By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
U.S. Senate candidate Benjamin L. Cardin reached out to African American leaders within the Democratic Party yesterday, trying to heal lingering racial divisions from the Democratic Primary and focus the contest on issues.
In front of Baltimore City Hall, a succession of black elected officials pledged their support for the veteran lawmaker, who is white, in his campaign against Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the first African American to win a statewide office in Maryland.
"It's time for all Democrats to come home," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore). "We are family!" he boomed. " We are family !"
The task before Cardin may not be so easy. African Americans have been among the most loyal Democratic voters in Maryland, but the dynamics of this campaign could test that loyalty.
Cardin's chief rival in last week's primary, Kweisi Mfume, has signaled that he will rally behind the Democratic nominee but did not appear at yesterday's event and has not formally endorsed him.
In the primary, Cardin drew limited support in two jurisdictions where African Americans make up the majority of voters. In Prince George's County, Mfume collected nearly 71,000 votes to Cardin's 18,600. In Baltimore, Mfume led Cardin 50,731 to 24,637.
Steele, meanwhile, has dedicated much of his campaign machinery to wooing black voters. After sewing up the primary last week, Steele's first move was to visit the election night parties of the two candidates for county executive in Prince George's. He spent the next morning talking to black voters at a barbershop in suburban Baltimore.
But Wayne K. Curry, a former Prince George's county executive, said Cardin can not assume that the county's black voters will line up behind the Democrat this time.
"It's going to be a different kind of election," Curry said. "Steele is a very attractive candidate. Flogging him with partisan labels is not going to be enough."
Steele's campaign pushed yesterday for more answers from Cardin about the caustic remarks a former staff member posted in a personal diary on the Internet. The staffer vented about a work environment she described as being hypersensitive about race and described her discomfort in being a "sex object" for Cardin's Jewish friends, whom she described using ethnic stereotypes.
Cardin fired the staffer Friday, but Steele's campaign has urged reporters to dig deeper to determine whether the woman really was a low-level staffer, as Cardin has described her. They also called the incident part of a pattern of racial insensitivity toward Steele.
"It goes to the heart of why people are sick and tired of politics as usual," said Doug Heye, Steele's spokesman.
Cardin said the matter was behind him and suggested that an attempt to draw further attention to it was a diversion.
He sought to focus the contest on issues at yesterday's event, and speaker after speaker said Steele's candidacy would not survive scrutiny once his views are known. "We know where Ben Cardin stands" Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said. "We do not know who Michael Steele is, and we do not know what he stands for."
Cardin called on Steele to debate twice a week for the remaining seven weeks of the campaign. "Since this campaign started, Ben Cardin has participated in more than a dozen debates. Many of these debates included Democrats, Republicans and third-party candidates. Michael Steele never once showed up," said Cardin campaign spokesman Oren Shur.
In response, the Steele campaign said it was Cardin who has not responded to a request for debate. "We're still waiting for them to return our campaign manager's call," Heye said.
Third-party candidate Kevin Zeese said he, too, should be included in any debate.