By Ovetta Wiggins and Avis Thomas-lester
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
At least six chartered buses carried mostly poor, black men from as far as Philadelphia to hand out inaccurate voter guides in Baltimore and Prince George's County yesterday as part of an effort by backers of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and U.S. Senate candidate Michael S. Steele to woo black voters.
The glossy voter guide, paid for by the Ehrlich and Steele campaigns, pictured three of Maryland's most prominent black Democrats above the words "These are OUR Choices," even though two were not on yesterday's ballot and the other was running unopposed. Inside, under the heading "Democratic Sample Ballot," it listed mostly Democratic candidates as the preferred choices -- along with Ehrlich and Steele, who were not identified as Republicans.
Several people who distributed the fliers said they were recruited at a Philadelphia homeless shelter and told they would be paid $100, plus two meals, for the day.
Shareese DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, said the group "Democrats for Ehrlich" arranged for distribution of the fliers. She said she did not know how the people were chosen or where they came from.
"I don't know if they were bused in, walked in or crawled in," she said. "I just don't know."
The governor said he was not aware of the hiring of people from Philadelphia. "If folks are here from out of town, that's fine with me. That's what the Democrats have always done," Ehrlich said. "It's legal, and it's what the Democrats have done forever. This is a story?"
Doug Heye, a spokesman for Steele, said: "Our campaign hasn't brought in anyone from Philadelphia. It's not anything our campaign has been involved in. I don't know anything about that."
In Prince George's, the nation's largest majority-black county, almost 300 people armed with the fliers fanned out to distribute them. Some of the workers said a woman who identified herself as first lady Kendel S. Ehrlich greeted them at the Democrats for Ehrlich office in Largo early yesterday, handing out white T-shirts and baseball caps inscribed with the candidates' campaign logos.
"I don't know anything about that" DeLeaver said, when asked whether Kendel Ehrlich was there. She said the first lady was unavailable to comment.
Erik Markle, one of the people handing out the fliers, said he was among those recruited at a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. Markle, a Democrat, said if he had known he would be campaigning and passing out literature for Republicans, he would have declined the offer.
"I know what's going on in Pennsylvania but not Maryland," he said in a telephone interview from a polling place at Andrew Jackson Middle School in Suitland.
The fliers included a page that suggested that three Democrats -- former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson and his predecessor, Wayne K. Curry -- had endorsed Ehrlich and Steele. In fact, Johnson and Mfume endorsed Steele's opponent, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), as well as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Ehrlich's Democratic rival for governor.
Curry had endorsed Steele; he had not endorsed Ehrlich.
"It's a low point in Maryland politics," said Terry Lierman, chairman of the state Democratic Party. Lierman said he plans to contact the state attorney general's office to see whether any rules or laws were broken.
In 2002, Ehrlich's campaign was investigated for recruiting workers -- some from homeless shelters in the District -- to hand out literature at polling places under a statute that prohibited campaign workers from hiring people to work on Election Day.
The statute was overturned in 2003, however, after Towson attorney Larry Nathans argued successfully that the law was an infringement on his client's right to free speech.
Black voter turnout was seen as crucial in the contests for governor and Senate, and Steele's campaign received a boost last week when several black Democratic leaders crossed party lines to endorse his candidacy. Steele, the state's African American lieutenant governor, is a Prince George's resident.
One voter in the county, Ruth Clopp, who got one of the sample ballots in Hyattsville yesterday, said most voters got a "good laugh" out of them while they waited in line.
But State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore), who was featured in a Baltimore version of the voter guide, said she was offended. "It is not illegal, but it is offensive," she said.
Several groups not affiliated with any campaign also focused yesterday on getting black voters to the polls. One effort resulted in a group of Steele supporters getting into a heated argument with voters at a church over campaign literature targeting Cardin.
A mailer, produced by a Bowie woman, urged support for Steele and declared: "Ben Cardin Promises to Attack Jesus Christ, Pastors, Churches and Christians and to Take Away Blacks' Freedom If He Is Elected." The Washington-based National Jewish Democratic Council called the flier "despicable" and "thinly-veiled anti-Semitism" aimed at Cardin, who is Jewish.