Candidates quiet on issues of race

Both sides loath to tackle thorny topics

Maryland Votes 2006

September 10, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

With an unusually large number of African-American candidates vying for statewide office this year, voters, politicians and political observers are discussing how the topic of race will play out during the campaign season.

If former Rep. Kweisi Mfume wins Tuesday's Democratic primary, he will likely face GOP candidate Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, marking a first-ever matchup between black candidates for a Maryland Senate seat.

Some political observers hope that contest, coupled with the presence of black candidates Del. Anthony G. Brown (who is assured a spot on the Democratic ticket for lieutenant governor) and Stuart O. Simms (a Democrat vying for attorney general) will provide a rare opportunity for politicians to debate such issues as racial disparities in health care, public education and the criminal justice system.

But so far, political scientists say, that hasn't happened, even as primary season draws to a close and voters head to the polls in two days to select party nominees.

To win statewide, candidates must walk a tightrope, appealing to the sought-after black electorate but not so much that they risk alienating white voters, experts say.

"It's kind of a weird dance," said David Bositis, an authority on black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

"It's politics. If it were an open, honest debate where the candidates didn't care about being elected ... but that's not realistic. People to some degree are talking past each other."

Politicians are keenly aware that black voters are a force in Maryland. The state's African-American population is among the highest nationwide at 29 percent, while blacks make up nearly 40 percent of the registered Democrats, party leaders estimate.

But those numbers don't neatly translate into policy positions for statewide candidates.

The front-runners for U.S. Senate have focused on big-picture issues such as the war in Iraq, health care and education, while making only the occasional allusion to race.

Steele has made economic empowerment his mantra, saying today's civil rights struggle is not about blacks getting a seat at the lunch counter, but owning it. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is white and who will face Mfume in Tuesday's Democratic primary, has pressed traditional liberal issues that tend to resonate with black voters and called for an inquiry into the government's botched response to Hurricane Katrina. Meanwhile, Mfume has couched the lesson of Katrina in terms of poverty, not race.

State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, an African-American Democrat from Baltimore, who endorsed Mfume, said the presence of prominent black candidates from both parties offers a chance to delve into the thorny subject of race.

What could emerge, she said, is a debate on racial disparities that produces viable solutions. But she is waiting for such talk to start.

"We need to have this discussion on race, but the candidates feel the stakes are too high," she said. "They just don't want to start this dialogue. ... We have some basic community issues that we have not been able to address, to deal with them in a forum of a campaign - I don't think the candidates are brave enough to do it."

Gladden listed concerns she sees in black communities: a lack of minority contracting opportunities, the disappearance of solid jobs and the disproportionate number of blacks in the criminal justice system.

Still, she acknowledges, there is no one issue upon which a candidate can appeal to black voters.

"You can't just tap into the African-American community and say, `This is the answer to what our community needs,'" she said. "Good candidates are able to capture issues but not pigeonhole people."

Alvin Thornton, a professor of political science at Howard University, agreed. He argues against the existence of "black issues," saying that African-Americans are hardly a monolith. Blacks have grown more economically and socially diverse since the civil rights era, he said, which has made it tougher for candidates.

"The black voter is a very complex individual," said Thornton, a former chairman of the Prince George's County Board of Education who perhaps is best-known for his work on a blue-ribbon panel that resulted in a landmark law boosting funding to struggling school districts.

"There are issues that are problematic for the nation that have greater prominence among blacks," he said. "But there is no issue that blacks suffer from uniquely."

Doni Glover, publisher of Bmorenews.com, an African-American-oriented political news site, said politicians must embrace such issues as black business development, universal access to health care and developing services for ex-offenders to keep them from returning to prison.

"Half the people in jail across the country look like me, but we are only 15 percent of the population at large," he said. "Our leaders want to posture and act as though they don't care about the disenfranchised."

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