Rushern L. Baker III, the African American county executive of majority-black Prince George’s, was pelted with questions Wednesday about why he is supporting the Senate bid of U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen over that of U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards, who is vying to become Maryland’s first black U.S. senator.
A news conference organized so Baker (D) could endorse Van Hollen, a white Democrat from neighboring Montgomery County, turned into a conversation about whether politics — and politician’s endorsements — are becoming post-racial.
Reporters cautiously reminded Baker that he also supported Brian E. Frosh, who is white, over then-Del. Aisha Braveboy, a black woman from Prince George’s, in last year’s Democratic primary for Maryland attorney general.
Baker said he bases his choices on individual relationships, not skin color. “My job is to figure out what is in the best interests of Prince George’s County,” he said.
So the question was asked again. More bluntly. Why would the black leader from Prince George’s choose the white guy over the black woman from his own county to fill retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski’s trailblazing shoes?
“The reason I feel comfortable is because I know the type of senator Chris Van Hollen will be,” Baker said. “I know that on a personal basis.”
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, who endorsed Van Hollen weeks ago and was also in attendance, stepped to the microphone to offer his own take. Leggett, who is also African American, taught Baker at Howard University’s law school years ago. He sounded more than a little professorial as he addressed the crowd.
“Let me just add a little bit to that question because I’ll have the same question, as well,” he said. “And my history goes back a little bit more.”
Leggett, 70, recounted his experiences as a student activist, participating in protests and going to jail during the civil rights movement. For many years, he said, African Americans simply wanted the opportunity to elect their own. Eventually, they relished the freedom to be selective in their choices — black or non-black, he said.
“What we fought for . . . was for the right to make the right decision,” he said.
Leggett said he and Baker, 56, decided to endorse Van Hollen because the congressman’s record on topics important to people of color “is impeccable. His leadership on all of the issues that we fought for is impeccable.”
He then struck a collective note — using “we” and “us” and gesturing to the crowd — as he delivered the heart of his speech.
“Our discussion about race, I think, isn’t inappropriate,” Leggett said. “It is one that we should look at. But we have come a very long way. We’re not quite there yet but we’ve come a very long way. And that long way says to us today that we have an opportunity to elect the best person for the job.”
Van Hollen has amassed a long list of endorsements since announcing a little more than a month ago that he would run to succeed Mikulski (D), including the entire Montgomery County Council and Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). Edwards has the support of the feminist powerhouse Emily’s List and other progressive groups, and has been endorsed by Prince George’s County Council Chairman Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro).
On the day Edwards launched her Senate bid, former lieutenant governor Anthony G. Brown (D) issued a laudatory statement praising her and her record.
But aides to Brown, who is running for the congressional seat that Edwards must give up whether she wins the Senate race or not, said late Tuesday that the statement did not constitute an endorsement.
Brown so far has not endorsed a candidate in the Senate race, his campaign said.
Van Hollen and Edwards are the only declared candidates, but others — including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) — are openly weighing whether to run.