Whether the issue is gay marriage, Vegas-style gambling or college for illegal immigrants, all of Maryland's ballot campaigns have this in common: They are lavishing attention on black voters.

African-Americans are expected to be fully a quarter of the Maryland electorate this year, a surge in participation attributed to robust support for President Barack Obama.


Their sheer numbers make them important as Maryland, for the first time in decades, faces a trio of major ballot questions. Supporters and opponents of all those issues know that black voters could prove to be the difference in the outcomes.

"There is a unique draw on the ticket that will bring African-Americans out, and if you are in the strategy business in Maryland politics, you have to account for that," said Mike Morrill, a veteran Democratic strategist.

"In any election in Maryland, you have to pay attention to the African-American community," Morrill said. "In this particular election, it is extraordinarily important."

The Nov. 6 ballot will have seven statewide questions, though only three have captured widespread public attention. Campaign organizations have formed around legalizing same-sex marriage, offering some illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates for college, and allowing table gambling games and a sixth casino in Maryland.

The various causes are wooing the black community using all of the tools typically employed by politicians seeking public office — television and radio commercials, paid mailers, email blasts, rallies, phone banks and appeals from the pulpit.

Black voters are noticing. "The campaigns are speaking to African-Americans," said Samantha Master, a 24-year-old student at Morgan State University who pays close attention to politics. "With the language they are using, they are attempting to speak to us."

Supporters of the Dream Act, as the immigrant tuition law is known, started early in the black community. Their first two Web videos highlighted immigrants from Kenya and the Ivory Coast who would get the lower tuition rate if Question 4 is approved.

The goal was to show that black immigrants also would benefit from the Dream Act, an attempt to prevent opponents from pitting African-Americans against Hispanics.

"There were some who wanted to pitch this as a zero-sum game, that any gain for undocumented immigrants was going to go against African-Americans," said Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who appears in a pro-Dream Act ad that will air on Baltimore networks. "That has fallen on deaf ears."

Brown, who is African-American, said the Dream Act strikes a unique chord with African-Americans. "Ours is a community that has fought tremendous battles to blow open the doors of our campuses," he said. Blacks can see the benefit of education for "new Americans," Brown said, "if they are documented or not."

An organized statewide effort to oppose the Dream Act has yet to materialize, though a national anti-immigration group called NumbersUSA began running television ads in the Baltimore market Tuesday. The spots are designed to highlight ways in which immigrants, illegal or otherwise, could cause harm to African-Americans.

"I'm tired of the stereotype that black Americans don't want to work," says a young black man in one ad as he clears the dinner table for his wife and daughter. "I need a job," he says, arguing that immigrants are taking jobs away from black U.S. citizens. "Do our leaders really believe that black Americans don't want to work?"

Roy Beck, president and founder of NumbersUSA, said the group is running ads in Maryland because the state has high numbers of both immigrants and unemployed African-Americans. "You have a mayor [Baltimore's Stephanie Rawlings-Blake] who has promised more immigrant workers among all of this black unemployment," he said.

The fiercer fight for the hearts and minds of African-Americans is over Question 6, the same-sex marriage law. Polls show that a growing number of black voters are warming to the idea, despite opposition among some black churches.


"This fight comes down to the black community. This is not a statewide race," said Julius Henson, a former political consultant who offered early advice to an anti-same-sex marriage group called Jump the Broom for Marriage. Members of the grass-roots campaign have held rallies and organized phone banks aimed at getting African-Americans to vote against Question 6.

Other opponents have organized black churches to participate in a "Marriage Sunday" program where pastors talk about traditional marriage from the pulpit.

During a national conference call with pastors this month, Frank Schubert, the campaign manager for efforts to defeat same-sex marriage in Maryland and three other states, said the religious community must "be bold" and speak out against a "wrongheaded idea" that it is okay for black Christians to support same-sex marriage.

Supporters, too, are relying on religious leaders. Their two television commercials supporting same-sex marriage feature black pastors pitching the law as an issue of fairness. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which endorsed same-sex marriage this year, has opened a ballot committee in Maryland and has spent about $75,000 on radio commercials.

NAACP President Benjamin Jealous appeared at a rally last week attended by about 50 students on the Morgan State campus. "We have never seen a generation as tolerant as yours," he said to the students, urging them to vote for both same-sex marriage and the Dream Act.

As with same-sex marriage, the gambling measure has fired up black ministers — many of whom oppose it on moral grounds. Some of the television spots urging a "No" vote on Question 7 prominently feature black voters.

The Question 7 television ads have largely been funded by rival casino companies. Ads in favor of gambling also have featured appeals aimed at black voters.

New pro-gambling commercials running in the Washington metro area feature the county executives of Prince George's and Montgomery counties, both whom are black. And supporters have turned to Wayne Curry, a black former Prince George's county executive, to head a new grass-roots committee to push the issue.

Even when an ad might not be tailored to blacks, the tens of millions of dollars behind a message can push it to the forefront.

Larry Tyce, a 50-year-old black voter in Riverdale, said he nearly always listens to black-oriented radio stations, and says most of the spots he hears are about gambling.

"They've bought ads telling African-Americans to vote for it," Tyce said. And he plans to do so.