- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin last night skipped an NAACP-sponsored debate in Charles County, Md., a day after the Democratic Senate nominee stammered and stumbled during a faceoff with the Republican nominee, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

Debate organizers said they had expected Mr. Cardin to participate but his campaign had not made a firm commitment to appear with Mr. Steele and Kevin Zeese, the nominee of the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties.

Cardin campaign spokesman Oren Shur said that a scheduling conflict prevented the 10-term congressman from attending the debate at New Community Church of God in Christ in Waldorf.

“He’s campaigning at community events in Prince George’s County tonight and has accepted an invitation to debate at the statewide NAACP conference [in Baltimore] on Saturday,” Mr. Shur said. “We expect to see Michael Steele there.”

Mr. Steele said last night that he would try to adjust his schedule to be there.

The candidates fielded a question about how they would end hate crimes such as the arson fire in 2004 in Charles County in which five white men set fire to more than two dozen homes owned mostly by black families.

Mr. Zeese said racism is still a large part of life for black Americans, and that the problem can be solved only through direct and honest conversation.

“We need to be honest about this big elephant in our living room and face up to racism in this country,” he said.

Mr. Steele said he is still viewed as a black man every time he enters a room.

“Talking about it doesn’t get us to where we need to be,” Mr. Steele said. He also said there are still not enough blacks on corporate boards or running TV networks and major newspapers.

“I don’t see us,” he said. “We have a long way to go.”

Mr. Steele also said the only way to break the cycle of racism is to teach children not to hate.

The debate last night was measured and sober, compared to the one Wednesday.

About 170 people were inside the church, where Mr. Steele and Mr. Zeese also took questions on education, transportation, jobs and the economy, and the Iraq war and foreign policy. The candidates agreed on several issues, including the need to explore alternative energy, cut taxes and modernize the Social Security system.

Mr. Steele suggested a federal-state-local partnership to improve traffic problems that have put a “chokehold” on commuting and other travel from Montgomery County all the way to Southern Maryland.

Mr. Steele said Charles County and the rest of Southern Maryland are often overlooked in political campaigns, so the debate was the first of its kind for the region. “It was important to be here and showcase the people of this part of the state,” Mr. Steele said.

Mr. Cardin’s name was rarely mentioned, except when Mr. Steele said Mr. Cardin as the House speaker in the General Assembly gutted the state teacher pension fund.

Mr. Steele yesterday said he was “disappointed” that Mr. Cardin decided not to attend last night’s debate.

“Both our teams negotiated with … the NAACP to host it there,” he told reporters at a campaign stop at a Bethesda Metro station. “We agreed to their rules, the format [and] the timing.”

Mr. Cardin, who is from Baltimore, stumbled several times during Wednesday’s televised debate at NewsChannel 8 studios in Rosslyn.

He was rattled when Mr. Steele said that he was “handpicked” by House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat credited with boosting Mr. Cardin’s primary campaign against Kweisi Mfume, past president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“I won a competitive primary,” a visibly flustered Mr. Cardin said. “Kweisi Mfume is supporting me.”

Mr. Steele’s remark came in response to Mr. Cardin’s quip that President Bush “recruited” the lieutenant governor for the Senate race.

The congressman also stammered when Mr. Steele questioned him about the proposed route of Metro’s Purple Line, which Mr. Steele used to portray him as being out of touch with the D.C. suburbs.

Mr. Cardin “is rattled and has gone back on their word that they have publicly given throughout their campaign,” said Steele campaign spokesman Doug Heye. “His campaign [said] they will be at a debate any time, anywhere. This was publicly announced. It was publicly reported. They never asked for it to be corrected.”

Last night’s debate was widely publicized as the second of three between Mr. Cardin and Mr. Steele, culminating Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Mr. Cardin has struggled to woo black voters — the Democrats’ most loyal voting bloc — amid criticism from Mr. Mfume and other black leaders about the party’s lack of black candidates at the top of the Maryland ticket.

Mr. Steele, who lives in Prince George’s and is the first black elected statewide in Maryland, has the potential to break the Democrats’ lock on black voters.

Mr. Cardin, who is white, won the overall primary but lost by large margins to Mr. Mfume in Prince George’s County and Baltimore, two of the state’s most populous and heavily Democratic jurisdictions that are also more than 65 percent black.

At The Washington Times on Monday, Mr. Steele said he requested that last night’s debate take place in Charles County, a rural area that was once mostly white but is experiencing a large influx of black residents. It now has the fastest-growing black population in the state.

William Braxton, president of the Charles County NAACP branch that sponsored the debate, said they first talked with the Cardin campaign a week ago.

“We were under the impression that this thing was going to work out and [Mr. Cardin] was going to be here,” Mr. Braxton said. “Initially when we talked, he said they had some scheduling problems they had to work out, and his final comment was that they could not work them out.”

The Rev. Willie Hunt, pastor of the church that hosted last night’s forum, said he regretted that Charles County residents would not get to see the all the Senate candidates in action.

“So many events have taken place in Prince George’s County and other parts of the region,” he said. “This Southern Maryland area has not had the opportunity to witness this kind of debate.”

Mr. Hunt also said that Mr. Hoyer called him Wednesday. “We talked about the debate, but [Mr. Hoyer] wasn’t upset or anything like that,” Mr. Hunt said.

Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey F. Bernards refused to confirm or deny that the conversation took place.

“You don’t have anything substantive from us,” Ms. Bernards said.

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