By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Black Republican groups emerged from the political margins yesterday, launching a campaign to persuade African American voters to support Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's bid for the U.S. Senate.
Their efforts surfaced in a letter urging former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, who finished second in the Democratic primary, to cross party lines and back Steele against Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, the 10-term congressman from Baltimore.
The push was evident in a Baltimore radio advertisement targeting African American listeners that was sponsored by the Washington-based National Black Republican Association. The ad identifies Martin Luther King Jr. as a Republican and pins the founding of the Ku Klux Klan on Democrats.
One woman says: "Democrats passed those black codes and Jim Crow laws. Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan."
"The Klan?" her friend replies. "White hoods and sheets?"
First woman: "Democrats fought all civil rights legislation from the 1860s to the 1960s. Democrats released those vicious dogs and fire hoses on blacks."
Second woman: "Seriously?"
The ad says that "Democrats want to keep us poor while voting ONLY Democrat" and, "Democrats have bamboozled blacks."
Steele said he had not heard the 60-second spot but said he generally does not oppose Republican efforts to assert their "real place in history."
But the ad brought immediate condemnation from Democrats, who called it misleading and ill-intentioned.
"That's despicable. Downright despicable," said Isiah "Ike" Leggett (D), a former state Democratic chairman who is his party's nominee for Montgomery County executive.
"To run that kind of ad, to assume we are so stupid to fall for that kind of baloney, to use Dr. King's name in a cheap political ad like that, in my opinion, this will not be something African Americans will fall for," said Leggett, who is black.
The ad comes as the issue of race has crowded out other topics since Cardin and Steele won in the primary Sept. 12.
This week began with anger from Steele's camp about an online diary kept by one of Cardin's staff members, which included racially insensitive comments. Cardin fired the employee.
On Tuesday, Cardin appeared in Baltimore with a large group of former Mfume supporters who had gathered to show support for the Democratic nominee and to urge black voters to "come home" to the party in November.
Steele was asked about the ad yesterday as he walked through a shopping mall in Forestville, greeting clerks and shoppers. He said he would not address the radio spot directly, because he had not heard it.
But, he said, "I think Republicans have allowed Democrats to control the debate on political opportunity for African Americans. . . . It's about time the Republicans speak to their real place in history . . . and to debunk the myths."
Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, said he heard the ad while driving yesterday and found the historical references to be distortions.
"It is a totally fallacious rendition of the platform of the parties because, in effect, what happened is, the two parties essentially switched ideology," Walters said.
Walters said he did not think it would help Steele win votes and could hurt him among those who are offended.
"You're not likely to find African Americans having historical amnesia about their own history," Walters said. "This is clearly a sales pitch, and not a very good one."
In another pitch yesterday, Darlene Jackson of the Black Republican Council of Maryland distributed an open letter to Mfume calling on him to back Steele.
In it, she said prominent black politicians -- including U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore) -- are "walking behind the mule" by supporting Cardin.
The phrase was a reference to a book, Jackson said, adding that "the foundation of the blues is walking behind the mule way back in slavery time. Therefore, I submit that Cummings, McFadden and the others need not to walk behind the mule."
Jackson called it a positive sign that Mfume did not attend Cardin's rally in front of Baltimore City Hall on Tuesday, where Cummings, McFadden and others pledged their support for the Democrat.
Why Mfume missed the rally was unclear. He has hinted that he will endorse Cardin, and Cardin said he expects Mfume to announce his support soon.
But Mfume's absence Tuesday was noticed by Steele supporters. Jackson said: "No one saw you in front of Baltimore City Hall yesterday. . . . Mfume, I say take your time and do what is best for your people, even if it means crossing over."
Democrats were more incensed, though, by the radio ad produced by the national black Republican group, which was founded a year ago to "be a resource for the black community on Republican ideals and promote the traditional values of the black community," its Web site says.