Defense attorney A. Dwight Pettit, left, and his client, Paul… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
Can we just say, without any hedging about how it was a stupid idea or protected political speech, that launching the "relax" robocalls to suppress black voters in the 2010 gubernatorial election was as deeply cynical a scheme as we've heard? Can we agree that it was jarring in its blatant disregard for the decades-long effort to extend the rights of all citizens to participate in this democracy?
Can we just say, without being too precious about it, that it's appalling that anyone would even think of doing this in 21st-century America?
Can all of us, including the most jaded, agree that even with modern politics being a cutthroat business we can draw the line here?
I think we can, and we're supported by the jury that convicted Paul Schurick of voter fraud Tuesday in Baltimore. There's a law against this sort of thing and for good reason. It goes back to the great struggle to extend civil rights to the descendants of slaves and other people of color. You can't make people take a test to qualify to vote. You can't charge them a tax to vote. You can't keep people from voting in this country because of their skin color.
In Maryland, the law says you can't "willfully and knowingly … influence or attempt to influence a voter's decision whether to go to the polls to cast a vote through the use of force, fraud, threat, menace, intimidation, bribery, reward, or offer of reward." There's a long, deep and even bloody history behind that law and others like it.
And that's what distinguishes the robocall matter from what we've seen before — dirty tricks; political bosses trying to confuse voters by putting up bogus candidates with the same names as leading opponents; homeless guys, mostly black, being bused in from Philadelphia to hand out deceptive campaign fliers for Republican candidates in a predominantly black Maryland county.
Extremis malis extrema remedia — that's Latin for "extreme ills call for extreme remedies." Most of us know it as "desperate times call for desperate measures." It apparently became the end-game motto of the Ehrlich re-election campaign in 2010.
The Republican governor's attempt at a political comeback got a late start and never really developed a clear theme; the campaign lacked luster. Ehrlich had been voted out of office in 2006.
"Ehrlich was trailing badly in every poll I saw," says Herb Smith, professor of political science at McDaniel College and co-author of "Maryland Politics and Government: Democratic Dominance," being published next month by the University of Nebraska Press. "The campaign was at a stick-a-fork-in-it-he's-done stage well before Election Day. So why this reckless and highly illegal tactic?"
Maybe because, in the end, the Ehrlich campaign's only hope for unseating Gov. Martin O'Malley was in low voter turnout in Prince George's County and Baltimore. You can laugh at the ridiculousness of that. Or you can dismiss it as a money-making scheme of political operative Julius Henson, who goes on trial in the robocall case in February. You can say no one really got hurt — O'Malley won anyway — so what's the big deal?
The big deal is that this particular scheme cuts deep, to where a lot of people live, people who do not take lightly the right to vote and who have memories of poll taxes and literacy tests.
The shocking thing — I guess we can still be shocked, no? — is that anyone in the Ehrlich campaign gave a scheme to suppress black voters more than 30 seconds of thought.
At some point, however, this idea must have held a certain charm. It happened. The robocalls were recorded. They were produced. They were launched, and the target of the message was black voters. On Election Night last year, outraged citizens called me and others in The Baltimore Sun newsroom shortly after receiving the calls at home.
Character witnesses at his trial called Paul Schurick a nice guy. But in political campaigns, even nice guys find themselves tempted by dubious tactics and cynical ideas, especially at desperate hour. Knowing where to draw the line — in this case, at an effort to keep black citizens from voting — is what separates the ethical man from the rest of the creeps in politics. It'll keep you out of jail, too.