COLLEGE PARK -- With Sen. Barack Obama coming up from Washington, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings coming down from Baltimore and Rep. Albert R. Wynn coming over from Prince George's County, the rally yesterday was intended to demonstrate the black support behind Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin for U.S. Senate.
But former congressman Kweisi Mfume took the opportunity to sound a warning: If Democrats continue to present slates dominated by white men, it will cost the party at the polls.
"When the Democratic ticket for statewide office in 2006 still looks like the one from 1956, we have a problem," Mfume told several hundred at the University of Maryland.
"We need women in leadership positions in the state," he said, as students and party activists cheered him on. "We've got to find a way that African-Americans and other minorities are represented statewide in office."
It was Mfume's first public appearance with Cardin since he lost a tight race for the nomination to his friend and former colleague two weeks ago. He recounted their work representing neighboring districts in Congress, and repeated that Cardin would make "a damned good senator."
But after a primary in which Maryland Democrats nominated white men for U.S. senator, governor, state attorney general and comptroller, the former head of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also had a message.
"We expect that the party will say, 'Well, you know, we didn't plan it this way, it ended this way,'" Mfume said. "'And we promise you, it will never be this way again.' "
Cardin, who is white, faces Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the first black elected to statewide office, for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. Both parties are courting the support of blacks, who make up about a fifth of the Maryland electorate.
Republicans appear to be making inroads into the traditionally Democratic bloc. While 66 percent of blacks in Maryland favor Cardin, according to a poll for The Sun released this week, 24 percent now back Steele - unprecedented black support for a Republican in the state.
Cardin, speaking after the rally yesterday, called Mfume's comments "absolutely correct."
"It's very important that our party do everything we can for inclusion," he said. "That's why when I was speaker [of the Maryland House of Delegates] I appointed the first African-American chairman of a committee in Annapolis. I appointed the first woman chairman of a committee in Annapolis. I changed the staff of the General Assembly to reflect the demographics of our state.
"It's extremely important for our leaders to make it clear that we understand the importance of inclusion and diversity, and that needs to be our message through this campaign," Cardin said.
State Republican leaders boast that their ticket is more diverse than that of the Democrats. The Republican ticket includes Steele and lieutenant governor candidate Kristen Cox, who is blind. The Democrats have nominated Del. Anthony G. Brown, who is black, for lieutenant governor.
"The Democrats often talk about diversity and inclusion, and I have to say, 'Talk to the hand,' " Cox said Tuesday at a GOP dinner in Baltimore. "We've got an African-American, we've got a blind woman, we've got another woman, and we've got a couple of white guys, but we include them too. We represent the face of Maryland in a way no other party in the history of Maryland has."
State Democratic Chairman Terry Lierman yesterday called the characterization "ridiculous." He spoke of the diversity of Democratic officeholders and candidates at all levels of state government.
"There are probably more minorities on the ticket than at any time in the history for the Democrats," he said, and added: "I would call upon any candidates in the state, Republican or Democrat, to talk about issues that affect Maryland voters and families. That's what this election is about, Maryland's future, and diversity is certainly an important part of that."
Obama joined Sarbanes, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Cummings and Wynn at the rally for Cardin.
"You got to put this guy in the Senate," said the Illinois Democrat, who is considered a possible contender for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008.
"He's got experience in the State House, he's got experience in Congress, knows what it means to be the speaker, knows what it means to be on Ways and Means, has risen to the highest ranks of politics, and yet his integrity has never been questioned," Obama said. "He's always been a straight talker. He's been a champion on behalf of working families throughout his career. He's never tried to cash in, he's never tried to cut corners."
"There aren't too many people who could replace Senator Sarbanes and not miss a beat," he said. "And yet, somehow Maryland, y'all found him."
Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.