Running mates say much about race, politics

December 16, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Four years ago, reaching into his party's vast emptiness, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. chose Michael S. Steele as his running mate. This was a good and honorable gesture because it sent a signal across Maryland's landscape: In a state with such a dubious political history (and a party with such a dreadful racial history) we finally announce that we value African-American voters, we embrace them as citizens, we respect them as serious political players. And never mind the naked expediency behind Ehrlich's choice.

Ehrlich chose a historic figure, Steele, as his gubernatorial running mate, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend chose The Unknown Sailor, a man so little recognized by voters that Townsend herself had trouble saying his name correctly. It was Charles R. Larson. He'd been superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. He'd been commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. He had a marvelous public record. Steele's public record, such as it was, was puny. But Steele was the right choice as running mate, and Larson the wrong one.

This is why it's so amusing this week, as Martin O'Malley names Del. Anthony G. Brown as his gubernatorial running mate, to hear the voices of intelligent people saying that nobody votes for running mates, and nobody cares about lieutenant governor, and it doesn't matter whom O'Malley or Ehrlich (or Doug Duncan) picks because people vote only for the top of the ticket.

I wonder if these people saw the same race for governor that the rest of us saw the last time around.

Four years ago, on the sunlit afternoon Townsend named Larson as her running mate, Democrats milled about outside the State House and shrugged their shoulders. They understood some of Townsend's thinking: In the nervous days after Sept. 11, Larson had a solid military background. With him around, Ehrlich wouldn't be so quick to toss that dreaded word "liberal" at her. In other words, she was ready to play defense to win an election. She was willing to compromise the public perception of her core beliefs.

If anybody around here was going to end the all-white history of statewide politics, it should have been Bobby Kennedy's daughter. Her message would have been clear: I am my father's child. The Republicans wish to embrace black people now, but my family has been there forever, and we are still there.

It's not that Ehrlich mobilized thousands of African-American voters when he selected Steele; they were smart enough to see the gesture for what it was. They knew that Maryland's Republican Party had (and still has) a very thin bench of political role players, owing to years of Election Day failure. They knew Ehrlich's choices were limited.

They also knew the party's national history on race, in which Republicans tried to block almost every significant piece of civil rights legislation. They knew Steele's minimal public history for what it was. And, on Election Day, they voted heavily Democratic, as usual.

It's not that Ehrlich-Steele mobilized them; it's that Townsend-Larson demobilized them. The Larson choice sent a chill through African-Americans (and other Democrats) who stayed home on Election Day. That's how they cast their votes. They thought they knew Townsend's record - until her choice was made, and Charles Larson stood next to Michael Steele, and something was wrong on the very face of it.

We are a multicultural society (no matter Ehrlich's public denigration of the term), and we are still coming to terms with it, still trying to make up for a history in which black people were systematically excluded from the mainstream political process.

So give Ehrlich credit for finally crossing the color barrier - even if his options were limited and even if Steele's record was negligible. The choice opened a door. It made multiculturalism feel more routine, feel natural. It brought us to Anthony Brown, named this week as O'Malley's running mate, whom we can look at not merely as a man of color but as a man who carries a record that can be examined.

Brown has been to political war across eight years in Annapolis, and real war across 10 months in Iraq. When he was introduced the other night, at the Museum of Industry on Key Highway, he didn't have to talk about race or his new place in its history. It's a given now. We can take note of it but focus on additional matters.

"My father," Brown told the museum gathering, "told me, `Son, you need to serve somebody before you can serve yourself. ... Only in America would the son of immigrants have this opportunity to serve.'"

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Brown talked about a college education being closed to so many who have watched state tuitions soar in the past three years. "This governor," he said, "has closed that door."

That's an issue that touches voters of all backgrounds. It transcends color. It says there is someone running for this No. 2 office in the state who wishes to discuss ideas. It might even say that such a man, and such a position, will count with voters on Election Day.

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