Black Republicans Urge New Voter Habits

The Associated Press
Friday, October 27, 2006; 11:51 AM

QUEENSTOWN, Md. -- Black Republican Michael Steele needs to upset some traditions in his Senate bid _ the historical reliance of blacks on the Democratic Party and the reluctance of many whites to vote for a minority.

This demographic and political high-wire act has turned the Maryland contest to succeed veteran Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes into what unavoidably has become a campaign rife with racial politics.

Neither Steele nor his Democratic opponent, Rep. Ben Cardin, who is white, has made race an issue. But Steele doesn't hesitate to point out that he is descended from sharecroppers or to plaster his photo on the bus he uses to tour the state.

Steele is not alone in his challenge. The same dynamic is at play for other black Republican candidates in Ohio and Pennsylvania; Kenneth Blackwell is seeking the governorship of Ohio, and in Pennsylvania, former football standout Lynn Swann is trying to unseat Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.

"The way racism works now, it's not out in the open," said Stephen Maynard Caliendo, a political scientist at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., who studies race in political campaigning. "We have this deep-seated predisposition. It's not really a Republican thing, it's just that white folks are predisposed to think that black folks don't have what it takes to make a good leader. Now, that's subconscious. Nobody will say that."

In Queen Anne's County on Maryland's Eastern Shore, more than 90 percent of the population is white and overwhelmingly Republican. Several voters said they were enthusiastic about Steele's candidacy but also acknowledged that race will be on the mind of some voters.

"I think that there are still people that will vote along racial lines. But personally, I vote for the most qualified person," said William Hoffman, a coffee shop owner in Queenstown. "Frankly, not many people would admit it. I just believe Michael Steele is going to have a difficult time in the some areas of the state. The white areas."

In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, Steele needs to hold onto GOP voters on the Eastern Shore and the western portion of the state while siphoning off traditionally Democratic black voters.

Blacks comprise 29 percent of Maryland's population, and the state has the highest proportion of black voters of any state outside the South.

Steele and Cardin have devoted a great deal of attention to winning over black voters. They've campaigned at inner city barber shops, churches and record stores specializing in gospel music. Both have held fundraisers at a Baltimore museum named for Frederick Douglass. Their first debate took place at an historically black church in Baltimore that might have been a stop on the Civil War-era Underground Railroad.

Caliendo said Steele appears to be working harder to woo black voters than to assure white conservatives they should vote for him. Caliendo cited a Steele television ad where he criticizes both parties.

"Michael Steele in the ad was really appealing to black voters. He was basically trying to say, 'It's OK to vote for me, even though I'm a Republican, because I'm black,'" Caliendo said.

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