CHEVY CHASE – As current senators questioned Judge Samuel A. Alito about his views on abortion and women Wednesday, most of Maryland’s own Senate hopefuls discussed similar issues in their largest gathering so far.
While the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Alito this week about his legal record before deciding whether to approve him for the Supreme Court, Democrats and the Independent vying for the seat of retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., turned out for a bipartisan forum sponsored by the National Organization for Women.
Former congressman and ex-NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume was joined by fellow Democratic candidates Allan Lichtman, an American University history professor; Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist, and A. Robert Kaufman, a longtime political activist. Independent Kevin Zeese also participated.
Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, an early favorite who leads in campaign fund-raising, did not participate in the forum, which attracted about 300 people. His representative, Jolene Ivey, a former congressional staffer who is a Cardin campaign volunteer, read from prepared statements.
The candidates found themselves agreeing on nearly everything — opposition to both the war in Iraq and Alito’s confirmation, helping the poor, and reforming the Democratic Party. They all also criticized Cardin’s voting in favor of the Patriot Act and said so repeatedly.
Cardin’s absence gave the candidates an opportunity to stand out, and Lichtman emphasized women’s and abortion rights, and was critical of Alito.
“The government should not intrude in the lives of women,” he said. “You know as well as I that what counts is what’s in your heart and what’s in your mind.”
Van Susteren similarly spoke out against the Alito nomination. She doubted Alito ever ventured out of his “narrow, legal philosophy” to meet troubled women, including the homeless and abused.
“I am not only opposed to his nomination, but I am insulted by it,” she said. “What’s wrong with having a woman on the Supreme Court? Is there something this administration doesn’t like about women?”
While all candidates advocated a filibuster to Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Mfume tried to distinguish himself by saying the real test is “winning that filibuster.” He also criticized his party for internal bickering and called for more unity.
“There were will be more Samuel Alitos, mark my words,” he said. “We’ve got to be a party that is not just against everything but has a clear idea what it is for.”
Mfume criticized the Bush administration’s secret wiretapping of Americans and questioned the government’s definition of “suspicious” individuals.
“Guess what? I grew up in an area where I was always deemed ‘suspicious,'” he said.
Cardin’s absence also became a topic. The forum’s organizers expected Cardin, but said they were told by his staff last week that he had a “scheduling conflict” and had asked to send a replacement.
A campaign spokesman said Tuesday Cardin never confirmed participation.
“The date had been provided to the candidates in November,” said Duchy Trachtenberg, president of NOW’s Maryland chapter, who explained that details went out to the campaigns in a formal letter. “We were not told (before last week) there was a conflict with the date . . . I don’t want to say (Cardin) never intended on coming, or intended on coming.”
Republican candidate and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who did not participate, was also invited, NOW said.
“This is a time to govern, not to debate,” said Steele spokesman Leonardo Alcivar, citing the beginning of the Maryland General Assembly Wednesday.
Invitations were mailed to registered candidates in November, according to NOW. Candidates who have since registered after invitations were sent — such as developer Josh Rales and former Baltimore County Executive Dennis. F. Rasmussen — did not receive formal invitations to speak but were allowed to attend the forum, according to NOW.
Kaufman, who filed for candidacy last week and has run for office nearly a dozen times, was added at the last minute.