Black voters are courted at forum

Their support is seen as crucial in state's gubernatorial election

August 27, 2002|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Making an appeal to one of Baltimore's largest and most influential African-American congregations, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the leading Republican gubernatorial candidate, pledged last night to ensure that all Marylanders have a chance to succeed regardless of race or background.

Ehrlich and his running mate, Michael S. Steele, an African-American and chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, received lukewarm applause from the dozens gathered for the candidates forum at the New Psalmist Baptist Church in West Baltimore as he worked to connect with the crowd.

"I knew Michael was black the first time I met him," Ehrlich said in his opening remarks, as he often states. A hush came over the crowd, and Ehrlich quickly explained that he had looked beyond Steele's race and had seen a man who has been willing to help bring about change in Maryland, which has been led by Democrats who are "stale and arrogant and corrupt."

"Michael and I are products of opportunity," Ehrlich said. "We are not about guaranteed results. That is not what America's about. It's about opportunity."

This crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Democrat, giving applause and cheers for Ehrlich's leading opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, as she criticized Ehrlich and vowed a stronger commitment to all people than she said the Republican congressman has demonstrated during his career.

"I'm running against somebody who has an `F' rating from the NAACP," said Townsend, as she often does during forums and speeches on the campaign trail. "I have a record of service in this community."

Last night's forum was held two weeks before the primary election Sept. 10. Townsend and Ehrlich are expected to win their parties' nominations in the primary. They would then compete in the general election in November to succeed Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Recent polls have shown the two running neck-and-neck, with Townsend holding a slight edge. Support from African-Americans, who constitute about 28 percent of the state's population, will be critical.

African-Americans strongly support Townsend because of her family's history of support for civil rights and the efforts made by the Glendening-Townsend administration to increase opportunities for blacks in the state.

Throughout the campaign, Ehrlich has tried to woo African-American voters to the Republican side by choosing a black running mate in Steele and pledging to make the Republican Party more appealing to all people.

At last night's forum, which included other statewide and local candidates, Ehrlich and Townsend promised support for some of the same programs.

Both candidates said faith-based programs would continue and expand under their administrations.

Asked about their two top priorities, Ehrlich said education and resolving the drug problem.

Townsend also said education is one of her two leading priorities, along with health care. She said she wants to ensure that prescription drugs are available for all Maryland seniors. "My opponent says it was unwise and unaffordable," Townsend said. "I think in the state of Maryland it is both wise and affordable."

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