New ways to describe Sauerbrey's challenge


I vowed this year that I would not be so quick to label an action "racist" just because it adversely affects blacks. So, in keeping with that New Year's resolution, I'll let Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke do the labeling for me.

Mayor Schmoke, a Democrat, believes that Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey's challenge of the Nov. 8 election for governor is "racially divisive," and that it follows a pattern of harassment of black voters that Republicans established in Baltimore before the election was even held. He said it in December and repeated it to me in an interview yesterday.

Mrs. Sauerbrey lost a hotly contested race for governor to Democrat Parris N. Glendening by 5,993 votes. Immediately after the vote, Mrs. Sauerbrey's aides began poring over voter registration records, primarily in Baltimore, in an attempt to uncover evidence of fraud. She eventually challenged the results in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, asking that a judge either declare her the governor or order a new election.

A hearing on that challenge began yesterday. In opening statements, Mrs. Sauerbrey's attorneys alleged that thousands of people in the city, and in Prince Georges and Montgomery counties -- the only three jurisdictions carried by Mr. Glendening -- were not stricken from voter rolls as the law requires even though the people had moved, had not voted in recent years or had been convicted of crimes.

"All of this is designed to cast doubt over the black vote," Mr. Schmoke told me yesterday. "It is part of a more elaborate voter suppression effort that looks to future elections as much as it looks to this one. If they can get a number of votes thrown out on technicalities, it could make some African Americans less enthusiastic about voting in the future."

Many blacks already believe that their vote does not count, that the system is stacked against them, that white Republicans and white Democrats both view black Americans as three-fifths a citizen. Without strong evidence of an effort to steal the election -- and none has been offered -- the court action will look like intimidation to many in the black community.

The mayor recalled yesterday that a group of Republicans calling themselves the "Knights and Dames for Freedom" had planned to station observers at city polling places on Election Day to challenge voters who looked "suspicious"; and that Republicans were accused of using similar tactics in New Jersey, North Carolina, Louisiana and California.

Joyce Lyons Terhes, Republican chairwoman for Maryland, angrily denies the mayor's charges. She says his remarks are "racially divisive."

As I said, my New Year's resolution is to avoid use of the R-word. The charge gets used so much that I suspect it has lost its impact with a lot of people. Besides, other terms apply just as well. Mrs. Sauerbrey's challenge is shortsighted, counterproductive, and an insult to voters of all races. Thanks to her, blacks who might be attracted by the Republican message are likely to turn away.

The Republicans never seem to get it: They have successfully tagged Democrats as tax and spend wastrels, who are wedded to welfare policies that do not work, and who coddle criminals. All those issues could resonate as poignantly in black communities as in white.

Yet year after year, and in race after race, Republicans seem hellbent on pushing blacks away. Remember GOP strategist Ed Rollins' little "jest" about paying black ministers in New Jersey to ask voters to stay home? Remember George Bush's use of Willie Horton to excite white nightmares about black rapists and murderers running free? Remember Ronald Reagan's embrace of the apartheid regime in South Africa -- a government he called "America's good friend and ally?"

Black voters remember.

It would have been more profitable for Maryland Republicans to seek to open up the state's electoral process instead of attacking it in court. For instance, the state's closed primary system effectively prevents Democrats from supporting a Republican candidate before the general election.

Maybe the Republicans are so blind that they cannot see how frequently they alienate black voters. Or maybe the mayor is right.

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