Black Democratic leaders in Maryland say that racially tinged attacks against Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele in his bid for the U.S. Senate are fair because he is a conservative Republican.
Such attacks against the first black man to win a statewide election in Maryland include pelting him with Oreo cookies during a campaign appearance, calling him an "Uncle Tom" and depicting him as a black-faced minstrel on a liberal Web log.
Operatives for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) also obtained a copy of his credit report -- the only Republican candidate so targeted.
But black Democrats say there is nothing wrong with "pointing out the obvious."
"There is a difference between pointing out the obvious and calling someone names," said a campaign spokesman for Kweisi Mfume, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a black Baltimore Democrat, said she does not expect her party to pull any punches, including racial jabs at Mr. Steele, in the race to replace retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.
"Party trumps race, especially on the national level," she said. "If you are bold enough to run, you have to take whatever the voters are going to give you. It's democracy, perhaps at its worse, but it is democracy."
Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, a black Baltimore Democrat, said Mr. Steele invites comparisons to a slave who loves his cruel master or a cookie that is black on the outside and white inside because his conservative political philosophy is, in her view, anti-black.
"Because he is a conservative, he is different than most public blacks, and he is different than most people in our community," she said. "His politics are not in the best interest of the masses of black people."
During the 2002 campaign, Democratic supporters pelted Mr. Steele with Oreo cookies during a gubernatorial debate at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
In 2001, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. called Mr. Steele an "Uncle Tom," when Mr. Steele headed the state Republican Party. Mr. Miller, Prince George's County Democrat, later apologized for the remark.
"That's not racial. If they call him the "N' word, that's racial," Mrs. Marriott said. "Just because he's black, everything bad you say about him isn't racial."
This week, the News Blog -- a liberal Web log run by Steve Gilliard, a black New Yorker -- removed a doctored photo of Mr. Steele that depicted him as a black-faced minstrel.
However, the blog has kept its headline "Simple Sambo wants to move to the big house." A caption beneath a photo of the lieutenant governor reads: "I's Simple Sambo and I's running for the Big House."
A spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party denounced the depiction as being "extremely offensive" and having "no place in politics or in any other aspect of public discourse," The Washington Post reported. Democrats have denied any connection to the News Blog.
Still, Mfume spokesman Joseph P. Trippi said Mr. Steele opens himself to such criticism by defending Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for holding a Republican fundraiser in July at the all-white Elkridge Club in Baltimore.
"The facts are the facts. Ehrlich went to that country club, and Steele said it didn't bother him," Mr. Trippi said. "I think that says something ... and should be part of this debate."
Several club members told the Baltimore Sun that, though blacks are welcome as guests and there is no policy banning blacks from membership, the club never has had a black member in its 127-year history.
Democrats also have used the club for various events, including Peter O'Malley, brother of and adviser to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor. Peter O'Malley held his wedding reception there in 2003.
State Sen. Verna Jones, Baltimore Democrat and vice chairman of the General Assembly's legislative black caucus, said black Republicans deserve criticism because the Republican Party has not promoted the interests of the black community.
"The public policies supported by Democratic principles are the ones that most impact the African-American community," she said. "I'm not saying [Mr. Steele] is a sell-out. That's not for me to say."
In July, however, Mr. Mfume noted how Republicans were rallying for Mr. Steele but his party had ignored his historic candidacy. "More voters in Maryland are carrying the impression that the Democratic Party talks the talk, but doesn't always walk the walk. People may find a way to cross over in the fall," he said.
Steele campaign spokesman Leonardo Alcivar said state Democrats are afraid of losing the black vote to Mr. Steele.
"That has caused a great tremble throughout the Maryland Democratic Party," he said. "Of course [they are] going to condone racism. It's nothing new, and it's not surprising."