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Candidates Hit the Pews In Maryland Homestretch
Black Church Community Deemed 'Exceptionally Important'

By Ovetta Wiggins and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 6, 2006

Democratic Senate candidate Benjamin L. Cardin thanked the "Lord for waking me up," for his wife of 41 years and for the pastor of the Church of the Living God allowing him to worship with his congregation.

Then, when he mentioned his party affiliation, an ovation interrupted his sentence. A couple in the crowd sprang to their feet, and Cardin nearly fell off his. A smile swept across his face.

"I like this place, pastor," Cardin said, turning to the minister.

With black voter turnout crucial in Maryland's U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races, visits to churches in Prince George's County and Baltimore over the past several weeks have become essential in courting African American voters.

"You can't win Prince George's County without the faith-based folks," said the Rev. Paul A. Wells, pastor of New Revival Kingdom Church in Capitol Heights.

But the churches, typically a stronghold for Democratic candidates, are welcoming Republicans, as well.

GOP Senate candidate Michael S. Steele raced to services yesterday at three black churches in Prince George's and one in Silver Spring. "We have a saying in the community: 'Give it to the Lord,' " Steele said, standing outside Hillcrest Baptist Church in Temple Hills.

Inside, he was greeted with warm applause and praise from the Rev. Eric Redmond, who mentioned Steele's support for charter schools and opposition to capital punishment. "I can only imagine the things he could do in a national office," Redmond said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) stopped by Ark of Safety Christian Church in Upper Marlboro yesterday, where Bishop C. Anthony Muse called him his friend and welcomed him to the pulpit to say a few words. Muse won the Democratic primary for a state Senate seat in District 26.

"People often get into this 'Who is Republican or Democrat?' " Muse told the congregation. "When you are in the house of the Lord, there is no Democrat or Republican, no black or white."

Pastors exhorted their congregations to cast ballots tomorrow but were careful not to declare support for individual candidates, lest they run afoul of rules for nonprofit organizations.

"I think I'd get in major trouble if I made an endorsement," Bishop Adam J. Richardson Jr. told the several hundred worshipers at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington yesterday. "But I think I can say, 'I wish you well.' "

Before him stood Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O'Malley and his running mate, Prince George's Del. Anthony G. Brown, as well as Democratic attorney general hopeful Douglas F. Gansler from Montgomery County.

Two hours later, Cardin and his wife, Myrna, were at Ebenezer, clapping and praying to the rousing drumbeat of the gospel hymns, along with Democratic comptroller candidate Peter Franchot and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Black churches have always played a pivotal role in politics, registering and organizing voters and providing a venue for politicians to reach hundreds of people at a time.

"The black church is exceptionally important to our get-out-the-vote efforts," said David Paulson, spokesman for the state Democratic Party. "We're talking about an impetus that reaches tens of thousands of people and the tentacles that reach even further out into the community."

The Rev. Jonathan L. Weaver, who leads the Collective Banking Group, a religious organization that represents more than 200,000 congregants in the Washington region, said the group has urged pastors to be "insistent, demanding" in telling registered voters to go to the polls.

"We have said to pastors: 'Make sure that you mobilize vans. Make sure that you have the volunteers. Make sure that you tell people if you don't have a way to get to the polls, we will bring you to the polls,' " Weaver said.

This year's hotly contested race for U.S. Senate has been fought more intensely in black churches, where Steele, in part because he is African American, said he sees an opportunity to pick up Democratic voters.

"I have a relationship with a number of pastors, and I've asked them for help," Steele said during a recent interview.

Last week, a group of conservative black ministers, led by Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Lanham, endorsed Steele.

"From my perspective, we have been taken for granted by the Democrats, because so many times we don't get to tell what our issues are. We are told what we are going to vote on or what we stand for," said the Rev. Jim Thompson, who joined Jackson in the endorsement.

Thompson said the group is most concerned about values. "It is not so much Democrat or Republican, but our Christian values."

Steele said he has used his visits to churches to "pause and pray."

"I've been to church on some Sundays where the minister doesn't even say I'm there," said Steele, a former Catholic seminary student. "For me, it's just going to church."

But that does not mean no campaigning takes place: An aide stands just outside, writing down the names of anyone interested in volunteering.

Although Steele has received endorsements from some clergy as well as some of Prince George's Democratic political leaders, he has yet to win over ministers from some of the county's largest African American congregations.

The Rev. Grainger Browning, Ebenezer's pastor, said although Steele is an attractive candidate, Browning is more concerned about who controls Congress. "This is the most critical election that we have faced in a very long time, and the issues are much larger than one man and his ethnic identity," he said.

Browning also said the moral issues go far beyond the debate over same-sex marriage.

"The issues that we face as a nation, from the Iraq war to the war on poverty, [are] also about morality. It was morally wrong to have people dying in poverty following Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast."

Staff writers Ann E. Marimow and John Wagner contributed to this report.

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