Sunday, October 23, 2005

Maryland Democratic leaders say their gubernatorial hopefuls are considering black running mates almost exclusively to shore up minority support after Republicans broke the color barrier to statewide office with the election of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

“The Democratic leadership is very concerned about African-American males being on the top of that ticket in some way, shape or form,” said Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat. “There is real, genuine pressure that it is time for the Democratic Party to do something on that front.”

The two leading Democratic candidates for governor, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, are expected to heed the advice — and Democrats are speculating about lieutenant governor picks.

Democrats say the most likely running mates for Mr. Duncan and Mr. O’Malley are current and former leaders from Prince George’s County and Baltimore, two party strongholds with large black constituencies.

Prince George’s Democrats on the list are former County Executive Wayne K. Curry, former Delegate Rushern L. Baker III, Delegate Anthony G. Brown, State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey and County Executive Jack B. Johnson.

In Baltimore, possible black running mates include state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, City Council members Kenneth N. Harris Sr. and Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and state Sen. Verna L. Jones.

For Mr. Duncan and Mr. O’Malley, the selection will reflect their strategy for the primary contest, with Mr. Duncan likely to pick a running mate from the mayor’s city and Mr. O’Malley probably teaming up with someone from suburban Washington.

For the party, however, the move is more important for healing black voters’ resentment that it took Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, to first tap a black running mate — in 2002 — and force Democrats to follow suit.

The Democratic Party has long controlled state politics and relied on a large bloc of loyal black Democrats to deliver elections, but the party has never offered a black candidate on a statewide ticket.

“That’s an issue that has been hard for African-Americans to swallow,” said Ike Leggett, Democratic candidate for Montgomery County executive and former Maryland Democratic Party chairman.

In 2002, Mr. Leggett was considered a front-runner for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s pick for her No. 2 in the contest with Mr. Ehrlich. However, Mrs. Townsend tapped retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, a white, middle-aged Republican who switched parties for the race.

“One could make the argument that [Democrats] took the African-American vote for granted,” Mr. Leggett said. “If there is no African-American in a significant position for the party this time, it will certainly have a negative impact [for Democrats] in the general election.”

Mr. Duncan, who officially announced his run Thursday, has not started looking for a running mate but “believes strongly that there should be diversity on the ticket,” said campaign manager Scott B. Arceneaux.

He said Mr. Duncan was “not under any pressure at all” to pick a black running mate.

Mr. O’Malley has not publicly committed to choosing a minority running mate, but O’Malley campaign manager Jonathan A. Epstein has said the mayor is cognizant of Maryland’s many “talented” black politicians who would be an asset to the ticket.

However, Mr. Steele did more than enhance the Republican ticket in 2002. He transformed himself from a relative unknown to a rising star in the national Republican Party.

Republicans consider Mr. Steele their most promising candidate for the seat of retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, Maryland Democrat.

Democrats vying for the open seat are Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, political activist A. Robert Kaufman, American University professor Alan Lichtman, former Congress member Kweisi Mfume and forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren.

Mr. Steele’s rise also has transformed the expectations of some black Democrats, which could complicate Mr. Duncan’s and Mr. O’Malley’s choice. Some of the black Democratic leaders with the highest profiles — including Mr. Ivey, Mr. Johnson and Mrs. Jessamy — may have their sights set on more prestigious jobs, such as attorney general or governor.

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