Ehrlich bristles at Oreo skeptics

Account of Steele pelted by cookies in '02 under scrutiny


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he is angry at "revisionism" from political opponents who question a much-repeated story about Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele being pelted with Oreos during a 2002 campaign debate in Baltimore.

Versions of the story have been repeated over the years by Ehrlich, Steele and their supporters in describing what they call a pattern of racial slights against the black Republican, and accounts of the event have spread widely.

Speaking on Stateline with the Governor on WBAL-AM yesterday, Ehrlich said he would not tolerate questions about the veracity of the incident.

"This revisionism is real dangerous. And to the extent anyone is out there now saying, `Well, no, those Oreo cookies really weren't thrown at Mike Steele, that's now an urban legend, whatever, made up by the Republicans,' I mean these people have got to get real," Ehrlich said.

Paul Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said last week that he saw people passing out packages of the cookies outside Morgan State University's fine arts center before the debate and that when Steele entered the auditorium about 15 minutes before the start, people let fly with the cookies.

"It was raining Oreos," Schurick said. "They were thick in the air like locusts. I was there. It was very real. It wasn't subtle."

As for those who question the story, Ehrlich said yesterday: "They're not going to be able now to reinvent something that a lot of people saw. Just go ask people who were there."

Several debate attendees, however, could not corroborate Ehrlich and Schurick's version of events.

"It didn't happen here," said Vander Harris, operations manager of the Murphy Fine Arts Building at Morgan State. "I was in on the cleanup, and we found no cookies or anything else abnormal. There were no Oreo cookies thrown."

The incident is said to have occurred when Steele walked to his seat before the debate started, not during the event on stage when it would have been captured on video. Newspaper articles and television news reports from that night didn't mention it, and representatives of the news departments at television stations WBAL, WJZ and WMAR and Maryland Public Television said they have no video of the incident.

News reports of the event, which was sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, extensively described the raucous and sometimes rude behavior of the crowd - especially by supporters of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic nominee for governor. At one point, Kweisi Mfume, who was then head of the NAACP, interrupted the proceedings to implore the crowd to calm down.

The first reference to the Oreo incident came five days later in an article in The Sun in which Schurick, then a spokesman for the Ehrlich campaign, said Townsend supporters distributed the cookies in the audience. He also said the crowd booed Ehrlich's family - a detail that was reported on debate night - and scratched the paint on Ehrlich supporters' cars with their keys.

Clint Coleman, a spokesman for Morgan State who was at the event, said he saw lots of unseemly behavior but no Oreos.

"There were a lot of things, disturbances, by this group of outsiders who were bent on disrupting the debate," Coleman said. "But I never actually saw Oreo cookies being thrown at him."

As for "raining Oreos," Coleman said, "I can tell you that did not happen."

Neil Duke, who moderated the event for the NAACP, said last week that he didn't see any cookies.

"Were there some goofballs sitting in [the] right-hand corner section tossing cookies amongst themselves and acting like sophomores, as the legend has it?" Duke said. "I have no reason to doubt those sources; I just didn't see it."

Wayne Frazier, president of the Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors Association said he watched Steele walk into the auditorium that night but saw no Oreos.

"I was there the whole time and did not see any of the so-called Oreo cookie incident," Frazier said. "It could have happened and I didn't see it, but I was in the auditorium from start to finish."

Steele was quoted in two articles that appeared in the next day's newspaper talking about the pro-Townsend crowd and what he called race-baiting by her campaign, but he said nothing about cookies.

Three weeks later, Washington Post writer George F. Will wrote in his column that "some in the audience had distributed Oreo cookies." That day, while campaigning at a Jewish day school in Pikesville, Ehrlich told the audience that Townsend supporters threw the cookies at Steele.

Just before the election, the London Daily Telegraph said that Steele "was bombarded with Oreo cookies" during the debate. Most reports that month, however, referred to cookies being "passed around."

After the election, Steele told a writer for the Capital News Service that an Oreo rolled to his feet during the debate.

"Maybe it was just someone having their snack, but it was there," Steele told the news service. "If it happened, shame on them if they are that immature and that threatened by me."

Most of the accounts in the past few weeks have described Steele being "pelted" by Oreos. Ehrlich said on WBAL radio that his father was hit in the head by one of the cookies. Schurick also said Ehrlich's father was hit. Schurick would not make Robert L. Ehrlich Sr. available for an interview yesterday.

Steele campaign spokesman Leonardo Alcivar said last week that the cookies "were clearly thrown at the lieutenant governor." He said Steele would not respond to questions about the event.

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