Parties compete for black voters

Ticket diversity may be key to election

September 06, 2006|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

Maryland's black voters are an increasingly sought-after voting bloc this year, with Democrats and Republicans hoping that the party nominees who emerge next week are attractive to that 20 percent of the state's general electorate.

While Democrats have held a traditional advantage, gone are the days when they could take African-American voters for granted.

State Democrats could face an unexpected challenge after voters cast their primary ballots Tuesday - the victory of an all-white, all-male ticket, save for the lieutenant governor candidate - that would leave them struggling to shore up their base in the final two months of the campaign.

The Republican Party is likely to emerge with an uncharacteristically diverse slate, expected to include a black U.S. Senate nominee, and a potential edge in courting African-American voters.

If the most recent polls are accurate, here's how the Democratic slate could look: Benjamin L. Cardin for U.S. Senate, William Donald Schaefer for comptroller, Douglas F. Gansler for attorney general and Martin O'Malley for governor.

Each on his own is a formidable contender. But some black leaders fear that, if nominated, together they could spell trouble for a state Democratic Party looking to retake the governor's mansion and hold on to the Senate seat held for three decades by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

"Our work will be cut out for us," said Isiah Leggett, a former state party chairman and current candidate for Montgomery County executive, who is black. "We will have to make that case. It will be a challenging case to make."

The party's African-American leaders - and many voters - are still smarting from former Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's decision in 2002 to run with a white male Republican who switched parties right before joining the ticket instead of with an African-American leader. Her opponent, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., chose former state GOP chairman Michael S. Steele, who is black, as his running mate.

This year, O'Malley has selected Prince George's County Del. Anthony G. Brown, a black, Harvard-educated lawyer, as his running mate.

Though Brown is not at the top of the ticket, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the House minority leader, said he should not be overlooked by the party faithful. Hoyer said yesterday it is significant that O'Malley and state party leaders filled the one slot available to them - and not the voters - with an African-American politician.

"You are treating Anthony Brown as a potted plant," Hoyer said to reporters after a District Heights endorsement event for Cardin's Senate bid. "It's not an all-white ticket. That's the point."

But Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson said a slate featuring Cardin, O'Malley, Schaefer and Gansler could turn off black voters.

Crenson said that Republicans, especially Steele, would get a second look from black voters if the Democrats' black candidates - former NAACP chief and current Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume, and attorney general hopeful Stuart O. Simms - are rejected.

"It could mean a serious blow to the Democratic Party at a time when the Democratic Party should be riding high in Maryland," Crenson said, referring to President Bush's poor job-approval ratings and the Democrats' 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration.

African-Americans make up about 29 percent of Maryland's population, according to census statistics. Nearly 30 percent of primary voters are black. Traditionally, African-Americans make up about 20 percent of the state's general election voters, according to Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a public opinion research firm in Bethesda.

Signaling their concerns, Maryland Democratic Party officials commissioned a statewide poll of African-Americans this year to determine whether they would be open to Steele's candidacy. The answer: an emphatic "yes." About 44 percent of respondents said they would - a faction the pollster dubbed "the emerging black swing" vote.

"It is a scenario for disaster," Haller said of an all-white Democratic slate, "because you create the double whammy, which is you're likely to see a serious drop-off in African-American turnout and motivation, and on the other hand it gives Steele a wedge from which to pick up a record number of black votes going into the general election."

And Brown alone, Crenson said, might not keep black voters voting for Democrats.

"He may not be a potted plant, but neither is Stuart Simms or Kweisi Mfume, and they are out there running," Crenson said. "Although Anthony Brown counts for something, if the party rejects all the black candidates who are running, that's going to send a message to African-Americans."

Del. Rudolph C. Cane, an Eastern Shore Democrat and former head of the General Assembly's Legislative Black Caucus, said he hopes the party's ticket is more diverse. He is supporting Mfume and Simms, who have trailed their rivals in fundraising and in the polls.

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