Attempting to create distance between their candidacies, Kweisi Mfume criticized rival Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Benjamin L. Cardin last night for voting for the USA Patriot Act, not supporting a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq and taking special interest money, while Cardin insisted that his long record of service and his ability to get laws passed in Washington make him an effective leader.
During their final live television debate before the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, each of the two leading contenders pitched himself as the best person to run against Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the presumptive Republican nominee. Friends since they entered Congress together in 1987, Cardin, a 10-term congressman, and Mfume, the former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, bashed President Bush far more than they criticized each other.
They stressed the need for change in Washington.
"We'll both be a vote, but I think people want a vote and a voice, and that's where I think I'm a little different," said Mfume, who represented Baltimore in Congress for a decade. "I'm an unabashed advocate. I've been that way all my life. I fight for what I believe in. ... I don't wait for the momentum to start. I try to create the momentum."
Cardin emphasized his bipartisan experience. "I have brought about change in Washington," he said during the hour-long forum broadcast on Maryland Public Television and WBAL-TV. "I've changed our health care system. I have taken on the drug companies. I have taken on the insurance companies. I've taken on the oil companies. I've brought about change in the pension laws in America. Legislation that I have offered is now the law of the land."
For the first time, Mfume publicly criticized several of the congressman's views and votes. Mfume said he would not have voted for the USA Patriot Act, a contentious measure that expands police powers in an effort to track down terrorists.
He said that he - unlike Cardin - favors a timetable for the drawdown of troops in Iraq.
Mfume attempted to paint Cardin as a Washington insider and chastised him for taking campaign donations from special interests. He called for spending caps and publicly funded campaigns. "I want to serve one master when I go to the Senate," Mfume said. "That master is the people of this state."
Cardin responded by mentioning his vote for the campaign finance reform package sponsored by Arizona Sen. John McCain and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold.
"There's too much campaign money in politics today, and people who are in public life spend too much time trying to raise money," he said.
Without mentioning Cardin by name, Mfume also sought to draw a distinction between the styles of the two longtime politicians, pitching himself as more dynamic and insinuating that after Cardin's 20 years in Congress he has "Potomac fever."
"I think you've got to have passion in politics; otherwise you're just wasting your time," Mfume said.
Cardin said he is not sure why he has a reputation as a staid lawmaker; his two granddaughters, he said, think he's the "funniest person in the world."
The candidates - vying to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes - at times tried to outdo each other in their critiques of the president. Cardin, who voted against the 2002 resolution allowing the president to use force in Iraq, called the conflict a "civil war" and said 10,000 American troops should return each month.
"I think the president is just wrong in trying to cast those of us who disagree with him as somehow not interested in the security of America or not patriotic," said Cardin, 62.
Mfume, 57, said the federal government has not only botched the war but has neglected to care for the soldiers who have served in Iraq. He compared the war to Vietnam and said reservists have been assigned too many tours of duty.
Mfume also said the money spent on the war - about $310 billion - could have been used to keep Americans safe at home. "We've got to use those funds to fight terrorism to do real homeland security," he said.
Both chided the Bush administration for secretly wiretapping Americans. Cardin said the country has "paid a heavy price" for the administration's use of subpoenas. He said he believes the president has violated the law.
"I've called for an investigation of the president because I believe he's abused the powers of his office," he said.
Mfume said all branches of government must be notified and a court must approve such sweeping intelligence efforts. "Otherwise we move toward a monarchy, a dictatorship," he said. "That's what McCarthyism was all about."
A year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Cardin also called for an investigation into the federal government's slow response. "We have yet to rebuild the levees to the protection that they should be built to," he said.
Mfume said Katrina reflects a broader problem that must be addressed: poverty.