ELBERT RAY Henderson, the brave soul who's decided to run as a Republican for mayor of Baltimore, had no problem when he did a little electioneering at the city's Greek-American festival.
It was the same when he passed out his campaign literature at the Italian-American and Polish-American festivals. But when Henderson, an African-American, tried the same thing at the African-American Heritage Festival last month, he had people all up in his grill telling him to pack up his fliers. Two of those people were security guards. The other was Kweisi Mfume, the president of the national NAACP and also a coordinator of the festival.
"I went to the festival to, one, enjoy it," recalled Henderson, "and to do a little campaigning." He had two boys helping him -- 11-year-old Alphonso Livingston Jr. and his 10-year-old brother, Major Livingston. Donny Glover, a local photographer and journalist, snapped pictures of all three. Shortly after that, Henderson contends, Mfume came walking up to him.
"You can't do that," Mfume said.
"Do what?" Henderson answered.
"Campaign here," Mfume rejoindered.
When Henderson said he saw no signs posted to that effect, Mfume cited the festival's no-campaign rule. Moments later, Henderson said, Mayor Martin O'Malley came through "with his entourage." O'Malley shook some hands and did some stuff that looked suspiciously to Henderson like campaigning.
A little later, as if to reinforce Mfume's point, a security guard came over and told Henderson "You can't campaign here. It's against the rules." Figuring Henderson to be a real public menace -- imagine the horror if Democrats were one day booted out of power in Baltimore -- a second security guard came over and said, "I hear you have a problem here."
The first security guard assured the second he had the situation in control. Henderson stopped campaigning and enjoyed the festival as regular folk.
That is Henderson's version of events. Here's Mfume's.
According to John White, who was the public relations contact for the festival and is a public affairs officer with the NAACP, Henderson was indeed told he couldn't hand out campaign literature. And yes, the mayor was there -- for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, was also there. The governor and Mfume, White said, toured the festival together.
"We did not allow people to hand out campaign literature," White emphasized. "We've said that the last three years."
On the surface, that sounds even-handed and fair. Treat all candidates the same and allow no campaign literature to be handed out. But underneath the surface, the policy hurts the little guy. And in the mayoral race, Republican Henderson and Frank Conway -- the clerk of the Circuit Court who says he'll run for mayor as an independent -- are very much little guys.
"O'Malley doesn't have to carry around signs or banners to let people know who he is," Henderson said. "But that's all I have to compete with the $2 million he's raised. If I had $2 million, I could get a lot of air time."
The "no campaign literature" policy works to hurt the little guy and in favor of incumbents. As Henderson pointed out, wherever O'Malley shows up -- and in essence he's running for mayor and governor -- during an election year is a campaign appearance. O'Malley doesn't have to hand out campaign literature. The same applies to Ehrlich, who's a sure bet to run for re-election in 2006.
It's an odd position for Mfume and White, who work for the festival and the NAACP. For years the civil rights organization has worked for the little guy. The most recent was the notorious case in Tulia, Texas, when an undercover cop committed perjury to land a bunch of black folks in prison on false drug charges.
Add to that the image problem the NAACP has developed over the past few years that its nonpartisan stance is in fact highly partisan toward Democrats. During the 2000 presidential election, at least one NAACP leader repeated the group's nonpartisan stand, but added, "We know who our friends are."
Well, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. Isn't it a good thing Ehrlich's a Republican? Otherwise, with a Democratic mayor cutting the ribbon and a Democratic governor touring the festival with Mfume, those charges would surface again.
True, neither Mfume nor White was wearing his NAACP hat during the festival. A few years ago, when Mfume was more or less drafted for the festival job, he was quoted as saying he needed another task like he needed a hole in the head. He doesn't need the headache of questions about the NAACP's nonpartisan status bedeviling him either.
The smart move for next year's festival would be to change the no-campaigning policy and let the little guys have their say. No matter how practical the African-American Heritage Festival rule sounds, one question remains: If Henderson could hand out campaign literature without incident or problems at three white ethnic festivals, why couldn't he do it at the black one?