NEW YORK - Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called the Democratic Party "racist" in its appeal to blacks yesterday and was seconded by his African-American lieutenant governor, whom the Republicans are showcasing today in a prime-time speech at their national convention.
"I saw a message coming out of the Democratic Convention: If you happen to have black skin, you have to believe one way. You have to. Or you are a traitor to your race," Ehrlich said in remarks to the Maryland state delegation at its hotel.
"That's the message we've seen from a number of conventions. That's why it's important that this lieutenant governor speak to this country. That's racist."
Ehrlich was joined by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who will address the convention tonight in a prominent speaking role that some hope will position him as the GOP answer to Barack Obama, the black Illinois Senate candidate who electrified the Democratic convention with his keynote speech.
Speaking to reporters later, Ehrlich reiterated his comments. Steele said he agreed with the sentiment:
"Absolutely. You are putting people in a box, and you are saying you can only believe or think or feel a certain way because of the color of your skin."
"I did a national talk show this morning, and the first question out of the box, on an African-American station, was `How can you be a Republican?'" Steele said. "'How can you be a Democrat?' is my response. Justify your existence. I don't have to justify mine."
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, both declined to comment on Ehrlich's remarks. Black Democrats in Maryland denounced the governor's comments, saying he distorted their views.
"What he has said and the way he has said is tantamount to race-baiting," said Isiah Leggett, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. "He is saying that African-Americans, as opposed to other groups, are not intelligent enough and are so unsophisticated that they vote with the Democratic Party because they are too stupid to do otherwise."
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said black Democrats don't level the kind of criticism at Republicans that Ehrlich is referring to.
"I never heard anybody say that about Steele. I never heard anybody say that about Colin Powell. I never heard anybody say that about Condoleezza Rice," Cummings said. "I'm around black folks all the time, and I've never heard those kinds of comments."
Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County called Ehrlich's comments a "gross distortion of the Democratic message."
"We say look at the record, look at the facts," said Wynn. "The party that has resisted affirmative action has been the Republican Party. The party that has opposed a lot of the social programs that support African-Americans has been the Republican Party."
The GOP is making a high-profile effort this year to reverse decades-long voting patterns among blacks and Hispanics. But Ehrlich's remarks went further than Republicans normally go in questioning the appeal of the Democratic Party to minorities. Steele's speaking role tonight will highlight that effort.
The comments illustrate the growing frustration of Steele and Ehrlich over questions about the lieutenant governor's heightened prominence and rare status as a conservative black Republican elected official.
Steele and Ehrlich still talk about how supporters of former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend tossed Oreo cookies at Steele during the lone gubernatorial debate in 2002, a symbolic slur that suggested because he was a Republican, he was white on the inside and black on the outside.
Republican officials carefully avoided using the same language as Ehrlich in describing the relationship between blacks and Democrats yesterday but said they welcomed a re-examination of party ties.
"All families should ask whether or not the party they've supported is best for them," said Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt, who declined to comment on whether the Democratic Party was racist. "We would appeal to African-American voters based on the values and issues they care about. Democrats have tended to take a different approach."
The president has gone so far as to suggest that Democrats take African-American votes for granted, but he never came close to charging that the opposition party was racist.
A White House spokeswoman, Claire Buchan, noted that Bush spoke to the Urban League in Detroit last month and encouraged members of the mostly African-American organization to consider his agenda and vision.
"He challenged them to look beyond a single party and to ask questions," Buchan said yesterday. Asked whether the president endorsed Ehrlich's view that the Democrats are "racist" in their approach, the spokeswoman said, "Look back at the president's speech."
In that address, Bush said, "I know plenty of politicians assume they have your vote. But did they earn it, and do they deserve it?"