WASHINGTON – The Rev. Heber Brown III was not among the 76 percent in Baltimore who backed the O’Malley/Brown ticket or the 75 percent who voted for Ben Cardin.
Brown, 26, the coordinator of Baltimore’s Young Clergy for Social Change, was exactly what the Democrats feared — an African-American who, rather than settle for “the lesser of two evils, a strategy that has not proved to benefit the masses of my people” chose neither major party.
Those fears didn’t bear out. The state’s two majority African-American jurisdictions, Baltimore and Prince George’s County, supported Democrats by at least a 3-to-1 ratio.
But African-American leaders like Brown said that while Republican efforts to peel away black voters fell flat in an election driven by anti-war and anti-GOP attitudes, the Maryland Democratic Party shouldn’t misinterpret that loyalty as approval for a statewide ticket featuring just one African-American, Lt. Gov.-elect Anthony Brown.
African-Americans deserve a larger voice in statewide politics, Brown said, echoing calls from former NAACP Chairman Kweisi Mfume, who lost in the primary election to Sen.-elect Ben Cardin by about 20,000 votes, and Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, who told Maryland Democrats Thursday that future tickets needed to be more diverse.
“But whether the Democrats will really get the message is unclear — because they won,” Brown said. “If they would have lost, the message would have been much clearer.”
Democratic candidates swept statewide races with at least 75 percent of the vote in Prince George’s County, which is home to one third of Maryland’s African-American population, and with similar margins in Baltimore.
But after two African-Americans, Mfume and Stuart O. Simms, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, lost in the primaries, Democrats worried that black voters would sit this one out.
Perceived or real, the threat of losing a chunk of the black vote compelled Democrats to campaign hard in majority African-American enclaves. High-wattage Democrats Bill Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama descended on Prince George’s County days before the election, urging voters not to vote along racial lines.
“You have to directly appeal to the interests of the people who you need to turn out. You have to energize your base voters. It’s not just about race, but about the people who you think are going to vote for you,” said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who represents part of Prince George’s County.
Some experts said the shellacking was evidence that talk about disaffection within the African-American community was overblown.
“The black voters have spoken quite clearly. They overwhelming said the Democratic Party is the party that represents their interests,” said Peter Shapiro, former chairman of the Prince George’s County Council. “There’s definitely more the Democratic Party needs to do. On the other hand, it’s a fairly diverse pool of leaders throughout the state.”
Black Democrats in local races fared well.
The state’s two largest jurisdictions will both have black executives come January. Isiah Leggett’s victory marked a first for an African-American running for executive in Montgomery County, which is majority white.
“They are right to be demanding that they be given a larger voice because they very clearly pulled the Democrats through these times, but they have leaders as well,” said Zach P. Messitte, an assistant professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “I’m not so sure this idea of mandating a black candidate into a statewide election is such a good idea. All that said, this is the most important block and attention must be paid.”
Simms, who was one of three black Democrats running statewide before losing his primary bid for attorney general, said that both parties marketed race, but that “in the end, I think the largest trump factor was the substance. The elections reaffirmed traditional Democratic values.”
Widespread anti-Republican sentiment didn’t hurt either, and the Republicans’ attempts at muting their party affiliation backfired, Simms said.
Bob Ehrlich and Michael Steele “insulted the people of Maryland,” he said, with their “Ehrlich-Steele Democrats” voter guides, which were distributed by homeless men bused down from Philadelphia and erroneously implied endorsements from some Prince George’s County black leaders.
“The entire issue of poll challengers was an insult,” Simms said. “And that did nothing but stoke fires for the need for turnout.”
While race didn’t bear heavily on the vote, Simms said the Democratic Party was the better for having to confront it this election season.
“Central to any resolution is to have a continuing dialogue.”
That dialogue continued Thursday, when Dean, the DNC chairman, scolded Maryland Democrats during a Washington breakfast for not promoting more black candidates.
“I just think we have got to do a better job in Maryland four years from now about diversity on the ticket,” Dean said, according to The Baltimore Sun.
In the future, the ticket must be more representative to avoid “another Michael Steele problem,” he said.
For Sen.-elect Ben Cardin, a white, 10-term congressman, that “problem” demanded a $6 million campaign for a seat in a state with a better than 2-to-1 Democratic advantage. As the party’s chief fundraiser, Dean had reason to be annoyed.
“It was always O’Malley’s race to lose; it was always Cardin’s to lose. Even if there were no Iraq, and regardless of race, they shouldn’t have lost,” said Messitte. “The state’s legacy is just not of electing Republicans.”
That legacy is more fluid today than in the past — as the Maryland Democratic Party is learning, Brown said.
“I’m a born Democrat, but I don’t have that same allegiance that my parents and uncles and aunts have,” Brown said. “But younger African-Americans are more open to exploring their political options.”