Thinking about race in the politics of Maryland

The Baltimore Sun

Candidates for high public office like to say that color should not be an issue in their races.

They know it is, of course.

It was there last week when three men running for the U.S. Senate met for a debate in Baltimore. They tried to avoid the proverbial elephant in the room, to no avail.

The debate setting, the sponsor and the field of candidates - not to speak of the strategies employed by the parties - make race as politically prominent as any policy issue.

The candidates stood at lecterns positioned near the pulpit of the old Orchard Street Church - in lore, at least, a depot for the Underground Railroad. The building is now headquarters for the Greater Baltimore Urban League, the local chapter of one of the nation's premier civil rights organizations. The large audience was mostly black, though one of the white candidates appeared to have the support of at least half of it.

One candidate, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, is the first black person to hold elected, statewide office in Maryland. Few observers believe that race was not a factor in his insertion into this year's contest. He was recruited by national Republicans because some early polling suggested he might be competitive in usually Democratic Maryland, and because, win or lose, he could become a symbol of the GOP's effort to appear inclusive.

During the debate, the candidates did their best to separate themselves from their competitors on policy issues. As political debates go, it was one of the better ones in recent memory. The candidates had ample time to explain themselves if they wanted to do that. There were moments of unscripted passion.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Democrat, insisted that issues - and his assertion that Mr. Steele refuses to say how he differs from President Bush, if at all - are the issue.

Mr. Steele said that the Democrats' failure to listen when their constituents speak is the issue. At one point, he turned to Mr. Cardin and directed him to "shut up and listen."

"Don't be rude," shouted someone from the audience. Here, perhaps, was an example of the novice candidate delivering a scripted line without the finesse a more practiced candidate might have employed.

Mr. Steele went on to ignore Mr. Cardin's invitation to say where he stands on issues such as promoting stem cell research and increasing the minimum wage. He did say Bush administration policies are making the cash flow on Wall Street. And, although supporting Mr. Bush's refusal to leave Iraq, Mr. Steele acknowledged - when pushed - that the war isn't going well.

In a brief self-profile, he said: "I'm 6-foot-4, bald, a Catholic and a proud Republican."

Kevin Zeese, the candidate of the Green, Progressive and Libertarian parties, agreed that change should be the issue. He said neither of his opponents could plausibly be for change because both are part of what he called a bipartisan cabal to sell America to the highest special-interest bidders.

A solid performer in the give-and-take, Mr. Zeese may aspire to be the Ralph Nader of Maryland, a spoiler who takes votes from one of the front-runners and alters the landscape. "Spoiler," in the push for third-party significance, is not a four-letter word.

After the event, Democrats said they thought Mr. Zeese would ultimately attract few votes away from the Cardin-Steele main event. Few, they said, would waste their votes by supporting someone who probably can't win.

That issue commanded the attention of Anne O. Emery, a member of various educational advisory panels and an opinion leader in the black community, who was in the audience. She was impressed with Mr. Zeese - and determined to work against him.

She had some advice for Maryland's black voters. Mr. Zeese may be impressive and Mr. Steele's position may make him an attractive candidate. A more important issue, though, is "a proud Republican" squarely aligned with Republican policies on such things as tax cuts for the wealthy.

'"We have to be strategic," Ms. Emery said. People have to think about the consequences of their votes, she said: "We cannot have a Republican senator."

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is

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