What was billed as a candidates forum turned into a bitter debate among the politicians vying for U.S. Senate yesterday as they squared off before members of a crucial voting bloc at the NAACP's annual statewide conference in Baltimore.
Republican Michael S. Steele and Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin traded the most biting barbs during an afternoon that featured candidates for governor, comptroller and attorney general making a last-minute dash to woo black voters.
Touching on issues that included minority business development, education and voting rights for ex-offenders, Steele continued his campaign theme, accusing the congressman of being out of touch with voters, while Cardin continued to hammer Steele as a friend of President Bush.
"Mr. Cardin, have you visited Frederick Douglass High School? Have you been to Carver High School?" Steele said to an audience of about 80 people in a ballroom at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel. "We've missed you, sir. Twenty years of leadership. A lot of talk, no delivery."
Cardin attacked when Steele waffled on a question from the audience about the percentage of black businesses participating in the state's minority business enterprise program.
"The businesses in my district, I have not only fought for them to get the jobs and the contracts, but the right jobs and the right types of opportunities," Cardin said. "That's what you can expect from me as U.S. senator. It's not just the percentages, it's the quality."
Third-party candidate Kevin Zeese told the crowd that black voters have been taken for granted by both parties for too long and that rejecting Democrats and Republicans would give African-Americans a chance for change.
The remarks capped off what was billed as a series of forums among candidates on the statewide ticket. Each candidate was allotted 10 minutes to give prepared remarks. But the structure was different with the Senate candidates, who spent an additional 30 minutes sparring and answering questions from an audience of NAACP members.
The debate almost didn't happen, said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Cheatham complained publicly that Steele's campaign did not respond to repeated requests to participate. Cheatham said yesterday that he received a call from the Steele campaign Friday night agreeing to the event.
"Once they knew they would take a public hit on this, last night they gave me a call," Cheatham said after the event. "But we're glad he's here. It shows the NAACP is not partisan, that we wanted to hear all of the candidates. Nevertheless, Steele made a major blunder by not responding to us faster."
Thursday, Steele accused Cardin of trying to avoid a Charles County NAACP debate. Cardin's campaign responded that the congressman had other commitments but would be ready to debate at the Baltimore NAACP event held yesterday.
The crowd applauded loudly when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O'Malley took jabs at Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who he said tried to "shut down the NAACP through a bogus investigation," with the Internal Revenue Service.
O'Malley was referring to a 2001 letter that Ehrlich, then a member of Congress, sent to the IRS about a complaint that the NAACP had become too political. Ehrlich has defended his letter as an inquiry on behalf of a constituent, a Republican political donor who is now his chief campaign fundraiser
O'Malley accused Ehrlich of "speaking out of both sides of his mouth" on crime. "He's telling our African-American community that our police are engaging in blanket illegal arrests, while telling white voters that police are not doing enough about crime," he said.
O'Malley also accused Ehrlich of "talking in coded, charged language" about Baltimore schools that he said stigmatized poor students.
After the event, Ehrlich dismissed the mayor's accusation.
"Baltimore City schools are failing; most of the kids are black," he said. "These kids deserve their constitutional rights. He's postponed their constitutional rights, and it's unacceptable."
Ehrlich gave the shortest remarks of all the candidates, sticking to a nearly four-minute speech in which he listed the African-Americans he has appointed to positions while in office, including Judge Clayton Greene Jr. on the Maryland Court of Appeals.
He then rattled off policy positions and state programs such as funding for historically black colleges and universities and lead paint abatement.
Later, Ehrlich said of his remarks: "I got up there and just talked about the success of our administration."
Ehrlich -- 1:30 p.m., stop at the Maryland chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives bull roast, Rosedale Gardens
O'Malley -- 9 a.m., attend services at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Baltimore; 11:30 a.m., attend services at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, Baltimore; 1:30 p.m., attend "Democrats for Ehrlich for O'Malley" Rally; 3 p.m., attend event with Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan; 5 p.m., rally in Prince George's County; 6:30 p.m., rally in Anne Arundel County; 7:30 p.m., Get Out The Vote Gospel Concert, Baltimore.
Cardin -- 9 a.m., taping debate with Steele on NBC's Meet the Press; 6:30 p.m., Get Out The Vote Gospel Concert, Baltimore.
Steele -- 9 a.m. taping debate with Cardin on NBC's Meet the Press . The show airs on Baltimore's WBAL-TV (Channel 11) at 10 a.m. and on Washington's WRC-TV (channel 4) at 10:30 a.m.