Right cheek or left, it still feels like a slap

At GOP debate on minority issues, absent candidates incur resentment

September 28, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,SUN REPORTER

Outside the debate hall at Morgan State University, African-Americans across the political spectrum used the phrase "slap in the face" when expressing their frustration at the decision of four leading Republican presidential candidates to skip last night's debate.

Eugene Morris and his wife flew in from Chicago to attend the nationally televised forum, which focused on issues important to minorities.

"Obviously, when we planned this trip, we had no idea the leading candidates would insult us and our community by not showing up," said Morris, who owns a marketing and communications company. "It's a slap in the face."

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson all offered either scheduling conflicts or fundraising obligations as their reasons for not attending the debate at the historically black university in Northeast Baltimore.

Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, conservative activist Alan L. Keyes, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado did show up and fielded questions from talk-show host Tavis Smiley.

"To say they had a scheduling conflict, it's an insult," said Morris, who said he is likely to vote for a Democratic candidate in the 2008 election.

Garrya S. Hatton, who calls herself a Republican "rarity" among Morgan State employees, said she was "dangerously close" to switching party affiliations because of the no-shows.

"I won't become a liberal over this, but to not have support from people who I've spoken up for, it's like a slap in the face," said the college's career resource coordinator and a 1998 Morgan alumna. "It's like not being invited to dinner."

Hatton had planned to vote for Romney but now says, "I won't vote for anyone who won't show up at my school."

About two-thirds of the 2,000-plus-seat Murphy Fine Arts Center was filled for the debate.

"I heard there was really bad traffic," said Public Broadcasting Service representative Carrie Johnson. "But I think we're overall proud and pleased."

The chairman of Morgan's political science department called the debate "a major event" for the university. "It will give us some national showcasing," said Max Hilaire.

Morgan hosted a Democratic presidential debate in 2003 and one of Maryland gubernatorial candidates in 2002.

Though many people milling about in front of the arts center last night said they had Democratic inclinations, many also said they were open to voting Republican if the candidates emphasized the issues they cared about.

Kaneshia Ward, a Morgan freshman and ROTC cadet, said she wanted to hear how the candidates would resolve the war in Iraq. "I'm going to be an Army officer when I graduate," said the 18-year-old, who came to the debate in uniform. "I want them to make a decision."

Ward favors a "gradual pullout" from Iraq.

On campus earlier, Larry Moore, a Morgan sophomore from Boston who is inclined to vote Republican, said he was most concerned about how politicians plan to preserve Social Security.

Moore, 19, said he had intended to vote for Romney until he heard that the candidate would not be coming to Baltimore. "That says something to me, that he doesn't care," Moore said. "We are not the first priority on his list. Probably not the second, either."

A week ago, hundreds of Morgan State students in black shirts came together in an emotional civil rights rally protesting racial tensions in Louisiana.

But in the hours before yesterday's event, the campus was decidedly more subdued, with some students saying they were ambivalent or unaware about the debate.

"There's not too much political charge on campus," said Gerik Proctor, 18, a freshman engineering major from Ellicott City. "Students don't feel the effects of the president. The most college students feel are oil prices." He shrugged. "None of us is going to war."

Krystal DeAbreu, 18, a business major from Orlando, Fla., sheepishly admitted that she was unaware of the debate. When told it was a forum of Republican candidates, she said, "Now I'm even less interested. I'm not a Republican."

Akilah Smith of Chicago had no hard feelings.

"This isn't their environment. These aren't the people who voted for them. I guess they think this is a waste of their time," she said. "I would think it was a waste of my time."

But Morris said black voters would not soon forget what many feel is a public snub.

"Already, there is a big PR push to make sure the African-American community is very aware of what happened here," he said. "I'm appalled."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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