Mfume Endorses Cardin, but Adds Caveat

Congressman and Senate candidate Benjamin L. Cardin, center, gets a handshake of support from former rival Kweisi Mfume at a Democratic unity rally in College Park planned by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Congressman and Senate candidate Benjamin L. Cardin, center, gets a handshake of support from former rival Kweisi Mfume at a Democratic unity rally in College Park planned by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006

Senate candidate Benjamin L. Cardin received the critical endorsement yesterday of Democratic primary opponent Kweisi Mfume, whose blessing came with a blunt warning about the lack of diversity among candidates for statewide office in Maryland.

The main attraction at Cardin's campaign rally at the University of Maryland was supposed to be Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), a rising star in the Democratic Party. But Mfume -- who lost to Cardin on Sept. 12 -- left a stark impression, telling the Baltimore congressman and fellow Democrats, "We have a problem."

On stage at an outdoor amphitheater filled with college Democrats, the former NAACP president enthusiastically put his arms around Cardin, saying: "I know what he's done in the past, and I know what he'll do in the future. He's going to make a damn good senator."

But Mfume cautioned that the party had much work to do to energize black voters. The Democratic nominees for the top four jobs, he noted, look no different than the ticket 50 years ago.

"We need women in leadership positions in the state. We've got to find a way that African Americans and other minorities are represented statewide in office," he said, standing with Obama and other officials.

Cardin, who is white, faces Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) in the general election Nov. 7 to succeed Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D), who is retiring.

In 2002, Steele became Maryland's first African American elected to statewide office and has tried to make inroads with black voters in the overwhelmingly Democratic state. He dismissed the significance of the high-profile endorsements yesterday and picked up on Mfume's theme.

"The challenge of the opportunity is to build a bridge to communities the Democratic Party has taken for granted and has, by its choice of nominee," decided to tell to wait, he said during an afternoon event in Largo. "I'm here to say, 'You don't have to wait any longer.' "

The issue of race has been at the forefront of the Senate contest since the primary, in which Mfume finished second in a crowded contest. Cardin lagged far behind Mfume in parts of the state where blacks are the majority. Mfume won nearly 70 percent of the vote in Prince George's County and 64 percent in Baltimore.

Cardin's challenge, said Democratic legislators in Prince George's, is to overcome disappointment in the black community. African Americans represent one of the most loyal Democratic voting blocs in Maryland, but resentment among some black voters lingers from the 2004 election, when the Democratic nominee for governor, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, did not pick a black running mate.

"The fact that we don't have an African American" at the top of the ticket, said Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), "doesn't help Ben." Currie, one of the few lawmakers in the battleground county who endorsed Cardin in the primary, hopes to convince his constituents that "there isn't anyone I've met who better understands or is more effective in government."

One Democratic African American is on the statewide ballot: Del. Anthony G. Brown of Prince George's, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's running mate in the governor's race.


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