The test of black power in Maryland

November 05, 2006|By Sherrilyn A. Ifill

From Ohio to Maryland to Pennsylvania, political handicappers and pundits are focused on the impact the black vote will have on the outcome of key national and statewide races. Here in Maryland, the race to watch is for the Senate, where African-American Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele faces longtime Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin for an open seat.

Will black voter turnout be high? Or will they "vote with their feet" and stay home, as a show of their disillusionment with the Democratic Party's failure to support the Senate candidacy of former congressman and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume in the primary? Will the kinds of voting-related problems that all but wrecked primary Election Day keep the black vote down in Baltimore? More important, will black voters, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, put race ahead of party (and, some would say, ahead of their own best political interests) by supporting the engaging but hard-to-pin-down Mr. Steele?

The significance of the black vote to the outcome of races in Maryland this week will also reflect the effectiveness of black political power in a state where nearly one-third of the voters are black. Given the state's sizable black electorate, the strategic deployment of that vote should produce real and identifiable returns, reflected not only in the presence of black representatives but also in improved living conditions for African-Americans, in education, economic development, jobs or health.

So, what will Election Day tell us about the state of black political power in Maryland?

Although we tend to focus on Election Day outcomes, political power is developed, nurtured and wielded most effectively in the years between elections. This is when political constituencies have the opportunity to cultivate future candidates, to raise money and, crucially, to develop and agree on a platform of issues and initiatives that reflect the community's interests.

The importance of this kind of organizing for state races is increasingly urgent for African-Americans as black political power at the national level has all but evaporated amid hardened and uncompromising partisanship, the Democratic Leadership Council's influence on the Democratic Party, the almost exclusive focus of both parties on the war on terror to the exclusion of domestic concerns, and the ever-increasing role of big money in political campaigns.

But the power of the African-American vote in Maryland has yet to be developed in a way that could make it a force to be reckoned with in statewide politics. Although there had been rumblings for years that Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes would retire, African-Americans seemed unprepared to provide the kind of material support Mr. Mfume's run would require. Until Douglas M. Duncan's untimely withdrawal from the governor's race several months before the primary, leaving his lieutenant governor pick, Stuart O. Simms, in the lurch, there was no black candidate for attorney general - although it had long been rumored that J. Joseph Curran Jr. would leave office this year, and the state is rife with qualified black lawyers who could have run.

We lament the failure of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to select a black running mate in 2002, but we haven't yet answered why the many highly qualified African-American candidates who could have challenged her chose not to. (Several of them, from Prince George's County, last week endorsed Mr. Steele.) A strong primary challenge from a black candidate would have compelled Ms. Townsend to directly confront the question of race. And why should we have settled for lieutenant governor, anyway, when there were and are so many experienced, well-prepared African-American leaders who could serve as governor?

Maybe that's what made Mr. Mfume's run for the Senate so exciting. He was willing to do it without the support of the Democratic machine, he ran as a real and unashamed liberal, and he still garnered 41 percent of the primary vote. Might Mr. Mfume have won if he'd been armed with a war chest raised by black voters and organizations over the past four years for the express purpose of supporting a potential black Senate candidate who was willing to advance a progressive political, economic and social agenda?

Rather than confront these tough questions, however, black voters diminish our power by heeding calls to offer our votes to Republican candidates in the hope that they'll treat us better than the Democrats, or at least to show the Democratic Party we can't be taken for granted. It's a gamble unlikely to pay off. Without grass-roots organization, a real platform of policies designed to awaken the sleeping giant of working-class and poor black voters as a political force, and a consistent fundraising apparatus, both parties will continue to take us for granted. Worse, we offer the gift of our vote to Republicans at precisely the moment in history when the national Republican Party is at the nadir of its moral and legal legitimacy.

Rather than assume that we must run from one party to the other, we should seriously consider and debate the idea of black voters as a sizable bloc of independents who can offer our support (grass-roots organization, votes, war chest) to any candidate willing to advance our platform. These are options we need to discuss and implement in the years before an election.

On Tuesday, African-American voters must select the best candidate in a number of key races that will help decide the future of our state and of this country. But on Wednesday, we have to begin the work of amassing real political power that can translate into dynamic, effective representation for African-Americans - and, indeed, for everyone in the state of Maryland.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a civil rights lawyer, voting rights expert and professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law.

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