, 2002|By Tim Craig and Sarah Koenig | Tim Craig and Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

In an effort to broaden his appeal in the black community, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. staged a fund-raiser and rally last night at a downtown Baltimore nightclub in an attempt to win over traditionally Democratic voters.

He even sang "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" as several hundred people, most of them African-American, ate Swedish meatballs and chicken wings at the $100-a-ticket event.

Ehrlich, the expected Republican nominee, and his running mate, Michael S. Steele, the Maryland GOP chairman, told the crowd at Hammerjack's they intend to fight for black voters as they take on likely Democratic nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

"Bob Ehrlich and Michael Steele want to work hard for you," said Steele, who is black. "It's about each one of you having a seat at the table."

From the crowd's reception, it appeared that at least some black voters - most of them lifelong Democrats - are responding to the Republican ticket's message.

"The Democratic candidate has demonstrated to me she is insensitive to the minority community that she is supposed to represent," said Chet Howard, 60, a contractor from Prince George's County. "I further suspect she is incompetent even if she wasn't insensitive."

Many others said they were attending because they received a free ticket from Ehrlich supporters and have not decided who will get their vote. One guest didn't even know Ehrlich was a Republican.

Still, some well-known Democrats said Townsend needs to take Ehrlich's efforts in the black community seriously.

"The question is what has Townsend done for the African-American community. ... Being a Kennedy is just not going to cut it," said Baltimore lawyer A. Dwight Pettit, who later took to the stage to praise Ehrlich. "Maybe it is time to send a message to the Democratic Party."

The money raised last night will go to a campaign committee called "Democrats for Ehrlich."

State Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a Baltimore Democrat who endorsed Ehrlich, said he is the driving force behind Democrats for Ehrlich. And it appears that Mitchell, who is locked in a tight District 44 race against Del. Verna L. Jones, may be benefiting from some of the money the committee raises.

Mitchell and the Democrats for Ehrlich committee house their campaign headquarters in the same office in Mount Vernon. Campaign finance reports filed this month show that Democrats for Ehrlich paid $7,700 for the space, while Mitchell's campaign spent just less than $2,000 for the same office.

Some Democrats have criticized the committee's connection to Mitchell, saying it proves there is not a groundswell of Democratic support for Ehrlich.

"It appears Bob Ehrlich is doing what Republicans do best, flashing the checkbook to pay for the false appearance of diversity," said David Paulson, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver acknowledged that Ehrlich is helping Mitchell, but said Paulson is trying to distract voters because he is worried that blacks voters may be defecting.

Ehrlich has said he must win over Democrats if he is to be elected; in Maryland, Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-to-1.

"This is a campaign to bring people together who never thought about coming together before," Ehrlich said last night.

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