- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Maryland Democratic Party’s traditional support among blacks appears to be slipping, now that hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons — who has helped register thousands of Democratic voters — has endorsed Republican Michael S. Steele for the U.S. Senate.

Mr. Simmons is scheduled to hold a fundraiser tonight at Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park for Mr. Steele, the lieutenant governor and the first black to win a statewide office in Maryland.

“Russell Simmons is one of the leading progressive voices in America,” said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.

“This is a major endorsement for Lieutenant Governor Steele that will help him attract young people, as well as black voters,” Ms. Brazile said. “Once again, this should serve as a wake-up call to Democrats not to take their most loyal constituents and voters for granted.”

Mr. Simmons, who promoted the rap group Run-DMC in the 1980s and has since built a media and clothing empire, helped the Democratic Party register hundreds of thousands of voters via the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, which he co-founded in 2001.

Mr. Simmons “definitely represents the younger generation. … He’s a pioneer, and hip-hop has become one thing that defines black youths in this country,” said Tyrell Ruff, a 19-year old Baltimore native.

“Russell Simmons … would definitely get some votes for Mr. Steele. If you look at black kids in the city, many of them would probably be wearing something he made,” said Mr. Ruff, a sophomore at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

Cathy Hughes, founder and chairman of Radio One, the seventh-largest national radio conglomerate and the largest aimed at black audiences, also is supporting Mr. Steele and will attend tonight’s event.

“That’s huge,” said Eric Nelson, a 34-year old rapper and single father from Baltimore. “The tide is shifting.”

“These are both people who not only built extremely successful companies but companies that are actively involved in their communities,” Steele spokesman Doug Heye said. “It goes to what Mr. Steele talks about in building legacy wealth.”

In their endorsements, Miss Hughes and Mr. Simmons praised Mr. Steele’s potential in the Senate above that of the Democratic candidates, including one of the board members of Mr. Simmons’ political action group — former NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume.

Mr. Mfume, the only black Democrat in the Senate race, is vying in a crowded field that includes U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the front-runner, for the Sept. 12 primary nomination. Mr. Steele faces minimal opposition in his primary.

Mr. Mfume said that Mr. Simmons’ support of Mr. Steele is not a slap in the face.

“Everybody’s free to do what they want to do. That’s why they call it America. I don’t have a problem with it.”

Early in his campaign, Mr. Mfume criticized Democratic leaders who, he said, were ignoring his candidacy and warned that many black voters will think about crossing over to the Republican Party if Mr. Steele is its nominee.

State Democratic officials already have taken notice, lavishing attention on Prince George’s County — a mostly black jurisdiction with Maryland’s highest concentration of registered Democrats.

In addition, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, the Democratic nominee for governor, has chosen a black lawmaker from Prince George’s County, state Delegate Anthony G. Brown, as his running mate.

Before dropping out of the gubernatorial contest last month, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan also had selected a black running mate — Baltimore lawyer Stuart O. Simms, who now is running for attorney general.

What’s more, two Democratic operatives resigned last fall after they illegally obtained Mr. Steele’s credit report, and one of the operatives pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for her role in the theft earlier this year.

And in response to a poll last year, Democrats have sought to link Mr. Steele to President Bush and national Republicans in order to turn Mr. Steele “into a typical Republican in the eyes of voters, as opposed to an African-American candidate,” according to the poll’s summary.

Mr. Simmons’ endorsement of Mr. Steele adds to Democratic concerns about holding on to black voters.

“It did get my attention. I will not lie,” Mr. Nelson said. “Russell Simmons’ endorsing someone will make me think, ‘Well, let me take a look at this guy.’”

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