- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons yesterday said Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is winning over black voters with urban initiatives, especially criminal-justice reforms, and raising the Republican Party’s profile among blacks nationwide.

“He raised the whole party up,” Mr. Simmons told The Washington Times. “He makes every Republican open for discussion” among black voters.

Mr. Simmons, the man behind the Def Jam Recordings music label and the platinum-plated careers of acts like the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J and Run-DMC, often has used his rap empire to advance liberal political activism.

But the rap impresario applauded Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, for reforming drug laws to steer nonviolent offenders into treatment instead of prison, and also for supporting Maryland’s historic black universities.

He predicted Mr. Ehrlich will improve on the 15 percent of the black vote he won in 2002.

“I’m sure he will get a greater percentage [of the black vote] next time around — chip away at the rock,” Mr. Simmons said. “Good deeds don’t go unnoticed.”

Mr. Simmons listed the governor among the growing ranks of Republican leaders — including New York Gov. George E. Pataki and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — who successfully are wooing black voters.

“Many blacks are very conservative. The natural party for them [is Republican] if things were more equal,” he said. “The race issue is become less important in this country. It is about economic opportunities. It’s about who will be compassionate and giving when it comes to people who need a helping hand.”

Mr. Simmons campaigned in 2002 for Mr. Ehrlich’s Democratic rival, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and said he initially had negative impressions of both Mr. Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who became the first black to win statewide election in Maryland.

However, Mr. Simmons said the first two years of the Ehrlich administration demonstrated that both men “should be held up to the light as examples” of Republican leaders who are committed to all of their constituents.

“Michael Steele has been a gem when it comes to trying to bring [blacks] to understand that Republicans are good sometimes,” he said.

Mr. Simmons credited the governor’s criminal-justice reforms with “inspiring” the successful effort to repeal New York’s strict Rockefeller drug laws, legislation enacted in 1973 under then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller that prescribed long prison terms for relatively petty drug crimes.

“I don’t know if we could have done what we did in New York if we hadn’t seen Maryland move first,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich’s justice reforms aim to put more nonviolent drug offenders into addiction treatment instead of jail by giving greater discretion to prosecutors, judges and parole commissioners.

The governor’s Project RESTART (Re-entry, Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment) expanded drug treatment and job training classes for prison inmates, and he established the State Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council to coordinate treatment and prevention programs in every county.

Mr. Simmons’ assessment of the governor’s appeal to black voters was echoed by activists in Maryland.

Baltimore political activist Doni Glover agreed that Mr. Ehrlich has deepened his appeal to urban voters. He cited the governor’s justice reforms, focus on minority businesses, and increased spending on Maryland’s historic black universities, Morgan State and Coppin State.

“He is doing some things that people are surprised by,” said Mr. Glover, who publishes BmoreNews.com, an Internet news site catering to blacks in the Washington-Baltimore area. “Coppin State has been underfunded for years. … You look at Coppin’s campus now and there is a lot of construction going on.”

The governor’s 2006 capital budget proposal released last week included $23.1 million for renovations at Morgan State and $47.6 million to build Coppin State’s first new academic building in 25 years.

Tara Andrews, director of the Maryland Justice Coalition, said Mr. Ehrlich’s victories on urban issues have been overshadowed by heated debate over legalizing slot-machine gambling and tort reform. A significant segment of black voters, however, likely will respond to his record when he hits the campaign trail next year.

“Whoever the Democratic candidate is, he is going to have his work cut out for him when it comes to justice issues and justice reforms,” said Miss Andrews, whose Baltimore-based group advocates justice reform. “I’m not saying he is winning us over in droves. … [But] I think it is going to win some.”

Miss Andrews, who is black, said the drug laws, coupled with legislation Mr. Ehrlich introduced last week to crack down on witness intimidation, will resonate with urban voters frustrated by the large number of blacks behind bars but also terrified by rampant street crime.

“It shows that he is strong on these issues,” Miss Andrews said. “He can say that he understands drug treatment and drug use, but he also understands the violence and wants to punish violent criminals.”

She said the record will prove particularly potent in fending off a challenge by Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, who is considered a probable Democratic candidate for governor.

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