Cookie story takes flight in battle for Senate seat

November 20, 2005|By C. FRASER SMITH

So, the 2006 campaign for Senate begins with cookies.

Instead of issues and records, cookies were hitting people in the head, rolling up against their shoes and filling the air like locusts.

What was this?

A political food fight? An urban myth? A campaign strategy? A racial insult?

I'm talking about the assertion by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that his lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, was pelted with Oreo cookies on his way into a gubernatorial debate three years ago at Morgan State University.

The point, we are told, was to humiliate Mr. Steele as white on the inside, insufficiently black to be a representative of black people.

No news media representative saw any of this. Morgan officials say they didn't see it. I was on the stage as one of the panelists that night. If it happened, I missed it.

If such a thing was done by opponents of the Ehrlich-Steele team, it was not smart. The event/myth recently was resurrected as a campaign weapon. The Democratic Party - and Democratic candidates -are asked to disavow it as if they engineered it. For this and other offenses, Democrats are accused of unleashing a racial attack on Mr. Steele.

Del. Peter Franchot of Takoma Park, who's challenging Comptroller William Donald Schaefer in the Democratic primary, calls it an Ehrlich invention. Others in his party find themselves a bit off balance, wishing to avoid offense.

Will the charge gain any traction?

It could, but I'm suspicious. It could be a marketing ploy by the cookie maker. Or, perhaps, it was staged by Republicans who were planning, even then, to run Mr. Steele for the U.S. Senate. They knew he had little background for such a candidacy so they wanted to replace questions about his resume with sympathy. I have no proof. Is proof necessary?

Here's what I actually think. Paul E. Schurick, Mr. Ehrlich's communications director, says he saw the Oreos. He's a decent human being, not given to falsehood. So, it could have happened. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, then the Democratic candidate for governor, would not have ordered or countenanced such a stunt.

College students? Have they ever shown bad judgment?

But, of course, none of this matters.

The Oreo story/fable stands now as a perfect political thrust because it can't be proved one way or the other. One is free to speculate about the perpetrators, to vilify them as racists and to demand apologies. How will they prove their innocence if, as I assume, they are innocent?

And, of course, one thing leads to another.

On the heels of Cookiegate, two black Baltimore legislators are accused of "racially tinged [verbal] attacks" on Mr. Steele.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden of Baltimore, commenting on Mr. Steele's prospects with black voters, told a Washington newspaper, "Party trumps race, especially on the national level. If you are bold enough to run, you have to take whatever the voters are going to give you. It's democracy, perhaps at its worse, but it's democracy."

Del. Salima Siler Marriott, also of Baltimore, said, according to the newspaper, "Because [Mr. Steele] is a conservative, he is different than most public blacks, and he is different than most people in our community. His politics are not in the best interest of the masses of black people."

Are these "racially tinged attacks"? I would argue they are not. But Democratic Party leaders have been asked to apologize - and then pilloried for declining. In such ways is negative momentum achieved.

The voters will decide how much of all this to believe and then which of the candidates they'd like to see in the U.S. Senate.

Given the history of this country, there is plenty of reason for black voters to consider a candidate based on his or her race. Black voters may wish to have their point of view expressed by a black legislator. There's every reason to believe also that the views will matter.

Race can't be removed from the political calculus, but it's not the only factor.

CORRECTION: I misspelled Kevin O'Keeffe's last name in last week's column. I regret the error.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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