- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

The debate over a General Assembly bill that would restore voting rights to as many as 150,000 felons in Maryland has taken on racial overtones and sparked criticism among the legislation’s supporters and detractors.

Yesterday, the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus defended Delegate Salima Siler Marriott for saying that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has racist motives in threatening to veto the bill.

“He is what he is,” Delegate Rudolph C. Cane said of Mr. Ehrlich, refraining from calling the governor a racist.

Mr. Cane, a Eastern Shore Democrat who is black, said Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican who is white and seeking re-election, caters to “rich people” and is not concerned with the rights of the poor and middle class.

“I don’t care who feels offended” by Mrs. Marriott’s comments, he said. “That’s too bad.”

Mrs. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat who is black, is the lead sponsor of the bill. She said this week that the governor’s position “reflects the thinking” of Carter Glass, a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901 who said felon disenfranchisement aims to “eliminate the darkie as a political factor.”

“We all were raised in a racist society,” she said, stressing that she was not calling Mr. Ehrlich a racist. “Let us be clear about what were the intentions of these laws.”

Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., pastor of the mostly black, 3,000-member Hope Christian Church in Prince George’s County, said yesterday that Mrs. Marriott’s comments were “overblown.”

A self-described Democrat and supporter of prison reform, Mr. Jackson credited Mr. Ehrlich with advancing that cause.

“But in this case, Ehrlich’s concern is justified,” he said. “I too am concerned” about letting violent criminals vote.

The Marriott bill would restore voting rights to murderers, rapists, robbers and other felons immediately upon their release. Dozens of House Democrats have co-sponsored the legislation.

Mr. Ehrlich told The Washington Times on Tuesday that he would veto the bill.

Luis E. Borunda, president of Hispanic Republicans of Maryland, yesterday said Mrs. Marriott’s attack on the governor reflects badly on all minorities.

“Being Hispanic, I find it insulting to paint minorities in that light,” Mr. Borunda said. “The majority of African-Americans and the vast majority of Hispanics are not felons. We are hard-working people. … This is not about race.”

Baltimore City Council member Kenneth N. Harris Sr., a black Democrat, said the debate should focus on the issue of felons voting and not on racial politics.

“I don’t want to characterize whether someone is a racist or prejudiced,” he said. “I would have some reservations about a murderer or a rapist having the vote. These are heinous crimes.”

Democratic lawmakers have attributed the Marriott bill’s popularity to their party’s aim to oust Mr. Ehrlich and secure black votes after Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican, in 2002 became the first black to win statewide office in Maryland.

According to Justice Maryland, a penal reform group that supports voting rights for felons, about 60 percent of Maryland felons are black and likely Democrats.

Ex-convicts could decide this year’s election. Mr. Ehrlich won the 2002 gubernatorial race by about 66,000 votes, and the contest this year is expected to be even closer.

Maryland is one of 11 states that disenfranchise some felons for life. The others are Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming.

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