Cardin, Mfume meet in their final debate

Leading Democratic U.S. Senate candidates continue positive tenor into final weekend

Maryland Votes 2006

September 09, 2006|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

LANDOVER -- In their final debate as campaign rivals, U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume fielded questions yesterday ranging from gay marriage to genocide in Sudan, appearing cordial and energized as they head into the final weekend before Tuesday's Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

The two spoke at a forum held by the Collective Banking Group, a coalition of churches in the Prince George's County area.

Appearing before more than 50 mostly black pastors and religious leaders, Mfume seized on religious references, casting himself as the candidate who would give a voice to the forgotten.

"It is a David versus Goliath effort, but we have walked and marched and carried on through a great deal of faith for 18 months," said Mfume, a former Baltimore congressman, referring to his campaign.

Cardin used the forum to criticize the Bush administration, pushing his message for "change," and pointing out his votes against administration policies. "I'm running for the Senate because I want to change the direction of our nation," said Cardin, a 10-term congressman and former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.

Elected to Congress together in 1987, Cardin and Mfume are considered the leading Democrat contenders heading into Tuesday's primary. In all, 18 Democratic and 10 Republican candidates appear on the ballot, with Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele the probably GOP nominee. A Green Party candidate, Kevin Zeese, also is running.

After briefly answering a question about legislation defining marriage as between a man and a woman, Cardin appealed to the religious community to help steer the election debate away from divisive issues such as immigration, marriage and civil liberties.

As in most of their debates and candidate forums, Mfume and Cardin agreed on most major issues. Both called for universal health care, an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and energy independence. They agreed on the importance of the government working with faith-based organizations and said they were against mandatory sentencing in criminal cases.

Mfume, who headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for more than eight years after he left Congress, went further and said he is opposed to the death penalty and supports giving released prisoners the right to vote -- a contentious issue in Annapolis that is supported by several Baltimore-area lawmakers.

Both chastised the government for its response to the genocide in Sudan and to Hurricane Katrina.

Asked about federal legislation that would define marriage as an institution between a man and a woman, the two candidates gave answers that seemed designed to alienate as few voters as possible.

"I grew up believing in traditional marriage," said Cardin. "I also strongly oppose discrimination of any kind, whether it's based on race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. So my votes have reflected those views."

Mfume also said he believes in "traditional" marriage," and that "all discrimination is wrong," but went on to say that he is opposed to any constitutional amendment. "I'm against a constitutional amendment that would go in and change the Constitution," said Mfume. "I don't think government defines marriage. I think God does."

Continuing the positive tenor of their campaign, the two friends -- colleagues when they were in Congress -- complimented, rather than criticized, one another.

Mfume made brief reference to Cardin's acceptance of special interest campaign money and votes he disagreed with.

"We've tried to stay focused on issues and resist the temptation, the constant temptation, to tear each other down," said Mfume. "It's been awkward for both of us. ... We'll both say that honestly because we were friends before we got into this, and we will be friends when it's all over."

The religious leaders at the forum said they were impressed with both candidates.

"Good to hear you for the first time," said the Rev. James H. Lewis II of Laurel, a senior associate pastor at Dominion Church in Washington, to Cardin. "I was very impressed."

But minutes later Lewis said he was planning on voting for Mfume. Lewis said both candidates were equally qualified but that race could compel many black voters to support Mfume.

"If it wasn't for his black influence, I don't believe Mr. Mfume would be able to compete with Mr. Cardin," he said.

The Rev. Jonathan L. Weaver, president of the Collective Banking Group, said while both candidates have "wonderful credentials," race will linger in the thoughts of many black voters.

"There are going to be people in the African-American community who take that sentiment and say we have the opportunity to make history," said Weaver.

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