Backlash starts over remark calling Democrats `racist'

Rhetoric could hurt efforts to win minority support in '06, some observers say

Gove. Robert L Ehrlich Jr.

Election 2004 -- The Republican Convention

September 01, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The argument Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made at the Republican National Convention this week that blacks shouldn't be knee-jerk Democrats is one he has voiced dozens of times in trying to broaden his support.

The difference was one word, but a big one: "racist."

Political observers say such rhetoric hinders his efforts to win minority support heading into what is expected to be a closely contested re-election battle in 2006.

"It's a slipshod use of the term without actually defining what it is he's talking about," said Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist. "The governor really has to be more careful about that."

Speaking to Maryland's convention delegation, Ehrlich said, "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."

He added: "That's racist."

Blacks make up 28 percent of Maryland's population, and their support has been pivotal in Democrats' success or failure in the past three gubernatorial elections.

In his 2002 campaign for governor, Ehrlich worked hard to court black voters. Even though he had an F rating from the NAACP during his years in Congress, the gubernatorial candidate talked frequently about race, signed a pledge to pursue issues important to blacks in Maryland and promised to "go where no Republican has gone before" and to operate outside his "comfort zone" in working with people unlike him.

The most visible sign of his effort was his choice of Michael S. Steele, an African-American who was then chairman of the state Republican Party, as his lieutenant governor.

When black leaders grumbled about Democratic candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's choice of a white Republican as her running mate, Ehrlich pounced, intensifying his campaign in the black Democratic stronghold of Prince George's County, visiting black churches and stumping in black neighborhoods in Baltimore.

On Election Day, posters with full-size pictures of Steele, not Ehrlich, popped up on street corners in Baltimore, where Democrats needed a landslide.

Polling data suggest Ehrlich didn't persuade many African-Americans to vote for him, said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research of Bethesda. But black turnout was low, he said. Whether that was because African-Americans liked Ehrlich or disliked Townsend, the result was to hand the Republicans a victory.

Given that history and polls showing that African-Americans are dissatisfied with the national GOP, Ehrlich's statements are "politically inexplicable" and "completely unnecessary," Haller said.

"Why enter this battle when feelings are so hostile? You ride low, you stay out of this one," Haller said. "It's not the time nor place to be trying to connect the dots when [African-Americans] aren't even marginally sympathetic to what Republicans are saying."

A backlash has already begun, with black political leaders in Maryland accusing Ehrlich of being condescending and disingenuous.

"What he's saying is, `We as black people can't reason and think and decide what's good for us unless somebody's telling us what to do,'" said Del. Obie Patterson, a Prince George's County Democrat and former chairman of the Black Legislative Caucus. "We're intelligent. We're educated. We know how to think, and we know how to vote."

It was the second time in recent months that Ehrlich has offended minority leaders.

In May, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer began a Board of Public Works meeting with a diatribe about the limited English skills of a fast-food restaurant worker. A few days later, Ehrlich defended Schaefer on talk radio. "Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, that some folks are teaching in our college campuses and other places, you run into a problem," Ehrlich said.

The governor refused to retract or clarify his remarks, and for a time, immigrant community leaders held protests and heckled him on his way to and from events.

His comments Monday came after Steele, preparing for a prime-time speaking role at the convention, was criticized on a national black radio talk-show for being an African-American Republican. Ehrlich said Steele's speaking role was important to refute the "racist" notion that blacks must belong to the Democratic Party.

Ehrlich aides failed to return calls yesterday seeking comment for this article.

Ultimately, whether black voters accept or reject Ehrlich's argument depends not on his rhetoric but on whether he delivers results, said Del. Tony E. Fulton, an African-American Democrat from Baltimore who has been supportive of the governor in the past.

Fulton said he doesn't think blacks have gotten much from 30 years of loyalty to the Democrats.

"We have to take control and make people treat us well through leveraging," Fulton said. "As long as we don't work with both parties, we're in trouble."

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