Opinion was mixed among black leaders in Prince George's County yesterday about whether a top Democrat's comment that Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is "slavishly" devoted to the Republican Party is racist.
"If there are those that feel offended, then I guess it has merit," said the Rev. Joel Peebles, assistant pastor at Jericho City of Praise, a large black church.
Mr. Peebles attended an afternoon luncheon in Beltsville, where he and about 30 other pastors listened to Mr. Steele, a black Republican running for the U.S. Senate, speak about his moral convictions.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Southern Maryland Democrat, made the comment Sunday before a group of mostly black business leaders in Upper Marlboro, as reported by MSNBC.
Mr. Hoyer, who is white, has apologized for the remark, saying he should not have used the word "slavish," but that he meant no offense.
"Why use that word?" Mr. Steele said in an interview. "You saying it tells me you think it and feel it."
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Mr. Steele's Democratic opponent, yesterday agreed that Mr. Hoyer's remarks were "the wrong words to use," but said the apology should "put an end to it."
Race has played a key role in the Maryland Senate race, which has been one of the most-watched contests in the nation. Mr. Steele, the first black to win a statewide election in Maryland, has the potential to capture votes among the Democratic Party's most loyal voting bloc -- blacks.
Wayne Frazier, a black businessman who attended Sunday's luncheon, said that he was not offended by the remark and did not see or hear anyone else who was offended by it.
"After Steny Hoyer spoke, it was a standing ovation they gave him," said Mr. Frazier, who is a staunch Cardin supporter. "It didn't affect the audience at all."
"I see it as Michael Steele refusing to address the issues and trying to incite folks," Mr. Frazier said.
Mr. Steele rejected that argument.
"In my view, it is absolutely [racist]," Mr. Steele said in an interview. "Why do [the rules] always seem to change with me?"
In 2002, Mr. Hoyer called Mr. Steele a "token" candidate, and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. called him an "Uncle Tom." Both Democrats later apologized for their remarks.
Meanwhile, a Cardin staffer last month was fired for referring to Mr. Steele as an "Oreo" on her personal Web log, and a liberal blogger last year depicted Mr. Steele as a minstrel.
A few influential pastors at the luncheon declined to comment on Mr. Hoyer's remark.
But the Rev. Emma Jean Thompson, co-pastor of Integrity Church in Landover, said, "Many times if you are black and want to be a Republican, you are breaking away from the plantation, and I passionately disagree with that."
The Rev. Anthony Evans, head of the National Black Church Initiative, condemned the remark, and the Maryland Republican Party called on Mr. Hoyer to resign.
Also yesterday, Mr. Steele released a new commercial in which he criticizes the Republicans for covering up a congressional-page scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican.
"When I see Washington politicians covering up scandal, protecting each other rather than protecting children, it's time to show them the door," Mr. Steele says. "And I don't care which party they're in."
Mr. Cardin has led Mr. Steele in most polls, but a new Survey USA poll yesterday showed that the two candidates are even.