- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2006

BALTIMORE — Democrat Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, campaigning for the U.S. Senate, met with black business owners here yesterday in hopes of preventing what Maryland Democrats fear might be an “emerging black swing” vote that could support Republicans this fall.

“My priority is to help small businesses,” said Mr. Cardin, of Baltimore. “We need to do a better job for fairness and equality and opportunity in the minority communities.”

Wayne R. Frazier Sr., president of the Maryland/Washington Minority Contractors Association, said the event was an opportunity “for us to tell [Mr. Cardin] what we expect of him, not [what we are] looking for, but what we expect of him. … The mandate is, he has to deliver for minority business.”

Mr. Cardin gave a short speech to about two dozen attendees and then fielded questions for about an hour.

Several black entrepreneurs who attended said afterwards that they liked what they had heard, but acknowledged they were undecided on whom they would vote for this fall. The Senate seat is coming open with the retirement of Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

Mr. Cardin said in an interview after the event that helping minority businesses has been “a priority of mine ever since I’ve been in office.”

“Providing economic opportunity is part of the DNA of the Democratic Party,” said Mr. Cardin, who was elected to the Maryland state legislature in 1967 and has served in Congress since 1987.

An internal Democratic poll leaked earlier this month showed an “emerging black swing” vote in Maryland, made up of mostly younger black men and “upper-middle-income” voters.

The poll of 500 likely black Democrat voters called Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the likely Republican candidate for the Senate seat, a “unique threat,” and recommended that Democrats “knock Steele down.”

Mr. Steele, who is black, hopes to gain support from business-minded black leaders and entrepreneurs. However, the latest poll released Monday by Gonzales Research and Marketing showed Mr. Steele trailing Mr. Cardin by 15 points.

Yesterday, Mr. Steele touted his work in reforming Maryland’s Minority Business Enterprise, and said he has steered about $70 million “in grants and loan guarantees” to minority businesses in the state.

“I will continue to support policies that promote real legacy wealth for African-Americans and all Americans,” Mr. Steele said in a statement.

The U.S. Census Bureau announced yesterday that black-owned businesses grew 45 percent between 1997 and 2002, which was the fastest rate during that time for any ethnic or racial group.

According to the census report, Maryland had the sixth-largest number of black-owned businesses by 2002, numbering 69,410.

The state Republican Party slammed Mr. Cardin’s record on helping small businesses, saying he has voted against tax cuts that they say have helped the state reach a record-low unemployment rate of 3.6 percent.

“Ben Cardin has a long record of supporting costly regulations that kill business growth and strain small-business profits,” said John M. Kane, state Republican Party chairman.

Mr. Frazier said that while he agrees with Republicans’ pro-business stance, he has found that “Democrats support business and commerce, too.”

“People say, ‘Well why do you want to support Ben Cardin? He hasn’t done anything for minority business,’” Mr. Frazier said. “But in Ben’s case, his issues were health care and Social Security. …That affects all of us, not just minorities.”

Mr. Cardin said he has worked to open up the federal bidding process to all businesses, but said there is still much discrimination against minority businesses.

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