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By Russ Smith | Posted 3/23/2005

It wasn’t even two months ago that a well-connected Democratic consultant told me that Paul Sarbanes, 72, was “definitely” running for reelection next year, saying he’d pull a Robert Byrd and keep his safe seat for at least two more terms. I took the tip at face value and grimaced at the thought of Sarbanes, a liberal “conscience,” impeding the growth of Maryland’s Republican party.

Sarbanes, to his credit, isn’t a headline-seeker like colleagues Joe Biden or John McCain, but his steadfast opposition to President Bush’s Social Security reform, foreign policy, and judicial choices is cause to celebrate his departure from Capitol Hill. And although he’s a quiet, cautious man, Sarbanes broke out the hyperbole for the Sun’s Michael Olesker after his retirement announcement, saying he was frustrated by GOP “ideologues” who “don’t want to be confused by facts.” He continued, “There’s been this major shift in economic concentration of wealth and income not seen since the 1920s, and maybe the Gilded Age. That’s not how you build prosperity. That’s trickle-up economics.”

Republicans in Maryland, as the White House is well aware, have only one possible candidate to capture Sarbanes’ seat, and that’s Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who hasn’t yet disclosed his plans for 2006. Liberals can joke about Alan Keyes competing for the nomination, but Steele poses a real dilemma, especially if Baltimore’s Kweisi Mfume scares off fellow Democrats, like youthful Rep. Chris Van Hollen (8th)—the party’s best chance at retaining Sarbanes’ seat—from competing in the primary.

An election between Mfume and Steele would significantly heighten national interest in the contest, not only because both men will be vying to become Maryland’s first black senator, but also for the stark philosophical choice it will give voters. Mfume, who’s pro-choice, said at the announcement of his candidacy, “Am I too liberal for the state of Maryland? We’ll find out. I am proud that on social issues people will label me as a liberal.” Steele’s a pro-life Catholic who’s popular within national GOP circles and is seen as a potentially valuable Bush ally.

While Steele will have to fend off media criticism that he’s an inexperienced minority puppet for Gov. Robert Ehrlich, Mfume has the more serious political baggage, mostly from his strident tenure as the NAACP’s president. Just last summer, the former congressman told Washington writer Hazel Trice Edney, “So, we’ve
got . . . a president that’s prepared to take us back to the days of Jim Crow segregation and dominance.” Deroy Murdock, a conservative black journalist, reacted in a July 13 National Review Online article by saying, “Mfume is either lying through his teeth or is clinically delusional if he believes Bush hopes to reintroduce segregated water fountains and ‘colored only’ waiting rooms.” It takes little imagination to picture the vitriolic attack ads from both parties next year.

Money will gush into Maryland next year no matter who the eventual candidates are given the zeal of both the Democratic and Republican parties for winning both gubernatorial and Senate elections. But Mfume vs. Steele wouldn’t be a typical match-up. It would test the GOP’s national strategy of attempting to appeal to black voters on both social and economic issues, and would divide the influential religious community across the state. It’s traditionally been the assumption that a black candidate can’t win a statewide contest here, despite Maryland’s reputation as a reliably liberal state. The breaking of that barrier is reason alone to hope that Steele and Mfume are the eventual candidates.

Already, there are signs that Maryland’s Democratic establishment is nervous about an Mfume primary victory. Tim Maloney, a Greenbelt lawyer who served 16 years as a legislator in Annapolis, voiced those concerns in a March 20 Washington Post op-ed. Maloney lavished praise on Mfume’s compelling biography—emerging from a troubled youth to a respected public figure—but worried that the putative front-runner is too polarizing for an increasingly moderate electorate. He points out that Mfume called some blacks who support Republicans “ventriloquist dummies.” Instead, Maloney touts longtime Rep. Ben Cardin (3rd) as Sarbanes’ natural successor, claiming, without much evidence, that the “respected fiscal expert . . . appears to be moving boldly toward the Senate race, shedding the political caution for which he is known.”

Cardin or Van Hollen would undoubtedly be the favorite against Steele, but either would be a very close race. Should Mfume prevail, however, it’s the current lieutenant governor who’ll most likely emerge as Maryland’s Barack Obama.

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