The NAACP national president entered the fray yesterday over possible debates between the two candidates for governor, criticizing Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for proposing a face-off about African-American issues.
Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he and other black leaders are insulted that Ehrlich wanted to have such a debate this week at Coppin State College.
"The NAACP finds it offensive that anyone running for governor would propose having a debate solely on black issues," said Mfume, adding that he would picket such an event. "It's an insult. We don't act alike. We don't look alike. We don't think alike. You don't see an attempt to put on a white issues debate."
Paul Schurick, an Ehrlich spokesman, declined to respond to Mfume's comments.
On Friday, Ehrlich proposed that he and Townsend meet at Coppin State College to debate issues such as minority business tax credits, drug treatment, training for ex-felons, teen pregnancy and funding for the state's historically black universities.
"Marylanders deserve a lively debate about issues affecting African-American communities," Ehrlich said in a letter to his opponent Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
But Mfume said such a debate "sets social progress back" because it assumes whites and black voters care about different issues.
For her part, Townsend has refused to respond to Ehrlich's request, saying it is a public relations ploy.
Yesterday, Ehrlich - who is eager to debate Townsend - went to a candidates forum in Gaithersburg. Townsend sent her running mate, retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, to the event.
But campaign staffs for Townsend and Ehrlich are planning to meet this week to work out the details for a possible debate being planned by the state chapter of the NAACP.
Both candidates said yesterday that they plan to take part in the debate scheduled Sept. 26 at Morgan State University, but NAACP officials said yesterday that it may be postponed.
Townsend and Ehrlich agreed to attend the event several weeks ago, but only yesterday they realized the other was also attending, spokesmen for the candidates said yesterday.
G.I. Johnson, president of the NAACP Baltimore branch and debate organizer, said the debate might be postponed as early as today so the NAACP and both candidates have more time to work out the details.
Peter Hamm, a Townsend spokesman, said she initially thought the event was a candidates' forum, during which candidates answer questions but do not debate their opponents.
Two weeks ago, Townsend proposed that both candidates meet for two televised matches, one of which the NAACP would sponsor. At the time, Ehrlich said he was concerned that the NAACP was not impartial enough to sponsor a debate, which prompted Mfume to ask Ehrlich for an apology.
Schurick said yesterday that Ehrlich will attend the debate, though the campaign is concerned about the NAACP's neutrality. "At this point, we'll go anywhere to engage the lieutenant governor," he said.
Mfume and Johnson said that the NAACP would be fair and that Ehrlich's concern is one reason they are letting the campaigns decide the debate format.