Saturday, May 8, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Some black Democratic lawmakers say racism exists within the state party and they have little faith that their leader can improve the situation.

“They really don’t care about us,” said Delegate Tony E. Fulton, Baltimore Democrat. “We are used every four years, then thrown back.”

Mr. Fulton thinks black lawmakers have been slighted. He said that they hold 32 of the 141 House seats, but that only two of the chamber’s seven standing committees have a black chairman. That’s roughly proportional, however, to their numbers in the House.

Dereck E. Davis, Prince George’s Democrat, is chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, and Hattie N. Harrison, Baltimore Democrat, is chairwoman of the Rules and Executive Nominations Committee.

“The Democratic Party acts as if they own black people,” said Delegate Clarence “Tiger” Davis, Baltimore Democrat. “The state party is racist to the core.”

Another insult, said Delegate Nathaniel T. Oaks, Baltimore Democrat, is that party leaders press black candidates more than white candidates to vote for tax increases, which could cause them to lose their seats in coming elections.

“I think the Democratic Party takes black people for granted,” Mr. Oaks said. “I think what [the Democratic Party] does in the state is just a reflection of what it does as a whole on the national level.”

Maryland Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Delegate Rudolph C. Cane, Dorchester and Wicomico counties Democrat, acknowledged that racism exists within the party, but also did not identify specific lawmakers.

“There might be some individuals who have racist concepts,” said Mr. Cane, recently elected to lead the 42-member House and Senate caucus. “But I don’t think it dominates the party.”

Lawmakers were also doubtful that party Chairman Isiah “Ike” Leggett, who is black, has the ability to address their concerns.

“He is in charge of the party,” Mr. Oaks said. “But I don’t think that he is in charge of the folks in the party.”

Mr. Fulton, a former vice president of the state’s black caucus, said Mr. Leggett has so much “blind loyalty” to the party that he will not try to improve the status of black Democratic lawmakers.

In response, Mr. Leggett said he has championed the party’s Hispanic outreach program and that in the 2002 gubernatorial race he fought to add a black to the ticket of Democratic candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Mrs. Townsend instead chose retired Navy Adm. Charles R. Larson, a white man who had switched parties only weeks before, and Democrats lost to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, becoming the state’s first Republican administration in more than 30 years. Mr. Steele became the first black in state history to become lieutenant governor.

Mr. Leggett also pointed out that he was the party member who publicly criticized House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, for attempting to pass a record-setting sales- and income-tax increase.

Mr. Leggett has said Mr. Busch caused a “major split” in the party by insisting upon the $670 million tax package, instead of a compromising with the Ehrlich administration on a mix of taxes and slot-machine revenue.

“Some people have said that I have been too critical of the party,” Mr. Leggett said.

He also said the concerns of his critics and those who have complained about racism are more personal than political.

“I think those comments are inaccurate,” Mr. Leggett said. “I think that when you evaluate the Democratic Party, it is far better than the Republican Party. I don’t mean to suggest that there are not differences within the party. … But to characterize it as racism, I think that is a huge overstatement.”

He also lauded the leadership team of Mr. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s and Calvert counties Democrat.

“It is not a reflection of any type of racism by the House speaker or the Senate president,” he said. “If anything, they have been said by some to be overly progressive.”

None of the lawmakers who complained about racism said he intended to leave the party, but Mr. Davis said Democrats could lose clout in state politics and next-generation members.

“I think the Democratic Party may lose younger, more economically stable African Americans if it does not demonstrate the capacity to understand their issues and support the economic needs of that community,” he said.

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