Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Endorsements for U.S. Senate candidates are dividing along racial lines in Maryland’s Democratic Party.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is white, has received more than 100 endorsements for his Senate bid, but just seven have come from black Democratic officials.

Kweisi Mfume, who is black and the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has received 29 Senate endorsements, but just two have come from white Democratic officials.

Racial issues have disquieted state Democratic leaders, who have borne long-standing complaints of ignoring black voters that Mr. Mfume himself reiterated during a speech last summer.

What’s more, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele — the first black to win a statewide office — has been the target of racially tinged criticism for being a conservative Republican. Several black Democratic lawmakers in Baltimore condoned such criticism until state leaders such as Mr. Mfume and Rep. Albert R. Wynn repudiated race-baiting.

Meanwhile, the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for governor — Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, both white — have sought to include black politicians on their tickets. Mr. O’Malley already has tapped Delegate Anthony G. Brown of Prince George’s County as his running mate.

Derek Walker, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said the Senate endorsements do not reflect a racial divide within the party.

“This is a pretty … unified party and it will continue to be,” he said. “Both [candidates] have and will continue to get support from community leaders and elected officials of all backgrounds.”

However, Delegate Darryl A. Kelley, a black Prince George’s County Democrat, said he is disturbed by “those stark numbers.”

“It is surprising that Mfume does not have more support from the white community, at least from the elected officials,” said Mr. Kelley, who has endorsed Mr. Mfume. “The Democratic Party still struggles with some racial issues in terms of electing an African-American candidate on his own statewide.”

According to the 2000 census, blacks account for about 28 percent of Maryland’s 5.3 million residents.

In addition, blacks are believed to make up an even larger percentage of the state’s 1.7 million registered Democratic voters. Prince George’s County, which is 63 percent black, is the state’s second most-populous jurisdiction and has Maryland’s largest concentration of registered Democrats — more than 319,000, according to the State Board of Elections.

Mr. Steele is the leading Republican in the contest to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat. Mr. Steele, who was elected in 2002, faces scant competition in the primary and has not announced many endorsements.

Cardin and Mfume campaign officials say the primary race will not be a referendum on race, despite the nearly homogenous endorsements they have collected.

“Ben Cardin has a tremendous amount of support in the African-American community, including from elected officials, community leaders and clergy,” Cardin campaign spokesman Oren Shur said. “However, the people of Maryland do not want this election to be about race.”

Mr. Cardin has been endorsed by many of the state’s highest-ranking Democrats, including Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., all white.

Mfume campaign adviser Dan Walter said he does not think the party’s top echelon has rallied to Mr. Cardin because he is white.

“They are the establishment figures and they are behind the establishment candidate,” he said. “I don’t see any racial overtones anywhere in this campaign.”

The most prominent Democrats who have endorsed Mr. Mfume are state Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden, Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson and Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon.

The only elected white Democrats to endorse Mr. Mfume are Montgomery County Council President George L. Leventhal and Baltimore City Council member Nicholas C. D’Adamo.

Mr. Walker said the racial pattern in the endorsements reflects the historic support bases for Mr. Cardin, who for nearly 20 years has represented a mostly white suburban Baltimore district, and for Mr. Mfume, a former congressman who represented a mostly black Baltimore district.

The lack of support among his party’s white leaders has not escaped Mr. Mfume, though his adviser insists the candidate does not have “any problem with the party.”

In July, Mr. Mfume noted how Republicans rallied for Mr. Steele but his party largely ignored his candidacy.

“More voters in Maryland are carrying the impression that the Democratic Party talks the talk, but doesn’t always walk the walk. People may find a way to cross over in the fall,” he said.

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