Another who bucked party on race

Maryland Votes 2006 -- A Special Section

November 08, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Who was the first Afro-American to run for the U.S. Senate in a Maryland general election?

The most obvious answer would seem to be Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who went from substantially trailing Democratic nominee Rep. Benjamin Cardin in the polls to being in a dead heat on the eve of Election Day. Recent history reveals that Alan Keyes ran as a Republican for U.S. senator in the general elections of 1988 and 1992. (He was trounced both times.) But he wasn't the first black candidate to run for a U.S. Senate seat in a Maryland general election either.

To get the right answer, we'd have to go back a ways.

Like 86 years.

The first was W. Ashbie Hawkins, who announced his candidacy in 1920. Like Steele, Hawkins was a black Republican. Like Steele, Hawkins chided one of the major political parties for taking the black vote for granted. Unlike Steele, Hawkins ran as an independent in the general election, not as a Republican.

In Steele's case, it's been the Democrats who are the target of his dudgeon. Hawkins criticized Republicans. In 1920, most black Americans were Republicans who voted overwhelmingly Republican, much as today's blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

Hawkins was born in Lynchburg, Va., in the early 1860s, less than a decade after the birth of the Republican Party. He graduated from what was then Morgan College and Howard University's law school. He was a treasurer in the Niagara Movement, which later merged with the NAACP.

Stories at the time in The Sun and the Baltimore Afro-American refer to blacks as "colored" and "negro" - no, the N wasn't capitalized. Today the preferred term for black folks is "African-American" - God only knows what it'll be 10 or 20 years from now - but the language Hawkins used in chiding Republicans four score and six years ago sounds eerily familiar to what some black Democrats are saying about Democrats today.

The issue is "not whether the negro should remain loyal to the Republican party in Maryland but whether he shall continue to give aid in keeping ingrates in power," Hawkins said in 1920. "Lincoln freed the negro from bodily bondage, but he never intended the colored man should remain a political slave."

Last week a group of black Prince George's County Democrats endorsed Steele as their candidate for U.S. senator. Wayne Curry, who was county executive of Prince George's County for two terms, was among them. "The party acts as though when they want our opinion they'll give it to us," Curry said of Democrats in a story by Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka. "It's not going to be like that anymore."

Major F. Riddick Jr., who was Gov. Parris N. Glendening's chief of staff, was also a bit testy in his assessment of Democrats.

"They show us the pie, but we never get the slice," Riddick said in Skalka's story. "What we are here today to tell them is that we waited and we waited, and we're waiting no longer."

It looks like more than a few blacks this year were channeling the spirit of W. Ashbie Hawkins, who died in 1941. But was that the prevailing feeling at the polls last night?

Not at the Pimlico Elementary/Middle School polling place, according to Dorothy Brunson. She started her Election Day by voting at Cross Country Elementary School near the Upper Park Heights neighborhood. She cast her ballot for Cardin.

"Steele's a good man," Brunson said. "But Steele's a Republican." She was concerned about that net gain of six seats the Democrats needed for control of the Senate. "I want those six seats to go to Democrats," she said, "so we can have some balance."

Brunson spent the latter part of her day electioneering at Pimlico Elementary/Middle. Her unofficial, unscientific exit polls showed that voters in the heavily black precinct were going strictly for the Democrats.

"At this poll, I think the Democrats are prevailing," Brunson said. "This is a very high turnout at this poll."

Shawn Tarrant, a candidate for the House of Delegates in the 40th District, agreed. Tarrant was electioneering too, handing out his own campaign literature only 90 minutes before the polls were scheduled to close.

Think this guy is eager to be a delegate from the 40th District?

Tarrant is a Democrat. He noticed a heavy preference for Democrats at the Pimlico Elementary/Middle polling place too.

"People are asking upfront, `Are you a Democrat?' before they take your literature," said Tarrant, who added that he doesn't buy the "Democrats take blacks for granted" claim. But he's run into other blacks who do.

"There are people who've been talking to me who do lean that way," Tarrant said. "There are people who've said they're going to vote for Steele who do feel that way."

Whatever happens, W. Ashbie Hawkins is probably somewhere smiling.

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