Ehrlich criticized for choice of golf club as fund-raiser site

Black leaders say Elkridge promotes racial exclusion

July 02, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Just three years ago, Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., a noted cardiac surgeon and associate dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, cited Baltimore's oldest country club as an example of racial exclusion and the progress African-Americans still need to make.

"I have had a professorship at Vanderbilt named after me, but I still can't become a member at the Elkridge Club in Baltimore," Watkins, who is black, told a publication at his Tennessee alma mater. "We have not healed completely."

Still, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. held a golf fund-raiser last week at the North Charles Street country club - a decision that is sparking criticism from some prominent African-American leaders, including Watkins.

Several Elkridge members and former officers confirmed that the club has had no African-American members in its 127-year history. None would speak for the record. Club members said there is no written race-based prohibition, and that blacks and other minorities have played golf and dined there. Memberships are extended based on social and family connections, they said.

Ehrlich, who raised $100,000 at the event, refused to address the club's membership in an interview this week and questioned the validity of the inquiry.

"I'm not going to answer this question," Ehrlich said. A reporter working on the story should "get his facts straight before coming to us," the governor said, calling the question "hypothetical."

Told later that the club's membership composition had been confirmed, Ehrlich's office did not respond.

"It is inappropriate for government employees to comment on political fund-raisers," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor.

An avid golfer, Ehrlich did not play on the course, which straddles the Baltimore city-county line on Charles Street. But he posed for photographs with supporters who paid $1,000 apiece for the daylong event.

Maryland African-American leaders expressed shock at the club's roster.

"Amazing. I could seek candidacy in the Senate of the United States, but cannot seek membership in this club," said Kweisi Mfume, former president of the NAACP and a Democratic candidate for Senate.

The club's composition "is so archaic that it begs the question `why?'" Mfume said. "If the decision is never to explain why, but to continue to exist, it speaks volumes not about how far we have come in our society, but how far we still have to go."

Others criticized Ehrlich directly for holding an event at an exclusionary venue.

"I don't think that the governor should play at a club that his own lieutenant governor could not be a member of," said Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat who heads the Baltimore County Office of Fair Practices and Community Affairs and who is speaker pro tem of the House of Delegates.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's office would not respond to a question about the event.

"The people criticizing Governor Ehrlich are the same people who were silent when Lieutenant Governor Steele was called an Uncle Tom, an African-American poster boy, calling him a token candidate, and The Sun's editorial board remarking that he has nothing to offer other than the color of his skin," said Audra Miller, a Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman.

As a candidate and as governor, Ehrlich has tried to reach out to African-Americans and other minorities with a stated goal of making the state Republican Party more inclusive in a state that is 28 percent black.

In addition to Steele, four of the 22 other members of the governor's executive Cabinet are black. He has revised the state's minority business laws to improve effectiveness.

But race has nonetheless been a delicate issue for Ehrlich. He drew the ire of minority groups last year when he dismissed the concept of multiculturalism as "crap" and "bunk," and during the 2004 Republican National Convention when he accused Democrats of racism for what he said were rote appeals for black votes.

During a Board of Public Works meeting this year, he echoed Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's sentiment that the state's minority business program should end at some point - drawing a stinging rebuke from the General Assembly's black members.

Watkins said he stands by his 2002 comments and said he does not know of any black members of the club.

"I'm not surprised the governor would do that," he said in a recent interview, speaking of the fund-raiser. "He thinks multiculturalism is crap."

Formed in 1878 as the Elkridge Fox Hunting Club, the club is considered one of the city's most blue-blood establishments, and its racial history has been in the news before.

In 1985, former U.S. Attorney J. Frederick Motz resigned his membership to avoid facing questions about the Elkridge Club's membership policies after he was nominated to be a federal judge by President Ronald Reagan.

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