O'Malley, Ehrlich seek to woo black voters before election

He is airing campaign advertisements on minority-owned radio stations. He has enlisted the support of leaders in the African-American strongholds of Baltimore and Prince George's County. He will host a visit by President Barack Obama at historically black Bowie State University on Thursday.

Less than a month before Election Day, Gov. Martin O'Malley is stepping up his courtship of the state's African-American community — a constituency with which the Democrat has had a complicated relationship, but which could decide the outcome of his race against Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

A pair of recent polls, including one released Tuesday, show O'Malley beginning to break away in what had been a neck-and-neck race with Ehrlich. But the incumbent remains concerned about voter turnout, especially after unexpectedly low participation last month in the Democratic primaries in Baltimore and Prince George's.

Since then, O'Malley has sharpened his message to black voters, joining Rep. Elijah E. Cummings this week in calling for a moratorium on foreclosure and linking himself more visibly to Obama. And he has deployed more campaign resources in Baltimore and Prince George's, which together make up a quarter of the state's electorate.

"It's a battle for your vote," former state Sen. Larry Young told his radio listeners Tuesday. Young, a Democrat who has been friendly with both Ehrlich and O'Malley, has not backed either because he wants to host a gubernatorial debate on his station. He is also working to register voters in time for the election.

"I am more than frustrated with those who don't want to vote," he said. "I understand the 'better of two evils' … but to sit on your rusty dusties and not do anything more than that — it's not good."

Young tried to keep the conversation nonpartisan. But many callers couldn't hold their tongues.

" Democrats are in trouble," one said. "They haven't delivered." The caller's voice rose as he chided O'Malley for the timing of his call to stop foreclosures, so close to the Nov. 2 vote.

"Where have they been the last two years? Democrats have so many people in this state fooled."

At shopping centers and community centers in Prince George's County, however, passersby who agreed to talk to a reporter were far more enthusiastic about the incumbent.

"I think Martin O'Malley has been doing a great job," said Brenda James, a 50-year-old Democrat who lives in Landover. She said O'Malley's commercials about keeping college tuition in check resonated with her: "He speaks out, and he shows sensitivity."

Joan Livingston, 48, and her son, Vincent Moorman, 22, of Fort Washington, predicted Obama's visit Thursday to Bowie State University would help O'Malley.

"He's an icon," Moorman said.

With Obama on the ballot, black Marylanders went to the polls in record numbers two years ago, accounting for an unprecedented quarter of the electorate. That continued a long trend from 1994, when African-Americans made up 12 percent of the vote, to 2006, when they accounted for 23 percent.

But turnout in the Sept. 14 primaries was just 21.5 percent in Baltimore, despite the closely contested race between State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and challenger Gregg Bernstein, and 20.4 percent in Prince George's, where several contenders were campaigning actively for the open seat for county executive.

O'Malley has opened an 8-point lead over Ehrlich, according to a poll released Tuesday by Rasmussen Reports, seen by some as a Republican-friendly firm. After a summer in which polls from a variety of sources showed the candidates in a virtual dead heat, a Washington Post poll last week showed O'Malley with an 11-point advantage.

But those numbers won't matter if the voters don't go to the polls. Low turnout among African-American voters in particular would be problematic for O'Malley: Exit polls in 2006 indicated he won the black vote by a 4-to-1 margin en route to unseating Ehrlich.

Wayne K. Curry, a Democrat and former Prince George's County executive, said economic hardships, in particular foreclosures, have deflated black voters, some of whom might now be giving up on politics.

In addition, a $100 million jail for juveniles charged as adults, soon to be built in East Baltimore, has angered some of the city's African-American ministers and community activists.

The Rev. Heber Brown III and others recently tried to confront O'Malley about the jail plans and were turned away by his supporters. In a posting on his blog last week, Brown wrote, "Governor Martin O'Malley NEEDS Black people to show up for him or he's done and he knows it."

Brown urged black voters to demand that O'Malley stop the jail project. This summer, Ehrlich questioned the need for it, even though planning began during his administration.

Some in the black community suggest the problem might be more basic: Neither O'Malley nor Ehrlich is particularly appealing.

"In terms of either one generating enthusiasm in our community, people think it's Tweedledee or Tweedledum," said Baltimore defense attorney A. Dwight Pettit.

Still, Pettit and other black supporters of Ehrlich say, the former governor could peel off enough African-American voters to make a difference.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says she has been working hard for O'Malley.

"This is a really important election for Baltimore City," said Rawlings-Blake, who was a council member when O'Malley was the city's mayor. She pointed to money flowing to Baltimore and congressional redistricting as two big reasons she wants O'Malley re-elected.

"African-Americans understand that we have to have President Obama's back," she said. "Republican governors have a strategy to make it more difficult for him to get things done, to obstruct."

O'Malley's sometimes-rocky relationship with the black community further complicates the election.

In the 2006 election, some black leaders in Baltimore defected to Ehrlich to protest O'Malley's "zero tolerance" approach to crime as mayor, which resulted in thousands of arrests of men and women who were never charged with an offense.

Rawlings-Blake said she has "heard that frustration" about O'Malley's old arrest policies.

"But there's a bigger picture, I think that people see, and that's the priority to move the city forward," she said. "When Baltimore City needed a friend, we had one in Governor O'Malley. History showed that under Ehrlich, we did not have a friend."

Throughout the 2006 race, black leaders in Maryland said they were tired of being taken for granted by the Democratic Party.

After his inauguration as governor, O'Malley worked to improve relations. Early in his tenure, he attended a diversity forum at Bowie State University, where he emphasized the need to expand the state's minority business program, which he said he had languished under Ehrlich.

The state has improved in that area, handing out more contracts than ever before to minority-owned businesses, O'Malley aides say.

Ehrlich chose a black running mate for his 2002 bid for governor, earning the goodwill of many of the state's African-American leaders. Michael S. Steele became the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland.

But four years later, Ehrlich and Steele — then running for the Senate — generated controversy when their campaigns bused homeless men in from Philadelphia to Baltimore and Prince George's County on Election Day to hand out literature that suggested incorrectly that they had received the endorsements of several black Democratic leaders.

Rawlings-Blake said that Ehrlich "lost credibility" with that move.

"He really tried to trick African-American voters," she said. "And this time, he has basically abandoned that black vote, as far as I can tell."

Not so, say Ehrlich's supporters. Pettit, who has been an unofficial adviser to Ehrlich for years, predicted that the former governor's frequent appearances on black radio would pay dividends. Until he began campaigning in earnest this summer, Ehrlich spent his years out of office hosting a talk show on WBAL. He solidified bonds with fellow WBAL talk show host Clarence Mitchell IV, a former Democratic state senator.

The former governor now makes his voice heard often on Mitchell's show and in calls to Young's show on WOLB.

Pettit said Ehrlich is also meeting quietly with African-American community leaders and groups in Baltimore. And he has taped a commercial, yet to air, in which Pettit touts Ehrlich's support of historically black colleges such as Bowie, Coppin and Morgan State.

Pettit said memories of O'Malley's tenure as mayor are "unpleasant in the African-American community."

He cited the arrest policy and headline-grabbing confrontations between O'Malley and black leaders including Kevin Clark, a police commissioner he brought in from New York and then fired.

"There's an element of mistrust with him," Petit said of O'Malley. "I can't exactly put my finger on it, but it's there. It's something about that he's more for political opportunity than for the communities he's served."

Derrick Lindsey, a 47-year-old Temple Hill resident and registered Democrat, said he wants to see a debate before committing his support to either gubernatorial candidate, though he said he is leaning toward O'Malley.

One certainty, however: "I'm voting."



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