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Stump and Grind

By Russ Smith | Posted 8/30/2006

I'm not sure if the endorsement of Michael Steele by hip-hop/fashion impresario Russell Simmons will encourage a significant number of black citizens to vote for the Republican this fall, but there's no denying it's a huge boost, publicity-wise, for the lieutenant governor's U.S. Senate campaign. The Sun apparently didn't consider Simmons' fundraiser on behalf of Steele as news--the only references to the event are found in two Laura Vozzella columns (Aug. 13 and Aug. 27)--but the Washington Post, Washington Times, and Wall Street Journal all considered it a significant event.

In fact, so did Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager, the outspoken Donna Brazile, a black woman who for several years has warned her fellow Democrats that they're ignoring the African-American vote. She told a reporter for The Washington Times in an Aug. 24 article about that night's gala in Baltimore that "Russell Simmons is one of the leading progressive voices in America. This is a major endorsement for [Steele] that will help him attract young people, as well as black voters. Once again, this should serve as a wake-up call to Democrats not to take their most loyal constituents and voters for granted."

As the Post's Matthew Mosk noted on Aug. 25, Simmons "might be the only host to throw fundraisers for both Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michael Steele." Simmons, according to Mosk, campaigned against Steele four years ago, but in the four years since the Ehrlich-Steele ticket won, he claims that Steele has "won him over" by speaking about "education and opportunity."

Ben Cardin, as noted in this space last week, is still running a lackluster Senate campaign, continuing his "let all Democrats be friends" motif, and probably let out a whoop Aug. 21 when The Washington Post endorsed him over challenger Mfume. If so, Cardin still isn't getting the message: Endorsements from elected officials, the state's Democratic establishment, and newspapers simply reinforce Mfume's resonant charge that the 3rd District congressman has been anointed by Maryland powerbrokers who fear that Steele might have a chance of winning the open seat should Mfume defeat Cardin on Sept. 12.

In a long Sun profile of Cardin last Sunday, former state senator John Pica Jr. recalled being discouraged by powerful Democrats, such as Southern Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, to forgo a challenge against his General Assembly colleague for the open congressional seat in 1986. "It was not a tough election for [Cardin], I'll tell you that." Pica said. "The red carpet was laid out for him."

The Post's endorsement treads very carefully on the battle between Cardin and Mfume: The paper obviously favors either candidate over Steele, and lavished praise on the former congressman and NAACP president, saying that primary voters are presented with "an embarrassment of political riches."

Still, it's not hard to read between the lines of the editorial. Cardin leads Steele by varying margins in all polls published to date, while Mfume is about even. The Post, like The Sun, is primarily concerned that a Democrat be elected to replace retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes, in part because it will be a major boost in the national party's very realistic chances of keeping control of the U.S. Senate.

What's left unsaid is the Democratic establishment, ironically, fears an Mfume candidacy because it would pit, for the first time in Maryland's history, two black candidates against each other for a U.S. Senate election. My own preference for Steele has been made clear, but should he be defeated I'd rather have the more liberal Mfume represent the state.

The bigger news last week was the Maryland Court of Appeals striking down the Democratic-controlled General Assembly's successful bill to allow early voting in both the primaries and general elections. The rhetoric on both sides, mostly from Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Mayor Martin O'Malley--and their staffs--was boilerplate that didn't address the real crux of the issue. Ehrlich, whose veto of the bill was overridden, couldn't contain his delight at the decision, saying the decision was a "victory for the Maryland Constitution and for citizens who want fair and accurate elections in Maryland." His main concern, of course, was that the early voting plan--which was to allow five days for citizens to cast their ballots--was weighted in favor of Democratic-leaning precincts, specifically in Baltimore and Prince George's County.

The Baltimore Examiner's Len Lazarick, on Aug. 26, was the only reporter--at least that I saw--who captured a direct comment from O'Malley. The mayor was just as evasive as his competitor, claiming that the court's ruling "will make it more difficult for hardworking Marylanders, who are struggling to provide for their families and cannot afford to take time off on election day to vote." Translated: O'Malley just saw an advantage slip away.

Perhaps it is time for Maryland to join a growing majority of states that allow for varying forms of early voting, but a selective format, one that doesn't include all parts of the state, is clearly rooted in partisan politics and not the evolution of democracy. Both Ehrlich and O'Malley, in just a snippet of what will be a brutal and nasty campaign, would've done voters a service to voice their real feelings on the decision rather than hide behind high-minded statements about the Constitution and "disenfranchised voters."

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