GOP tries to Swift-boat Maryland Democrats on civil rights

October 15, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

Does anyone really think Republicans have a better modern record on civil rights than Democrats?

The question arises in light of the suggestion that black voters in Maryland should abandon the Democratic Party, whose leaders endorsed the 1960s civil rights legislation at the risk of the party's historic dominance in the politics of the South - and the nation.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, he predicted that the previously "solid" Southern Democrats would seek refuge in the GOP. He was right.

Republicans now assert - with the help of some black political figures - that Maryland Democrats must be punished for conspiring to keep talented black office-seekers on the sidelines. The charge doesn't hold water. It's reminiscent of the "Swift-boating" of presidential candidate John Kerry or the suggestion that triple-amputee Vietnam vet Max Cleland, former senator from Georgia, was unpatriotic.

To be sure, Democrats aided and abetted those who would rewrite history. Their 2002 candidate for governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, chose as her running mate a white former Republican who didn't vote for Bill Clinton - bypassing worthy black candidates.

That choice made Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s selection of Michael S. Steele, who is black, look not only progressive and but inspired.

Mr. Ehrlich had first courted state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, but she said no. Mr. Steele, the governor's second choice, became a kind of human wedge issue more potent than the governor may have imagined.

It's almost certainly true that black voters were taken for granted by Democratic leaders such as Ms. Townsend, who reportedly made her choice without consulting party leaders. The underlying theory was that black voters would not defect to Republicans. Better as a political calculation to choose someone who might attract a segment of voters not otherwise likely to support a Democrat.

This history regains saliency after a 2006 Democratic primary in which strong black candidates were defeated by strong white candidates. Former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who had been out of politics for 10 years, came back to run for U.S. Senate. He ran well but lost to Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who has stayed in public service for 40 years, earning respect in the black and white communities.

Similarly, former Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms lost his primary matchup with Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler. Mr. Simms, who is black, had all but disappeared from public view until he surfaced to run for lieutenant governor with Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. When Mr. Duncan dropped out of the Democratic primary race, Mr. Simms changed course to run for attorney general. He had no campaign money and only a few months to mount a campaign. Mr. Gansler had been running for years.

But neither Mr. Cardin nor Mr. Gansler was anointed by party pooh-bahs. Mr. Gansler was opposed by many Maryland Democratic leaders. And some Democrats wanted Mr. Cardin to stay in the House, where he might have become chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Neither of these men was hand-picked by the Democratic Party, which has not had a boss-like gatekeeper in decades. These are days in which, for better or worse, candidates anoint themselves.

Talent and commitment are the barometers, much more than race or the wisdom of the political machines. Skilled black legislators have occupied some of the most important posts in the General Assembly. The late Del. Howard P. Rawlings was chairman of the Appropriations Committee. In the state Senate, another black leader, Prince George's County Sen. Ulysses Currie, is chairman of the budget and tax committee, where he helps decide how to distribute government money.

It is worth observing that there is not a single black Republican in the General Assembly. It would be better if there were, but their absence in the GOP is not the fault of Democrats - save for the belief that more opportunity was available on the Democratic side.

Black candidates for public office would be more plentiful in both parties were it not for a deplorable history of discrimination in this society. More blacks would have thought they had a chance to succeed and would have taken the risks that public life sometimes demands. The nation will be some decades in clearing those hurdles.

But it's important to remember that when the barricades began to come down in the 1950s and 1960s, Democrats led the charge.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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