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Party Crashers

By Russ Smith | Posted 7/20/2005

Maryland’s Democrats are living in the past if they think that Bob Ehrlich’s June 20 fundraiser at the Elkridge Club (which has no black members) is going to matter much in next year’s gubernatorial election. The governor picked up $100,000 at the golfing affair—peanuts compared to upcoming events in the next year—and in private has likely dressed-down whatever aide didn’t properly research the venue. But it’s a temporary controversy, especially now that Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a likely GOP senate candidate, has belatedly denounced the club’s policies—and, it turns out, according to The Sun, that Martin O’Malley’s brother held his 2003 wedding reception at Elkridge.

Peter O’Malley, the Mayor’s top political adviser, told reporter David Nitkin, “My wife asked about price, capacity, catering, things like that. It never occurred to her, in the year 2003, to ask if the place we were renting had any African-American members. It certainly was integrated the day we were there.” The Mayor, goaded by competitor Douglas Duncan to sign a letter demanding an apology from Ehrlich for the fundraiser, refused, calling the Montgomery County executive’s grandstanding a “desperate” attempt for media attention.

Not surprisingly, Ehrlich has been pilloried by The Sun and The Washington Post. I carry no water for Elkridge, or country clubs in general, but Ehrlich could be spotted littering in Annapolis and the same columnists and editorial writers would pronounce him unfit for office.

And perhaps I missed the editorials critical of Democrats calling for Steele to cancel a July 26 Washington fundraiser where Karl Rove is listed as a speaker. Rove hasn’t been charged, at this date, with any crime, yet Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Steele “has to decide whether [Rove] is the kind of person who reflects his values and those of Maryland.”

The far more significant story in Maryland’s increasingly volatile 2006 elections—on both a local and national level—was the speech that Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman delivered at the annual NAACP convention in Milwaukee on July 14. Mehlman, 38, who grew up in Pikesville, apologized for his party’s “Southern strategy” in the past several decades, blaming Republicans for attempting to capitalize on racial prejudice because they’d given up in attempts to capture black voters.

You can argue that Mehlman, who was indispensable in President Bush’s campaign last fall by registering and turning out a record number of Republicans across the country, was just practicing smart politics, but that’s how elections are won, as demonstrated notably by Democrats such as Bill and Hillary Clinton. Howard Manly, a black columnist for The Boston Herald, praised Mehlman on July 15, saying his speech was “genuine at its core.” The young politico, who, unlike his Democratic counterpart Howard Dean, doesn’t seek headlines or denigrate Americans not aligned with his party, told the assembled delegates that his grandfather, a West Baltimore grocer, “who wasn’t a hero like some of you in this room,” nonetheless joined the NAACP “before the civil-rights movement attracted so many supporters.”

He went to say, “Give us a chance, and we’ll give you a choice to own your own business. Now that the lunch counter is integrated, we need more minorities to own the restaurant, and the hotel, and the high-tech firm, the law firms, in the boardrooms, on the courts and as university professors.” That didn’t sit well with radio celebrity Rush Limbaugh, who on his broadcast that day ranted that Mehlman’s outreach was “absurd,” and an example of Republicans “bend[ing] over and [grabbing] the ankles.”

I doubt Mehlman was concerned by Limbaugh’s indignation. After all, he doesn’t have to worry about ratings and keeping a “dittohead” audience happy; he simply wants to elect more Republicans. And in Maryland, where Steele will attempt to be the state’s first black senator, this is a tactic that has no downside. It’s important to note that Mehlman, given his background in this state and the very competitive gubernatorial and senate elections, will be a frequent behind-the-scenes strategist for both Steele and Ehrlich. If the RNC chairman and his staff can pick off even a small number of voters who’ve traditionally voted for Democrats in the past but feel taken for the granted by that party’s leadership, it won’t be an exciting general election night for Ben Cardin or O’Malley (assuming those two are the candidates).

Besides, O’Malley has more to worry about than snooty private country clubs right now. The flap over his plan to publicly finance a convention-center hotel isn’t going to abate anytime soon, and it shouldn’t. Proponents are correct in recalling that Harborplace was built with the help of taxpayers, but there’s an enormous difference between the Baltimore of 1978 (when residents voted on the initiative) and 2005. Almost three decades ago, what private entrepreneur would take a chance on the city’s downtown district, which was ratty (literally) and virtually empty after dark? Today, the landscape has been magnificently transformed, and there’s no need for O’Malley to fork over $305 million to build a hotel.

If O’Malley wants to spend some of the city’s revenues on construction, wouldn’t it make more sense to renovate and sell the hundreds of boarded-up rowhouses that are less than two miles from the Convention Center?

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