Did Mfume back Cardin too tepidly?

Maryland Votes 2006 -- A Special Section

November 08, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

The many Democrats who admire him and who voted for him in the September primary might have wondered what happened to Kweisi Mfume during the past couple of months. He conceded defeat to Ben Cardin after a narrow loss, then seemed to disappear.

"Ben and I gave this race our best," Mfume said. "However, there can only be one nominee from our party, and he is it. He's a great public servant, and I have absolutely no doubt that he is going to make a terrific United States senator. He has my full support."

Yeah, well ... for a while, it certainly didn't look that way.

While Cardin's opponent, Michael Steele, racked up endorsements of disaffected African-American Democrats, Cardin could boast important endorsements, too. But Mfume, one of the most charismatic African-American leaders in the nation, wasn't exactly his campaign traveling companion.

And when Mfume turned up on the front page of the Oct. 28-Nov. 3 Baltimore Afro-American, it was to say that the Maryland Democratic Party had dropped the ball on recruiting and supporting black candidates and women for statewide office.

"It is ironic and unfortunate," Mfume told the Afro, "that the Democratic ticket for the four major positions in 2006 looks like the Democratic statewide ticket for the four major positions in 1956."

Ouch.

And while some - this columnist included - started to see Mfume as a sore loser, it was hard to argue with his point: The Democrats' statewide ticket was a "ticket of white men in blue suits - who are all nice people, but who don't represent the ethnic and gender diversity of the state."

Mfume repeated his endorsement of Cardin, but it appeared in the last paragraph of the Afro story. (The newspaper used it as a pullout quote on its front page, but the dominant headline to the story said: "Mfume says Dems fall short on diversity.")

Even with all that, it's reasonable to ask the former Baltimore congressman and president of the NAACP whether he should have supported his party's nominee to the extent he had pledged.

"I've done everything Ben has asked me to do," Mfume said.

But he also made six trips out of state, and wasn't around much.

"Are you looking for a job?" I asked.

"Let's say I'm listening to proposals," he answered.

Most of Mfume's effort on behalf of Cardin came in the closing days of the 2006 campaign. Mfume made some public appearances with Cardin and recorded some telephone messages aimed at African-American voters.

"Ben and I were talking over the weekend," Mfume said last night. "And we agreed that we hadn't seen everything that could get ugly in this campaign."

They were right.

By Monday night, Mfume was getting a phone call from a Washington Post reporter who had news about a bogus ballot being mailed to homes in Prince George's County. The ballot suggested that Mfume had endorsed Steele.

It wasn't true, of course. But it went into circulation.

The ballot was authorized by the Bob Ehrlich for Maryland Committee and Steele for Maryland Inc. An Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman acknowledged to The Sun that the governor's campaign helped pay for the sample ballot.

Adding to the ugliness were reports that some of these ballots were being handed out by homeless people bused into Maryland from Philadelphia.

So, yesterday, Mfume went into action.

He recorded a new robocall denouncing the phony flier as a "desperate attempt by Republicans to mislead voters in the 11th hour" and reiterating his support of Cardin.

The bogus ballot was on the street by Monday, and word about its existence spread quickly, still enough time before the polls opened yesterday "for it to backfire," Mfume said.

"On the other hand, you have to worry about [the ballot's] influence on the occasional voters. You don't know what effect it might have had on them."

Of course, that might not have been such a problem had it been clear whom Mfume supported all along.

"I probably could have done more," he conceded.

But Mfume seemed more interested in making a point to his party leadership: You need to recruit and support strong and interesting African-American and female candidates for the future, or Maryland Republicans are going to keep stealing this high ground from the Democrats.

"They have three or four more candidates in their farm system," Mfume said. "We have to stop giving up this ground to the Republicans. We can do better. We have to start working on this now, or four years from now, we are going to find ourselves in the same position."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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