In deep-blue Maryland, it's the white Republican running for governor who has a direct message for black voters.
GOP nominee Larry Hogan has canvassed along inner-city streets and spoken to students at a historically black college in Bowie. He says his party has too often overlooked African-American voters — and argues his job-creating economic policies are just what's needed to address the community's high jobless rate.
"Unemployment has doubled under this administration and we've lost 100,000 jobs," Hogan told a mostly black audience at Bowie State last month. "But if you're young, or you're black, it's even worse. And if you're a young, black male, the unemployment rate is twice as high. There are serious issues out there."
Democrat Anthony G. Brown — whose election would give Maryland its first black governor — often campaigns before African-American groups, but studiously avoids talking about minority voters. He prefers a broad message of inclusion, saying his policies are designed to make life better for everyone.
"Maryland needs a governor who is going to be fighting for families regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, geography and other sorts of demographics," Brown said when asked about his message for black voters. "We need someone who is going to fight for all Marylanders."
African-American voters make up about a quarter of the electorate in Maryland, enough to swing a contest. They tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. But experts say the party's candidates should not assume blacks will show up at the polls, and Republicans are smart to try to cut into that base.
Even though Brown could be Maryland's first African-American governor, by not bringing up the point he is using a strategy that other barrier-breaking candidates have employed, including President Barack Obama.
"President Obama illustrates this as well," said pollster Steve Raabe of Annapolis-based OpinionWorks. "It's easier for a ... white candidate to talk about race than an African-American candidate. When an African-American candidate talks about it, some white voters may not be receptive."
Most polling shows that nine times out of 10, African-Americans in Maryland vote for a Democrat, said Raabe, who has conducted surveys for The Baltimore Sun. But in a non-presidential year, black voters may turn out less than in some recent elections.
"If Brown's not going into the community and discussing the historic nature of his candidacy, perhaps the turnout won't be as high," Raabe said.
Brown's candidacy is historic on several fronts. Not only would he be the first African-American elected to the governor's mansion in a state that 152 years ago voted to support slavery, he would be the second ever elected below the Mason-Dixon Line and just the third in U.S. history.
And if elected, he would be the only black governor in the nation. No other African-Americans are running for governor in November, and Democrat Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, the only current black governor, will leave office at the end of the year.
But Brown doesn't raise that potential accomplishment, and he avoids spelling out what he would specifically offer black voters. Hogan, meanwhile, has seized a few opportunities in recent weeks to make a direct pitch to the black community.
Hogan urged African-Americans at Bowie State last month to consider their vote carefully. "It's pretty simple: If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've always got," he said.
"Look, I'll be the first to admit that many people in my party are unwilling to reach out to the black community about our ideas, about the promise of empowerment, economic freedom and opportunity. And that bothers me," Hogan told a chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
"But too many people on the other side feel that they can ignore you," Hogan said. "And just take your vote for granted, year after year after year, and that bothers me, too. It should bother you. Why should you be able to be stereotyped? Why should one candidate or one party be able to write you off, and the other side take you for granted?"
Hogan's campaign says it has a sophisticated outreach effort for black communities, though officials could point to only two campaign events aimed specifically at reaching African-Americans — a picnic the campaign threw followed by canvassing along North Avenue in West Baltimore, and the speech to the all-black fraternity at Bowie State.
Hogan campaign spokesman Adam Dubitsky said the candidate delivers the same message about a failed economic climate to all his audiences, but when facing an African-American group, "he does bring up the fact that blacks have fared far worse than whites over the past eight years."
The language is strikingly different from how Brown addresses black audiences, and how Brown discusses what he would do for the African-American community.
Asked in an interview what he offers black voters, Brown spoke for five minutes before answering the question directly.
"The things that we do to improve the quality of life in Maryland certainly have tremendous benefit for the African-American community," he said.
When pressed, he said his plans to reduce crime and address disparities in public health would have a greater impact in the black community. His proposal to eventually offer full-day, government-funded pre-kindergarten to all 4-year-olds whose families want it also would greatly benefit people of color.
He pointed to his support for legislation approved this year to raise Maryland's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by July 2018. He backed the legislation "because it's good for all Marylanders," he said. But "it happens to be that a disproportionate percentage of Marylanders who are on minimum wage are African-Americans and other Marylanders of color.
"So while we fight for and promote an increase in the minimum wage for all Marylanders who are on the minimum wage, it does have a disproportionate impact — in this case a positive impact — on the African-American community."
Several observers said it's no accident that Brown is being careful not to be seen as a black candidate courting the black vote.
"It's an unspoken axiom for minority candidates," said Del. Dereck Davis, one of two black committee chairmen in the Maryland General Assembly. "Everyone in the room knows what you're saying, but you don't say it. Folks in Anthony's position, who are breaking barriers, they have to be very careful about being perceived as having a narrow agenda. It marks them as unacceptable to a wide audience."
But for candidates who are not minorities, Davis said, "they just appear to be broadening their base."
Larry Gibson, a veteran political adviser to African-American candidates, said voters are sophisticated enough to pick up the message. Different rhetoric from the two candidates in the governor's race stems from their different communication styles, he said.
He compared Brown's rhetoric to that of Obama, "who has a way of talking about a lot of things, not just race, that's sort of indirect." For Brown, Gibson said, "it would be out of character if he talked about race differently than he talked about anything else."
At a recent African-American heritage event in Towson, some black voters hailed Brown and compared him to the president, who attended Harvard Law School at the same time Brown did.
"I was trying to get the president. You're the next best thing to it," Benjamin Bland, 72, told the lieutenant governor.
Brown asked for help getting the out the vote. Bland said later that he didn't need Brown to tell him specifically what he would do for black voters, because the broader message of social justice for everyone resonated for him.
"He can't help everybody, but he can bring everyone justice," Bland said. "He has justice all over his face."
Whether Hogan's direct pitch to black voters will be effective remains to be seen.
Nationally, the Republican Party has made an effort to reach out to black, Hispanic and other minority voters in recent years, writing a playbook and dispatching operatives to train local activists to more effectively portray their party's message.
Hogan, who says he was raised in all-black neighborhoods in Prince George's County, said his approach has little do with national efforts.
"My whole upbringing is different," Hogan said. "I don't really care what the national Republicans are doing, because I'm not really involved with them. I'm just doing what I think is right here in Maryland."
Former NAACP President Ben Jealous, a Baltimore native and Brown supporter, said black voters generally distrust that Republicans will follow through with campaign promises.
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He said Republicans have stepped up efforts to appeal to blacks ever since Florida Republican Jeb Bush lost a 1994 bid for governor after candidly remarking he would do "probably nothing" to help African-Americans.
Bush "didn't just offend black voters, he offended white voters," Jealous said. "And so when you see Hogan make those comments, the only person whose vote he seems to be trying to curry is moderate Republicans who might be offended if he appeared actively disinterested in the black vote. So he makes these meaningless overtures."
Hogan contends he doing more than just talking, and says he believes his message is resonating. A campaign spokesman said Hogan's phone bank operations are working to spread the message that his plan to cut taxes will disproportionately help poor black families.
"We were in some of the roughest neighborhoods in inner-city Baltimore, places where a lot of people would be afraid to go," Hogan said. "The thing I heard over and over again up and down North Avenue that surprised me was our core message: 'What are you going to do about rolling back our taxes?' Most of these ... taxes are regressive taxes that hurt people at the lowest end of the income scale the most."
Hogan recounted chatting with a young man leaving a carryout store near Baltimore's Walbrook Junction over Labor Day weekend. "He said, 'Man, I hope you can roll back some of those taxes. I'm working twice as hard and keeping half as much. I've got two jobs just trying to pay my bills and feed my kids. They're killing me with these taxes.'"