From Mfume, Support for a Friend and a Friendly Warning

Sen. Barak Obama (D-Ill.), left, and Kweisi Mfume flank Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in support of his run for the Senate.
Sen. Barak Obama (D-Ill.), left, and Kweisi Mfume flank Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in support of his run for the Senate. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Robert Barnes
Thursday, September 28, 2006

It was the picture that Maryland Democrats had longed for -- Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume arm in arm in the gentle sunshine, the two old friends and rivals now united in Cardin's quest to keep Paul Sarbanes 's Senate seat safe in Democratic hands. Throw in the rock-star senator, Barack Obama , and the feisty-ole-aunt senator, Barbara Mikulski , and what's there for a Democrat not to love?

But nothing comes free.

So while Mfume said all the right things about his former opponent, the charismatic former head of the NAACP brought the celebration up a bit short, scolding his party for ending up in 2006 with a white male-dominated statewide ticket "that still looks like the one of 1956."

He added, "We've got to stand up and deal with the issue of race squarely, right in its face, because we have to learn that if we don't learn how to live together, we will all perish together."

It is, of course, the issue that makes Democrats most queasy about November, as they calculate whether Republican senatorial candidate and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele , the first African American elected to statewide office, can draw away black voters who make up the unshakable base of Maryland's long-dominant Democratic Party.

Just as problematic, Mfume believes, is to have a black electorate uninterested in politicians who don't look like them or who are not speaking to their issues.

"When you consider that turnout was as low as it was statewide, one has to believe that nothing between [primary] election day and the general is going to change except the party talking to its base and getting its base" energized, Mfume said after his speech. "Our Democratic Party is going to have to work to find a way to engage women and racial minorities in the statewide campaign and not let the Republican Party take the high road on the issue of diversity, which it has done, and to its credit, I might add."

"No one ever mentions Anthony Brown ," one Democrat grumbled after the event, referring to the African American delegate from Prince George's County whom gubernatorial candidate Martin O'Malley selected as his running mate. The others on the Democratic ticket are attorney general candidate Douglas Gansler and comptroller candidate Peter Franchot , both white candidates from Montgomery County.

Republicans counter with Steele and Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. and his new running mate, Kristen Cox , and more long-shot candidates Scott Rolle of Frederick, running for attorney general, and Anne McCarthy , in the comptroller race.

Democrats feel a little picked on. It is true that Mikulski is the dean of female senators, that two of the state's six Democratic congressmen are black, that both Montgomery and Prince George's are likely to be headed by African Americans after the November elections and that all black members of the General Assembly are Democrats.

Mfume didn't seem to be holding a grudge against Cardin. Although this is the first "unity" event he has attended since the Sept. 12 primary, he was not stinting in his praise. "My support does not come casually. It is an earned support," he told the throng of University of Maryland students gathered in a grassy amphitheater next to the Nyumburu Cultural Center (it's Swahili for "freedom house").

But he still seems to carry a chip on his shoulder about the race -- he thinks that Democratic Party leaders favored Cardin from the get-go, and that endorsements begat a financial advantage that begat a front-runner status.

But some Democrats say (very) privately that, despite all that, the table was set for Mfume and he didn't take advantage of it. Mfume had overwhelming support from African Americans in Baltimore and Prince George's and a source of potential supporters in the liberal activists of Montgomery and elsewhere.

Conventional wisdom held that the crowded field pulled votes from Cardin, not Mfume. But despite his NAACP connections, Mfume never raised the money for an effective campaign. Reporters are drawn to him -- he's a great quote with a compelling life story -- but the Mfume campaign often gave them little to cover. "What's Mfume doing?" was a frequently asked question among Democratic campaign strategists.

Mfume said yesterday that the low primary turnout "suggests that people were turned off in many cases. And unless we find a way to turn them on again, that will be an action that will drive the election more than issues." But he doesn't say why he was unable to turn them on.

Democrats already are talking about Mfume running for mayor of Baltimore if O'Malley is elected governor. Mfume is noncommittal. So they tried to make it clear yesterday how much they need him.

"Whatever he wants to do, he can just dial 1-800-Senator-Barb," Mikulski said in introducing him. "Summer, winter, spring or fall, Kweisi, we'll be there."


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