It's not about golf

July 07, 2005

WHAT WAS Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. thinking when he attended a fund-raiser last month at the Elkridge Club, which has never had an African-American member? It turns out that he hasn't been bothered a bit - by the club's history or by criticism that he ignored it.

Responses this week by Governor Ehrlich and by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele that the club's membership is not their concern are unacceptable. It's not enough for Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, to point fingers and complain that Democrats have also used the club. We don't defend those Democrats either. But Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Steele are the top two officers in the government of a richly diverse, progressive state. They are supposed to set the example.

Elkridge, Baltimore's oldest country club, has forfeited a state tax exemption for nearly 30 years rather than disclose its membership roster to demonstrate that it's not restrictive. But members and former officers have confirmed to The Sun that the club has never had a black member in its 127-year history. After Mr. Ehrlich's $1,000-a-head golf fund-raiser there on June 20, some African-American leaders raised strong objections.

When questioned on a radio show this week, Mr. Ehrlich said, "I don't know what their membership is, and guess what? It's not my business." He accused his critics of applying a double standard because prominent Democrats, including Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith, have held events there without coming under similar fire. Mr. Smith, who attended a fund-raiser at Elkridge in May that was hosted by one of his supporters, now says through a spokeswoman that he did not know about the club's membership, but that he won't have any future campaign events there.

That's what Mr. Ehrlich should have said. Instead, he appears to have callously disregarded a significant group of citizens. Even worse, however, was the reaction of Mr. Steele, who told the Associated Press, "I don't know much about the club, the membership, nor do I care, quite frankly, because I don't play golf." Excuse us, but this is not about golf. It's about a history of struggle against discrimination and lack of opportunity to which, quite frankly, the first African-American lieutenant governor of Maryland ought to be more attuned.

It may be just a matter of time, internal pressure and the external marketplace before private clubs that restrict members on the basis of race or gender will change their policies. But certainly public officials - regardless of party affiliation - shouldn't appear to endorse such exclusionary policies by patronizing those clubs.

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