Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called yesterday on Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to apologize for his campaign's assertion that the civil rights group could not be an impartial sponsor of debates in the governor's race.
"To say that we have chosen sides in this contest is to castigate and defame the nonpartisan nature of the NAACP," said Mfume, who previously represented Maryland's 7th Congressional District. "The Bob Ehrlich that I served with in Congress would not stand for these kinds of divisive comments. ... I urge him to speak up and repudiate them."
Mfume was responding to the Ehrlich campaign's reaction to a suggestion from Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend that the candidates hold two televised debates, with the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Maryland included as sponsors.
Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick said that the NAACP cannot be considered neutral because Townsend consistently mentions Ehrlich's F rating from the national organization, and that the group "has made it clear that they have chosen sides in this race."
In an interview last night, Ehrlich said that his campaign meant "no offense" by the comment and that he would willingly participate in NAACP events -- such as the candidate forum that he and Townsend attended this year.
But he said he has policy differences with Mfume and his organization, differences that Townsend wants to exploit.
"You know what her campaign mantra is: Ehrlich [has an] F from the NAACP," he said. "There needs to be sponsoring groups from all over the philosophical rainbow."
Schurick said the campaign could accept the Baltimore or state chapters as debate sponsors if they "renounce the national chapter's rating."
Townsend has no equivalent grade, Schurick noted, because she has never served as a legislator and has no voting record to examine. He said the Glendening-Townsend administration has a poor record on some issues of importance to African-Americans, such as quality of the state's juvenile justice system, which is overseen by Townsend.
Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm said the Ehrlich campaign seemed to be suggesting that the NAACP was violating federal laws with political activity, which is prohibited because the organization is a charity for tax purposes. Hamm said Ehrlich should pursue the charges if he believes them, or back away from his position.
Mfume said his organization has been issuing voting scorecards since 1914 "because we want good government, not because we want to choose sides." But he said the grade should only be one factor in voters' minds.
"It is not enough to go to an all-black event and repeat the grade he got from the NAACP," Mfume said. "Black voters, like everyone else, want to know where both candidates are on issues like public education, jobs, crime, taxes and the economy."