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Top Democrats duck on Steele hits

Three of Maryland's top Democrats -- including the two leading candidates for governor next year -- declined to repudiate comments by black Democratic leaders who said racially tinged attacks against Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele are fair because he is a black conservative Republican.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, both white and running for governor, ducked direct questions about the propriety of the black leaders' remarks, which The Washington Times reported yesterday.

"Steele's got a record there that he has to defend. ... I think he is open to criticism in a number of areas," Mr. Duncan said after a tree-planting ceremony at an Olney middle school named after civil rights icon Rosa Parks, who was buried yesterday in Detroit.

"If there are criticisms to be leveled, they should be leveled on issues," Mr. O'Malley said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Harbor Bank of Maryland, a black-owned bank in Baltimore.

But Kweisi Mfume, who is running for senator, yesterday outright condemned the comments by his fellow black Democrats.

"Racially tinged attacks have no place in this campaign for U.S. Senate," said Mr. Mfume, who has chided his party's lack of support for his campaign. "If they did, I could very well be the object of public racial humiliation, based on my skin color, by people who don't like my politics."

"Black bigotry can be just as cruel and evil as white bigotry. There are too many bigots in too many places," Mr. Mfume said, repeating a common refrain from his speeches.

Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman backed the black Democrats' comments.

"Mr. Steele is already known by the company he keeps," said Mr. Lierman, who is white. "There is a reason people call [Republicans] the party of Clarence Thomas. ... They support [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas and his priorities and his issues."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George's County Democrat, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, did not return calls seeking comment.

The Times reported yesterday that several black Democratic leaders said using racial references to attack Mr. Steele were fair because of his politics.

"Party trumps race, especially on the national level," said state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a black Baltimore Democrat. "It's democracy, perhaps at its worst, but it is democracy."

State Sen. Verna Jones, Baltimore Democrat and vice chairman of the General Assembly's black caucus, said black Republicans deserve criticism because the GOP has not promoted the interests of the black community.

Even the spokesman for Mr. Mfume's campaign said pelting Mr. Steele with Oreo cookies and calling him an "Uncle Tom" are simply "pointing out the obvious."

"There is a difference between pointing out the obvious and calling someone names," Mfume spokesman Joseph R. Trippi said Tuesday.

In addition, Delegate Dereck Davis, a black Democrat representing the Prince George's County district where Mr. Steele lives, yesterday said he "heartedly disagrees with" race-based attacks on the lieutenant governor.

"[Mr. Steele's] views are out of the mainstream with the community," Mr. Davis said. "I nevertheless believe we can disagree without being disagreeable."

"I wouldn't go so far as to say [Republicans] are anti-black," he said. "Both parties can go a lot farther to addressing issues that are important to the African-American community."

And U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a black Maryland Democrat, said he "emphatically repudiates [and] condemns the racist and stereotypical attacks on Mr. Steele."

At the center of the debate is the News Blog -- a liberal Web log run by Steve Gilliard, a black New Yorker -- which removed this week a doctored photo of Mr. Steele that depicted him as a black-faced minstrel and referred to him as "Simple Sambo."

The Maryland Democratic Party has denounced the depiction and has denied any connection to the Web log.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which had two operatives resign in September after they admitted they obtained a copy of Mr. Steele's credit report, yesterday afternoon killed a link from its Web site to the News Blog site.

Mr. O'Malley yesterday decried the News Blog site.

"The Internet can be a cowardly tool," he said. "The stuff that was posted was disgusting and offensive and has no place in politics."

He also said it would be an "easy pledge" for him not to engage in racial references in his campaign because he has never done so.

Mr. Duncan, however, referred to Mr. Steele's record, citing in particular his support of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s fundraiser at the all-white Elkridge Club in Baltimore.

"I think he should defend his record. I think his record is fair game. When Bob Ehrlich held a fundraiser at a club that discriminates against blacks, I said Ehrlich should apologize. Steele never said that. O'Malley never said that," Mr. Duncan said.

The club has been used by Democrats, including Peter O'Malley -- brother of and adviser to the Baltimore mayor -- who held his wedding reception there in 2003.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Republican Party yesterday organized a small gathering of black civic, business and religious leaders to denounce the black Democrats' comments outside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore.

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