Baltimore Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV crossed party lines to endorse Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for governor yesterday, becoming the first prominent African-American elected official to publicly support the Republican candidate.
Hailing Ehrlich as someone who has been "responsive" to the concerns of city voters, Mitchell predicted the congressman will make inroads into the city's heavily Democratic black vote.
"African-Americans will not be pushed into a position where we have no choice," he said.
The endorsement was not a surprise. Mitchell has been threatening for months to get even with fellow Democrats over a redistricting plan that puts the state senator's political career in peril.
Ehrlich joined Mitchell at a media conference on the steps of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse -- named for the civil rights pioneer who was the senator's grandfather -- to say he was "very proud" to accept the support.
"This is a very different type of Republican campaign," Ehrlich said. "You need a coalition that cuts across race and party."
For Mitchell, the Ehrlich endorsement represents a significant split with other Baltimore elected officials -- many of whom came out early for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Others have hung back, waiting to see whether Mayor Martin O'Malley will challenge Townsend for the Democratic nomination.
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat, predicted few city Democrats will cross over to support Ehrlich. "I think Senator Mitchell is representing himself at this time," said Conway, who has endorsed Townsend.
Mitchell's support of Ehrlich comes as the state prosecutor is investigating Mitchell's acceptance of a $10,000 loan from businessmen who had issues before the General Assembly. In February, the Assembly's ethics committee reprimanded Mitchell for failing to report the loan -- on which the senator had made no payments since receiving it five years ago.
Ehrlich said yesterday that Mitchell's ethics problems do not diminish the value of his endorsement. "Friendship transcends all lines," he said. "The senator accepted the actions of the ethics committee, and that's certainly good enough for me."
Ehrlich's embrace of Mitchell brought an acerbic comment from Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings. "People ought to be careful about who they associate with," said Rawlings, a longtime Mitchell adversary.
Leading Republicans said Ehrlich has much to gain and little to lose from the Mitchell endorsement.
Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the party's 1994 and 1998 nominee, said Mitchell's early support could help deter Democrats from playing "the race card" -- as she contends they did in the last election. Sauerbrey suggested that Mitchell's ethics problems, first reported in The Sun, surfaced as a result of his flirtation with the GOP. "Nobody paid any attention to Senator Mitchell's ethical problems until he started making noises that indicated he might not be a loyal Democrat," she said.
A spokesman for Townsend, who is expected to announce her candidacy tomorrow, had only a cryptic reaction to the endorsement. "We are very proud of the people who are supporting Lieutenant Governor Townsend," said Alan Fleischmann, her chief of staff.
The endorsement bridges a wide ideological gap. Mitchell is one of the more liberal members of the Maryland Senate, while Ehrlich has compiled a moderate to conservative record as a state delegate and congressman. One issue on which the two agree is that Mitchell got a raw deal under Gov. Parris N. Glendening's redistricting plan. The map puts Mitchell and Sen. George W. Della into a district far less friendly to Mitchell than the old 44th District.
Asked whether he would be endorsing Ehrlich if he felt he had been treated fairly by Glendening, Mitchell said, "Of course not." He said the redistricting map was symbolic of the "paternalistic" way the state Democratic Party treats African-Americans.