WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate frontrunners Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume are carrying an “extra burden” into Tuesday’s primary election.
If votes tally a particular way, as some polls suggest, the Democratic Party in Maryland faces the possibility that no black candidates will remain at the top of the party’s ticket come Wednesday, analysts agree. And if that happens, black voters, some of Maryland’s strongest Democratic voters, may not vote in November, hurting the whole ticket.
Democrats could be offering a ticket with four white candidates for the key positions in Maryland if Congressman Cardin wins the U.S. Senate nomination, William Donald Schaefer, or even his two top rivals, wins as comptroller; Douglas F. Gansler, takes the attorney general nomination over his African-American rival Stuart O. Simms, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley is the Democratic nominee for governor.
There is a possibility that only Prince George’s County Delegate Anthony G. Brown would be representing the African-American community on the Democratic general election ticket as candidate for lieutenant governor.
“Is that enough for the African-American community to vote for the Democratic Party?” asked Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park. “I don’t know if that is going to be enough.”
The racial situation in Maryland for the Democrats is “an extra burden” for Cardin and Mfume, Walters said.
Because many black voters are still angry with the Democrats after gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s decision in 2002 not to select a black running mate, the race issue still permeates the Senate campaign, Walters said.
And the conventional political wisdom in Maryland is that Democrats can’t win statewide if African-American voters stay home.
Around 29 percent of Maryland’s population is African American, according to the census database. Almost 30 percent of primary voters are black, and they usually make up about 20 percent of Maryland’s general election voters, said Maryland pollster Keith Haller to The Baltimore Sun Wednesday.
Even though both candidates have avoided making race an issue in the competition, they have worked hard to win the support of black voters, an effort that in the last days has became more persistent, particularly since their likely Republican opponent in the November election is Maryland’s first black lieutenant governor, Michael Steele.
Even their choice of a final debate had racial undertones. Cardin and Mfume debated at First Baptist Church of Glenarden at the invitation of the Collective Banking Group of Prince George’s County and Vicinity, a coalition of more than 100 black churches.
While the issue of race never came up, the two were careful to cater to Prince George’s County, with a population of 66 percent African Americans, according to census information.
Cardin’s job, Walters said, is to widen his support among black voters, while Mfume is trying to get more support among white voters, Walters said.
Cardin got important endorsements from black leaders, but Mfume got two very valuable ones a week ago, when U.S. Reps. Albert R. Wynn of Largo and Elijah Cummings of Baltimore finally announced their support of his candidacy.
“He has solidified his base, and that is very important to win an election,” Walter said. “It helped to strengthen his base in the African-American community.”
Patrick Gonzales of Gonzales Research and Marketing said that “race per se does not seem to be an issue” in the competition to replace Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who is retiring, but agreed that the Democrat situation added an extra burden.
Yet, if during the primary the percent of black voters increases, Mfume’s chances of winning would increase, Gonzales said.
Cardin however is representing a wide area of Maryland that has changed over the years and has added more new voters, which could help him in the competition, he said.
A poll from Gonzales’ research firm released Aug. 31, showed Mfume with a 68 percent of African-American voters, and Cardin with 19 percent. The same poll showed Cardin winning the primary by 13 points over Mfume. Walters said that the difference is not that high, and emphasized that 10 percent of voters are undecided.
“A lot of them might vote for Mfume, but because they would like to see a much stronger position against the Iraq war than Cardin had in the House”, among other issues that could differ between them, he said.
Oren Shur, Cardin’s press secretary, said the campaign focus is on the issues that people in Maryland are worried about.
“The African-American community, like all other Maryland communities, is worried about how Bush is running the country,” he said. “Cardin is running on his experience, on his record on those issues that people are concerned about.”
Mfume said the race issue was “off the table” in this competition.
“Race matters, but sometime we give it too much importance,” he said, because when you strip that away what you’ve got are people’s problems to solve.
Bruce Gordon, president and chief executive officer of NAACP, said that race is not an issue in Maryland’s election.
“You have a good chance that in the state of Maryland you’ve two black contenders for the Senate, one in the Republican side another in the Democratic side. That leads me to conclude that the issue is not race but qualifications,” he said. “Cardin is a qualified candidate, Mfume is a qualified candidate. Ultimately the voters are going to take their positions . . . and pick the best candidate.”