Maryland Senate Campaign Racially Charged

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele's campaign for a U.S. Senate seat has already drawn President Bush to the state, and spawned controversy over the alleged use of racial slurs in a contest where two of the major candidates are African American.

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A race to succeed retiring Maryland US Senator Paul Sarbanes has been making headlines for months, even though the election is not until next November. The campaign has already drawn President Bush to the state, and it has also caused controversy over the alleged use of racial slurs in a contest where two of the major candidates are African-American. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

President Bush came to campaign for Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele. Steele is the first African-American elected statewide and was among a group of prominent blacks who crisscrossed the nation in 2004, trying to convince skeptical voters of color to support Mr. Bush's re-election.

(Soundbite of march music)

KEYES: The 800 voters who attended a recent fund-raiser for Steele's Senate campaign, with a menu of pizza and hot dogs, were treated to a folksy 15-minute pep talk by the president.

(Soundbite of speech; applause)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: People from both political parties are going to realize this man's capable of doing the job.

KEYES: But the appearance by Mr. Bush underscored the tightrope both the GOP and Steele are walking in this state, where the president has an approval rating of about 33 percent. Steele didn't mention the word `Republican' at the fund-raiser or at his campaign announcement, and stressed in an interview with NPR that his appeal to voters is not about party.

(Soundbite of interview)

Lieutenant Governor MICHAEL STEELE (Maryland): Marylanders are ready for this discussion, and they are ready for a different kind of leadership. Yeah, I'm a Republican, but I'm much more than that, and I think I have some ideas that are--that we're ready to hear.

KEYES: But he may have a tough time finding listeners in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2:1. Mr. Bush didn't carry Maryland in either of his presidential campaigns, and there's already a pitched battle over the African-American voters, who comprise 28 percent of the state's electorate.

Right after Steele's formal campaign announcement in October, a liberal blogger posted a doctored picture of Steele in minstrel makeup. Newspapers quoted local Democrats of color as saying Steele's conservative politics weren't in the best interests of blacks, and implying that his ideology justified racially insulting him. And Steele's supporters were quick to cite other incidents, ranging from 2001, when the Maryland Senate president called him an `Uncle Tom' to an alleged statement from a black Democratic Baltimore delegate comparing Steele to a slave who loves his cruel master.

Steele says he was angry over what he felt was a lack of Democratic outrage over the whole thing.

Lt. Gov. STEELE: I said publicly I was disappointed to hear some from the family come after me like that. But yeah, it ticked me off, because some of those very same individuals were in my office weeks before, asking me for help in the upcoming legislative session.

KEYES: Steele's two leading Democratic opponents were quick to denounce the racially charged controversy. Representative Ben Cardin, who's white, is a 19-year House veteran. He says voters want to hear about their candidate's values.

Representative BEN CARDIN (Democrat, Maryland): Most voters in Maryland want to know what our position is on issues. It's not the color of your skin but the depth of your agenda that I think people are interested in. Voters want to know where we stand on Social Security, where we stand on health care, on the budget deficit, on Iraq.

KEYES: Former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume is African-American and a former congressman. He bristles at Republicans who've said the Democrats have endorsed the use of racial slurs in an effort to maintain their lock on the black vote here.

Mr. KWEISI MFUME (Former NAACP President): Well, I think that's a cheap shot, and I think it's bad for any of us to paint a person, a position or a party with one brush. I mean, then we're just as bad as the people who are out using racial slurs. Black bigotry can be just as cruel and evil as white bigotry. There are too many bigots in our society.

KEYES: Democratic Maryland State Senator Lisa Gladden is an African-America who was quoted in newspaper stories about the racial attacks on Steele. She says she didn't expect her party to pull any punches in this campaign, including racial jabs at Steele. She disagrees with those who say Steele has sold out the black community simply because he's a Republican. But she believes the Democratic Party has been more supportive of her community.

State Senator LISA GLADDEN (Democrat, Maryland): I said that party trumps race. It's clear that when we choose candidates, thoughtful voters choose people who ideologically or philosophically comport with their own philosophy.

KEYES: But conservative pundits like John McWhorter say the black community needs to stop seeing Republicans as enemies.

Mr. JOHN McWHORTER (Manhattan Institute): The idea that Republicans are racists is outdated and, frankly, ignorant.

KEYES: McWhorter is an African-American senior fellow at the conservative think tank, the Manhattan Institute. He says the image of black Republicans has evolved since the civil rights movement and that being a liberal rebel is no longer the way to help communities of color.

Mr. McWHORTER: It's just a matter of how you feel about what's really going to help the black community, and the issue is not as simple as it was in 1960.

KEYES: Government politics Professor Ronald Walters at the University of Maryland says most voters won't take the racial squabbling to heart on Election Day, but he does believe race will be an issue here.

Professor RONALD WALTERS (University of Maryland): One has to pay attention to the black vote, because on the Democratic side, the black vote really determines the election.

KEYES: Early polls put the Democrats in a virtual tie in the primary. But some political observers are salivating over the possibility of a general election matchup between Steele and Mfume. Walters says a contest between the two high-profile black politicians would be historic.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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