Exchange highlights campaign's racial tension

National GOP leader calls on Democratic Party to condemn `vicious' attacks on Steele


Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman used a national television program yesterday to call on his Democratic counterpart and top elected Democrats across the country to repudiate what he called "vicious and racist attacks" on Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a candidate for U.S. Senate.

"There's been an utter silence in response to what have been vicious and racist attacks on Michael Steele in Maryland," Mehlman said yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press.

Speaking later on the broadcast, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean expressed doubt that all of the slights had occurred. But if they had, he said, they were wrong.

The exchange illustrates the attention on Steele as the campaign to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes unfolds and the sensitive racial politics represented by Steele's candidacy. National Republicans view Steele's campaign as an opportunity for the party to diversify its appeal. He is one of only a few black Republicans to hold statewide office.

In the campaign's early stages, Democrats are struggling to criticize Steele's conservative political views while avoiding being labeled as racists.

Mehlman, a Pikesville native who encouraged Steele to run for higher office, talked about Steele and the Maryland race when asked by Meet the Press host Tim Russert whether he had any questions for Dean, the next guest.

Mehlman grouped together several incidents as evidence of "racist and bigoted activity" by Democrats against Steele, who is the first black statewide elected official in Maryland history, and said that Dean should respond to them. The episodes included a 2002 comment made by Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and a doctored image portraying Steele in minstrel makeup on a liberal blog written by an African-American writer from New York City. The blog has no party affiliation.

"He's now running for the United States Senate, yet the Democratic Senate president called this man an Uncle Tom because he doesn't agree with him on issues. He's had racial epithets thrown at him. He's been derided on a Web site that the Democrats have. And while some Democrats in Maryland have criticized it, there's been utter silence from national Democrats on this important issue," Mehlman said. "I would hope, on this morning's program, that Chairman Dean would condemn this kind of racist and bigoted activity. It's wrong."

Appearing shortly after Mehlman, Dean said he was skeptical that Steele has been subjected to the full litany of racist attacks. But if the incidents were true, he said, they were "not right."

"I don't like that stuff," Dean said. "Now, look, the Republicans have a long history of saying that those things happened. And they may or may not have. So, if that happened, it's not right."

One alleged racially tinged incident aimed at Steele has recently become the subject of dispute. Some Democrats are questioning whether audience members at a 2002 gubernatorial debate at Morgan State University - attended by Steele as an audience member and running mate of Ehrlich - passed out Oreo cookies and either displayed, rolled or tossed them at Steele. The cookies - black on the exterior and white on the interior - are sometimes considered a slur against African-Americans accused of identifying themselves too closely with whites.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on a radio show Saturday angrily decried "revisionism" about the cookie incident. But several debate attendees interviewed by The Sun last week, including the facilities manager who helped clean the auditorium after the event, said they never saw any cookies and said the air was not "thick ... like locusts" with cookies as Ehrlich spokesman Paul S. Schurick described it. Mehlman did not specifically refer to Oreos yesterday.

The Senate campaign has been tainted by other incidents. Earlier this year, two Democratic senatorial committee staffers resigned after acknowledging that they used Steele's Social Security number, obtained in court records, to get a copy of his credit report. Steele, who had financial difficulties as the owner of a consulting business before being selected by Ehrlich as a running mate, has been infuriated by the incident.

"I would also hope [Dean] would condemn the following: There are a whole bunch of Democratic candidates and Republican candidates around the country. But Charles Schumer and the Democratic Campaign Committee chose one candidate, to go after his credit report and engage in identity theft against him," Mehlman said.

Dean said the identity theft - which is being investigated by federal authorities in Washington - was wrong. The workers "should have been" dismissed, Dean said. "Absolutely, they should have been. I don't like that kind of stuff."

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