Bowie -- At a diversity forum yesterday at Bowie State University, Gov. Martin O'Malley told an audience that blacks and whites alike share the responsibility to ensure racial justice and opportunity for all.
"I grew up in a household where the names King and Kennedy were revered ... not so much for what they did in their lives but for the needful things they gave their lives to pursue," O'Malley said, referring to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
"Our challenges may change," he added at the Black History Month event, "but our continued pursuit of that needful thing, call it freedom, call it justice, does not."
O'Malley won election last year at a time when many black leaders said they were tired of being taken for granted by the Democratic Party. Since taking office, he has taken steps to convince them he won't.
He has repeatedly emphasized the need to improve Maryland's minority business program, has nominated African-Americans to top posts in his administration and has used rhetoric to suggest that he not only understands their struggle but feels a part of it.
O'Malley went on to say that as a young boy, his father instilled in him a sense that African-Americans hold a unique place in the nation's history because of their suffering through slavery and Jim Crow. "He told me, 'Had I grown up poor and black instead of poor and white, I'm afraid my anger would have had me in jail for a very long time,'" O'Malley said.
As the white mayor of predominantly black Baltimore from 1999 to 2007, O'Malley had a lot of experience crossing the racial divide.
He defeated two prominent black candidates to get his party's nomination, and after his first term, he handily beat another African-American candidate to win re-election. But when O'Malley ran for governor last year, he found himself in a different, but no less tricky, realm of racial politics.
On the day he won the Democratic Party's nomination for governor, two black Democrats - former congressman and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People head Kweisi Mfume and former state Cabinet secretary Stuart O. Simms - lost their primaries for U.S. Senate and Maryland attorney general, respectively.
Many black leaders questioned whether African-American voters - the core of the Democratic base - would turn out to vote last fall. Some openly criticized the state Democratic Party for not doing more to support black candidates for statewide office. And a few endorsed Republican candidates instead.
The discontent among some black leaders went back at least four years. In 2002, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend chose a white running mate while Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. picked Michael S. Steele, an African-American. Ehrlich won decisively that year.
But O'Malley won the overwhelming support of the black community, despite Ehrlich's efforts to woo African-American voters, especially in vote-rich Prince George's County.
According to an exit poll, O'Malley won the black vote by a 4-1 margin.
Former Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry was one of the African-American Democrats who crossed party lines to endorse a Republican, Steele for U.S. Senate last fall.
He declined to say how he thinks O'Malley is doing in reaching out to the black community, but he said he thinks the issue of how the Democratic Party treats black voters will remain a vital one.
"Until there are some fundamental changes in the party to address important urban issues around the state, it's going to remain a touchy subject," he said.
Since taking office, O'Malley has repeatedly said he favors the state doing more business with minority contractors, an issue he made a signature effort of his administration as mayor of Baltimore.
At Board of Public Works meetings, he has routinely quizzed state officials about minority participation on the contracts he is asked to approve, and yesterday he got the biggest applause of his speech at Bowie State by promising to make minority contracting the first thing bureaucrats are measured on through his new StateStat performance management process.
He also sought yesterday to couch much of his agenda in terms of race. Items that he usually calls part of his "working families" agenda - freezing tuition at University System of Maryland campuses, expanding financial aid and increasing school construction funding - were cast yesterday as part of his "justice agenda."
O'Malley has also increased the number of minorities in the Cabinet and senior staff. Ehrlich had four African-Americans among his top advisers, including Steele. O'Malley has eight, including Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and five members of his Cabinet. Another Cabinet secretary, Thomas E. Perez, who heads the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, is Hispanic.
"Everyone counts, and everyone has something to offer, and everyone does better when we all have the opportunity to succeed," O'Malley said.
Attorney William H. Murphy, an African-American who recorded radio ads for Ehrlich urging black voters to reject O'Malley, said he is "guardedly optimistic" that O'Malley will work to improve civil rights for African-Americans and other minorities.
Said Murphy: "I would hope that ... he would be enthusiastic about carrying that agenda forward as no Democratic governor before him has ever done."