LARGO -- Republican Senate candidate Michael S. Steele won the endorsements yesterday of several black Democratic Prince George's County leaders - critical voices in the state's second-most-populous community - who declared their frustrations with the party and said their loyalties have been taken for granted for too long.
"The party acts as though when they want our opinion they'll give it to us," said former two-term Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, a Democrat who endorsed Steele at the Infusions Tea Cafe. "It's not going to be like that anymore."
In the homestretch of the campaign, the event focused attention on the impact black voters could have on the Nov. 7 contest between Steele, the state's highest-ranking African-American official, and Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 10-term congressman from Baltimore County who is white.
Cardin and the Democratic Party have been attempting in recent weeks to highlight Steele's position on issues that his opponents believe are out of touch with a majority of Marylanders. Steele is opposed to current forms of embryonic stem cell research and abortion in most cases, and believes the Bush administration was right in going to war in Iraq.
Still, race remains an important component of the contest.
Of the five Democrats running for statewide office Nov. 7, all but one - lieutenant governor nominee Anthony G. Brown - are white men.
While campaigning across the state, Steele has sought to play up that dynamic. He often mentions his ties to national black figures - from boxing promoter Don King, to fighter Mike Tyson to media mogul Russell Simmons - to attract African-American voters, who traditionally ally with Democrats.
With registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans nearly 2-to-1, Steele must peel away Democratic voters to win.
"If I got every Republican vote, I'd still lose, so you have to build a bridge," Steele said yesterday, standing behind his now trademark blue campaign signs that read "Steele Democrat."
James G. Gimpel, a University of Maryland, College Park government professor, said Steele trails Cardin in recent polls because he has not made his case to enough black voters. Blacks make up 29 percent of the state's population but are registered and vote in lower percentages than white voters.
"I think that one of the reasons why he's still behind in the polls is because he hasn't quite convinced enough African-Americans to set aside their party stripes, their party leanings, in favor of racial identification with a black candidate," Gimpel said. "I think this is an effort in the eleventh hour to get African-American voters to reconsider their party loyalties. I think that he sees he hasn't quite met his goal, met his target yet with African-Americans in this state."
Curry, a lawyer who was prevented by term limits from running for re-election in 2002, is close to Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and was considered as a possible running mate when Steele decided to run for Senate. Curry was joined yesterday by five black members of the Prince George's County Council and Major F. Riddick Jr., former chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Some of the politicians said they would support their party's nominees for other statewide offices, but not Senate.
Riddick said the Democrats whiffed in 2002 when former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend selected retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, a white Republican who switched parties, as her running mate. Resentment in the black community remains, Riddick said, and was only fueled by the party's nominees this year.
"They show us the pie, but we never get a slice," Riddick said. "What we are here today to tell [Democratic leaders] is that we waited and we waited, and we're waiting no longer."
But not everyone who turned out for Steele's event believes he would best represent the interests of black voters. Glen Hodges of Largo drove his green Ford pickup truck through the parking lot outside the cafe. A sign on the side read: "Reject Maryland's Clarence Thomas for Senator."
"Michael Steele and the Republican Party are a disgrace," said Hodges, a 65-year-old transit system retiree, who cited the administration's Iraq policy as one reason for his dissatisfaction.
Maryland Democrats said Steele is trying to lure African-American voters into casting ballots for a candidate who was recruited by President Bush's top officials.
State Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman said that his party has sent minorities to the State Senate and House of Delegates and is represented at the county executive level and on the party's board. The 58 Republicans in the 188-member General Assembly are white.
"The bottom line is that when all the communities, all the ethnic communities throughout Maryland, understand the issues of who supports education and health care, who opposes the war, they're going to vote Democratic, period," Lierman said.
Cardin received the endorsement in Baltimore yesterday of the president of the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare.
And indicating that he is unwilling to cede black voters to his rival, Cardin is scheduled to appear at Bowie State University in Prince George's County on Thursday with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Obama, a rising national star, will make his second visit to Maryland for the Senate hopeful.
Ehrlich -- 11:45 a.m., receive endorsement of BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport Firefighters' Union.
O'Malley -- 8 a.m., attend breakfast rally with minority business owners at the BWI Sheraton Four Points Hotel; 11 a.m., receive endorsement from environmental groups and Rep. Chris Van Hollen at Montgomery County Council building.
Steele -- Public schedule not disclosed.
Cardin -- 11:30 a.m., tour Prince George's County Hospital Center, 3001 Hospital Drive, Cheverly.