Debate crowd cheers on political `Smackdown'

Some of candidates' supporters behave as if watching TV game show

September 27, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

It seemed fitting that NAACP President Kweisi Mfume adopted a boxing promoter's cadence in introducing last night's gubernatorial debate at Morgan State University.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Mfume began before the television cameras started rolling. "You know, in Las Vegas they say, `Go to your respective corners.' But we're not going to do that."

But he might as well have.

This was the election-time equivalent of pro wrestling's Smackdown. It was held in a cavernous college auditorium in which the crowd became part of the story by behaving as if it were watching a TV game show.

The NAACP, which sponsored the debate, said it did what it could to keep things in check.

The organization warned the audience during the debate against loud shows of enthusiasm. Earlier, it cautioned against displaying campaign signs.

Some partisans approaching the metal detectors at the main doors were asked to remove campaign T-shirts bearing the names of the combatants - Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Richard W. Fairbanks, first vice chairman of the Baltimore City Republican Party, arrived inside the hall wearing a white "Ehrlich" T-shirt turned inside out. He said he was forced to do it after he was told at the door that his shirt violated the rules.

"I sure wouldn't wear it like this on my own," he said grumpily. "I think this is ridiculous."

But once inside, Fairbanks eventually turned the shirt around - and with good reason. Scores of Townsend's supporters - and a lesser number of Ehrlich backers - had not only brought in T-shirts but also campaign signs that they waved frantically at the stage.

"I was very disappointed with the audience," said Ken Broda-Bahm, professor of communication studies at Towson University. "The hooting and hollering really lent to a negative atmosphere."

Cheers and boos

The boosters in the crowd cheered wildly when their candidates arrived on stage. Earlier, there was a smattering of boos when Ehrlich's wife, Kendel, and his parents, Nancy and Robert Ehrlich Sr., were escorted to their front-row seats. At several points, Townsend's supporters chanted "KKT" to rhythmic applause.

But in a goodwill gesture, Townsend's daughters - Kate, 18, and Kerry, 10 - walked across their row before the debate began to shake hands with Ehrlich's family.

Each campaign enlisted people to attend the debate - trying to make their candidate look like the winner on the basis of applause.

Anthony Faulkner, 42, of East Baltimore said he and a group of neighbors were brought to the debate by the Ehrlich campaign. Faulkner, wearing a "Democrats for Ehrlich" T-shirt, said he didn't support the candidate but came because he was compensated.

"I did it for the money," said Faulkner, adding that the Ehrlich campaign paid him and his neighbors an unspecified amount of money to attend the debate. "They went door to door."

Faulkner left with about 20 others who were wearing Ehrlich shirts. Others in the group denied being paid and declined to comment further.

Paul Schurick, a spokesman for Ehrlich, denied that the campaign paid anyone to attend the debate.

"No one was paid to be here," Schurick said. "It's ridiculous. It's insulting. He's lying, outright lying. Nobody paid him."

Late details

While negotiations for a possible debate began weeks ago, many of the details fell into place late.

Among the uncertainties were whether the candidates would show brief biographical videos (they didn't) and whether the candidates for lieutenant governor would open the debate by delivering remarks of their own (they did).

The audience continued its partisan ways after the preliminaries, and when some hooted at Ehrlich as he tried to speak, Townsend approached the microphone and urged them to behave. "It's not the right way to do it," she said.

Mfume followed her to the microphone, saying: "We have to be dignified in our approach no matter where we stand on the issues. We really need to refrain from our applause."

Townsend's backers seemed noisier and more plentiful, prompting Ehrlich's running mate, Michael S. Steele, to say afterward: "This was definitely an away game. We were not the home team."

Each candidate was given 300 tickets, which they allocated to supporters, dignitaries, volunteers and others. Those guests sat downstairs along with people invited by the NAACP and by the university.

The debate was also open to the public, most of whom were seated in the balcony. The auditorium, which has a seating capacity of 2,200, was more than two-thirds full.

On the other side of the building, Morgan State musicians playing piano, horns, drums and other instruments rehearsed in practice rooms as if it were just another night.

Sun staff writers Ivan Penn, Tim Craig, David Nitkin and Sarah Koenig contributed to this article.

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