Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean slapped Maryland Democrats yesterday, saying state leaders need to promote more black candidates in the future so "we do not have another Michael Steele problem."
"I just think we have got to do a better job in Maryland four years from now about diversity on the ticket," Dean said during a Washington breakfast, raising particular concerns about Steele, the state's black Republican lieutenant governor who ran a competitive race for U.S. Senate partly on a theme that Democrats have taken African-American voters for granted.
Democratic candidates trounced their opponents Tuesday in contests across the state, electing black leaders as lieutenant governor (Anthony G. Brown) and Montgomery County executive (Isiah Leggett). But Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a white 10-term congressman, won the state's open Senate seat by defeating Steele. Steele's campaign included a series of high-profile endorsements by black political, business and entertainment leaders and a plea that minority voters send one of their own to Congress.
Some black leaders say Dean's comments reflect festering resentment among African-Americans, a feeling that the state party must do more to promote black candidates at the national level. Cardin defeated former NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume to face Steele in the general election, and there are some, including Prince George's County Councilwoman Camille A. Exum, who believe the party should have done more to support Mfume's candidacy.
"Before you can begin to fix any problem, the first step is acknowledging that it is a problem," said Exum, a Democrat who endorsed Steele in the waning days of the campaign.
Mfume said he is "encouraged by Dean's remarks." He spoke often during and after the campaign about his frustration that white party leaders appeared to embrace Cardin's candidacy, at the expense of his.
"I agree with [Dean], and we're all Democrats who believe more than anything else that the Democratic Party really holds the best hope for that kind of racial and gender diversity," he said. "At the same time it's not enough to just get people in the process. They really do have to be the right people who really do care about the communities in this state."
But other Democrats said that black voters issued their verdict on Steele's campaign Tuesday, giving Cardin their support by a 3-1 margin.
Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said issues guided their decisions, most prominently, their widespread discontent with the Iraq war. Steele's ties to President Bush also drove voters to Cardin, Ivey said.
"Don't just look at the race factor," Ivey said. "Ben Cardin was a virtual unknown to people down here. Michael Steele was a native son who had been campaigning for four years here relentlessly. People liked him personally, but they didn't like what he stood for."
Ivey added of Steele: "It's hard to imagine a more clear-cut rejection of his campaign effort here in Prince George's."