Deeds Not Words
That summer of 2002, before Townsend had made her choice, this columnist went to one of her close advisers and asked about the chances that Townsend might name Isaiah Leggett, the high-profile Montgomery County councilman, to her ticket.
“I can tell you he’s not the one,” I was told. I responded that if Leggett or another black Marylander wasn’t on the ticket there would be a good chance that the state’s black voters would stay home. The adviser laughed off my prediction, saying that Townsend had all the endorsements she needed from the senior black community, and that was enough. History has shown which prediction was correct. The question is, can the state Democratic party and its candidates learn from history?
In the July issue of The American Prospect, writer Garance Franke-Ruta notes some of the same fault lines between blacks and the party they have predominantly voted for since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Discussing the 2004 election, she writes:
In the Democratic Party, ensuring minority turnout has always been seen as something best solved through the traditional transactional political relationships that have characterized the Democratic Party’s approach to minorities for decades. Transactional politics means, essentially, that we’ll give you X in return for Y—the “you” often being a high-ranking figure in a given community who can be counted on to deliver votes. It’s a top-down model, and it’s the one the Kerry campaign emphasized, turning to prominent minority leaders to help it out, just as Democratic presidential campaigns have done for decades.
With the ascension of Robert Ehrlich and his running mate Michael Steele to lead Maryland’s executive branch, it is clear that the old model may not work anymore—but that isn’t to say that the state’s black Democrats still won’t be expecting their due. Steele is expected to jump off the ticket and run on his own for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat, and if the current talk is anything to go by, Ehrlich may make the GOP ticket all-white again with the addition of state Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick, who is widely known and popular in the black community (so much so that she had a prominent role in the opening last weekend of the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in downtown Baltimore).
The pressure will be on a year from now for Martin O’Malley or Doug Duncan to name a minority to his gubernatorial ticket, and they both know the stakes, after having seen the power of electoral apathy in a state with a black voter base that will be watching keenly. In addition, the state’s Hispanic population, also on the rise, will likely be antsy with anticipation, looking for a “first” at the statewide level—but naming a Latino to the No. 2 spot might create even more interethnic friction and help the GOP in the end.
The Republican Party, in the meantime, has its own tough row to hoe. At the national level, while Republicans loudly and constantly proclaim their desire to lure black voters across the aisle, they suffer from major embarrassments, like the 11 U.S. senators who would not sign the resolution apologizing for the Senate’s failure to pass a bill making lynching a crime. It would be interesting to find out how Lt. Gov. Steele, if he were to join the U.S. Senate, would react to this insult by what was largely a caucus of white Southerners who apparently cannot give up the support of the bigots among their constituents.
2006 will likely be a racial bellwether in Maryland politics, with the possibility of a African-American senator elected from either party. That person will enter a body that still has a long way to go. As for blacks and Democrats, well, it will finally be the year when we see if our gubernatorial candidates can walk the walk. Because if they don’t, they know now that endorsements alone won’t cut it anymore. Politicians have often asked the rhetorical question of blacks, “Where are they gonna go?” The answer is pretty clear—nowhere. They’ll just stay home.
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