In Maryland Election, Race Is the Name of the Game

By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, April 30, 2006

The politics of race in Maryland has a new game that goes something like this: When one white candidate in the Democratic primary for governor picks a black running mate, as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley did in December, then another white candidate must pick one, too, as Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan did last week.

O'Malley's man, Anthony G. Brown, is a Harvard grad from Prince George's County; Duncan's man, Stuart O. Simms, is a Harvard grad from Baltimore. "Checkmate," declared former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening, after assessing Duncan's move.

Forget about playing the race card; leave that noise in the streets. This is race chess, a high-class game for sophisticates who prize the governor's seat.

"Blacks make up a third of the state, and that has to be reckoned with," said Arthur Murphy, a political consultant with the Annapolis-based Democracy Group. "Having a black running mate gives certain constituents another reason to look at the top of the ticket. If the black candidate says, 'He's a good guy and we ought to consider voting for him,' we say, 'Okay, we'll take a look.' "

In race chess, the black lieutenant may also be deployed defensively. Consider the 2002 Maryland governor's race -- widely regarded as the primer on strategic race chess do's and don'ts.

That year, Democratic nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend selected a white former Republican as her running mate, and the weakness was exploited by her opponent, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who deployed Michael Steele, an African American from Prince George's, and went on to take the governor's mansion.

Steele has since moved on to become a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, and Ehrlich is said to be considering Democrat Wayne K. Curry, a former Prince George's County executive, who is black, among possible replacements.

O'Malley and Duncan no doubt have seen the playbook. Montgomery and Prince George's account for more than 35 percent of the state's registered Democrats, while Baltimore and Baltimore County account for about 30 percent. Moreover, Prince George's and Baltimore are predominantly black.

"I suspect that O'Malley's decision [to pick a black running mate] was a combination of race and geography," said Larry Gibson, a political strategist and professor of law at the University of Maryland. "He needed someone in Prince George's to firm up what he may have in Baltimore. But when O'Malley made that move, then Duncan's choice was no longer whether to pick a black running mate, but which one to choose."

Both Duncan and O'Malley chose well, but each selection comes with risks.

Brown, 44, is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. He moved to Largo in 1992, just a few months after graduating from Harvard Law School. He spent nearly 10 months in Iraq as an Army reservist -- and mentioning his military record during campaign stumps usually results in applause.

However, Brown has never run statewide, and how he'll hold up in the heat of political battles remains unknown.

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