U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin yesterday pledged not to use racially tinged attacks in his campaign for U.S. Senate but stopped short of repudiating fellow Maryland Democrats who have said such tactics are acceptable against Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele because he is a black conservative Republican.
“I have never in my entire life brought race into what I do in life, and it is not going to come in now, at this stage,” said Mr. Cardin, a 10-term congressman who could face Mr. Steele in the contest to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. “I don’t think race has any place in this campaign.”
Even as Mr. Cardin declined to criticize fellow Democrats, members of the Congressional Black Caucus said Baltimore lawmakers in the General Assembly should “cease and desist” from making racial comments about Mr. Steele — the first black man to win a statewide election in Maryland.
“My plan is to meet with them and ask them to stop this at once,” said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Baltimore Democrat and former Black Caucus chairman.
Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a black Prince George’s County Democrat, admonished Baltimore lawmakers and even described Mr. Steele as “a likable guy.”
“I think the comments and the attacks were outrageous and reprehensible. It does a disservice to the African-American community, and it creates a herd mentality that whatever the Democrats say we should repeat,” Mr. Wynn said.
The Washington Times reported Wednesday that several black Maryland Democratic leaders said racially tinged attacks against Mr. Steele are fair because his political positions do not reflect those of the black community.
“Party trumps race, especially on the national level,” said state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a black Baltimore Democrat. “It’s democracy, perhaps at its worst, but it is democracy.”
Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, a black Baltimore Democrat, said Mr. Steele invites racially charged criticism — including labels such as “Oreo cookie” and “Uncle Tom” — because his conservative philosophy is anti-black, in her opinion.
Mr. Wynn said such racially tinged criticism of Mr. Steele could backfire among voters in his district and could make the Republican candidate a “sympathetic figure” when Mr. Steele’s personal story as the son of a hardworking widow who refused to go on welfare is aired.
The Times reported yesterday that Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, both white Democrats who are running for governor next year, ducked direct questions about the propriety of the black leaders’ remarks.
However, Democratic Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume condemned the comments by his fellow black Democrats, saying “racially tinged attacks have no place in this campaign.”
“Black bigotry can be just as cruel and evil as white bigotry,” said Mr. Mfume, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Yesterday, Mr. Cardin — who is vying with Mr. Mfume for the Democratic nomination — said he was not concerned with remarks by his state’s Democratic leaders.
“This is the Democratic Party, after all. We have a rather open party, and people are very opinionated,” he said. “I’m not going to start dealing with that other than to say … our campaign will not permit any racial issues. We are going to deal solely on the issues.”
Mr. Cardin said the debate should focus on the parties’ differences on the federal budget, economic programs, jobs, health care and the war in Iraq.
Another Democratic senatorial candidate — American University history professor Alan Lichtman — also vowed not use racial attacks in his campaign and would debate on racial issues, such as Mr. Steele’s support of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s fundraiser at the all-white Elkridge Club in Baltimore in July.
“I pledge not to attack anyone on their race, be it Michael Steele or anyone else,” he said. “I would certainly debate whether Mr. Steele truly represents the interests of African-Americans in this state and that would not be a racial attack on him.”
Mr. Cardin said he could not rule out referring to the Elkridge Club in his campaign.
He said he did not see a reason to raise the issue now, but he could not predict what might transpire in the yearlong campaign. “[Mr. Steele] might bring it up,” the congressman said.
The club also has been used by Democrats, including Peter O’Malley — brother of and adviser to the Baltimore mayor — who held his wedding reception there in 2003.
At the center of the debate is the News Blog — a liberal Web log run by Steve Gilliard, a black New Yorker — which removed this week a doctored photo of Mr. Steele that depicted him as a black-faced minstrel and referred to him as “Simple Sambo.”
The Maryland Democratic Party has denounced the depiction and has denied any connection to the Web log.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which had two operatives resign in September after they admitted they obtained a copy of Mr. Steele’s credit report, killed a link from its Web site to the News Blog site Wednesday.
Mr. Cardin said the Web site attack was unacceptable and he would not tolerate such conduct from his campaign.
“I think the Republican Party does have a pretty strong position on several issues that differ from the Democratic Party,” he said. “That’s fair game, but race is not appropriate.”