- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

The Maryland Democratic Party will have to work to mend bridges with the black community and put forth a black candidate for statewide office in 2006, says the party's new postelection chairman.
"I am not sure what office it may not be lieutenant governor but the message is that the Democratic Party cannot take any group for granted or any area for granted," said Isiah Leggett, who in December took over the reins of the Democratic Party in the state.
The loss of the gubernatorial election last year was not a rejection of Democrats but, among other issues, a message that minority voters did not feel adequately represented, said Mr. Leggett, who at one time was considered the strongest choice as a running mate for Democratic candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the election last year.
She chose instead a white man, Adm. Charles Lawson, who had weeks previously switched from the Republican Party. The selection angered several black lawmakers and state leaders who boycotted Mrs. Townsend's campaign events for weeks afterward.
Mr. Leggett said he was not personally disappointed by the decision but believed that not picking a minority candidate was a strategic mistake.
"I think the party would have benefited significantly if we had a more diverse team," Mr. Leggett said during an interview with The Washington Times.
He said the fact there was not a single black candidate for statewide office in a state where blacks make up 30 percent of the population had clearly hurt the party at the ballot box.
"Not having an African American in any statewide office for lieutenant governor, attorney general or comptroller was a mistake," he said. That failure "deflated some of the enthusiasm that African Americans had for the Democratic ticket."
And that reduced voter turnout, benefiting Republicans, he said.
The number of black voters who turned out for the November election dipped to 59 percent from 61 percent in 1998. Black turnout in Prince George's County was 52 percent, down from 59 percent in 1998. In Baltimore turnout was 53 percent, down from 56 percent in 1998.
For the first time in 36 years, Democrats lost the Maryland governor's seat to a Republican, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., as well as some important seats in the General Assembly, including the one held by Caspar R. Taylor in Western Maryland.
However, they also picked up two U.S. seats in the election, including the one formerly held by Republican Constance A. Morella in Montgomery County.
The losses led to the resignation of party Chairman Wayne L. Rogers.
Mr. Leggett said he is proud that Michael S. Steele, a black man, is in the lieutenant governor's office, even though he's a Republican.
"I have to give Mr. Steele and Mr. Ehrlich congratulations on recognizing the sentiments and frustrations that people had. I am only disappointed it wasn't a Democrat," he said.
"I respect [Mr. Steele]. It is great when you have an African American who attains that level of leadership and the level of support he has within the Republican Party. But I disagree with him radically on a wide basis, including political philosophy and government," Mr. Leggett said.
Mr. Leggett has a long history of success as a black leader. He is a Vietnam veteran and a professor of law at Howard University, and was elected to the Montgomery County Council in 1986 the first black man to hold the job.
Now, as leader of the Maryland Democrats, he said he hopes to make changes that will help the party strengthen its base across the state, particularly in Republican strongholds such as the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland.
"Our message needs to be much more focused, concise, clear. … Every segment of the state must understand the Democrats are talking to them," he said.
The message, he said, would focus on areas such as education, public safety, health care, the environment, job security and children. "We are talking about working-class people, a group that is found uniformly throughout the state.
"It should not be perceived that we are trying to reach only targeted areas like Montgomery County, Prince George's County and Baltimore city," he said.
These three areas, which together make up a significant majority of voters in the state, were the ones that handed Mrs. Townsend's ticket a majority in the elections.
The party's message, under him, will not be against Republicans but about what Democrats want, Mr. Leggett said.
After losing the governor's seat to a Republican for the first time since Spiro T. Agnew was elected, Democrats have lined up several strong possibilities to run for governor in the next election, including Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, former Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry and U.S. Rep. from the 2nd Congressional District C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. Among those possible candidates, only Mr. Curry is black.
Mr. Leggett said Mrs. Townsend was a "strong candidate" but that it was too early to say whether she would run again.
"My role is to make certain we have the right people out there and we offer choices and put our candidates in the best positions, whoever they may be," he said.
"It is a challenge. … I am coming at a time when we've just lost the governor's office, and so you are caught between what changes you make and how you live up to the expectations," he said.
"We are having to adjust to reality. … We don't have the governor's office in an overwhelmingly Democratic state."

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