Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Black voters’ loyalty to the Democratic Party is no longer a certainty in Maryland, especially among young independent voters, several black leaders say.

“We might be the last generation of unabashed loyalists to the Democratic Party,” state Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden of Baltimore says. “The Democratic Party is no longer a monolith for the African-American community.”

Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George’s County warns his party’s leaders that “black voters can no longer be taken for granted.”

Securing the black vote has become a critical concern among Maryland Democrats in an election year rife with racial politics:

• Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican who is the first black to win statewide office in Maryland, has been lampooned as a minstrel on a liberal Web log, and Democratic operatives wrongly acquired his credit report in his run for the U.S. Senate.

• The Democrat-controlled House has been lining up behind a bill that would return voting rights to 150,000 felons — about 60 percent of whom are black — in time for November’s general election.

• Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley has chosen Delegate Anthony G. Brown of Prince George’s County as his running mate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Mr. O’Malley’s chief opponent — Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan — also is considering a black running mate.

• Prince George’s County, a mostly black jurisdiction with the state’s highest concentration of registered Democrats, has become the focus of attention since low voter turnout in 2002 is believed to have contributed to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s Republican victory in the governor’s race.

• Former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, a Democrat who is running for the Senate, has criticized the party for taking black voters for granted, saying “people may find a way to cross over in the fall.”

“Last time for governor, I voted for Michael Steele for lieutenant governor,” says Hubert “Petey” Green, president of the Prince George’s County Black Chamber of Commerce and a lifelong registered Democrat.

Black political, business and religious leaders say a shift is occurring, especially among young voters who are less concerned with civil rights and more attentive to economic issues.

“The younger black demographic is not as tied in to the Democratic Party,” says Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television.

“They’re less likely to be involved in unions, in the types of jobs that tend to follow lockstep party voting, and they tend to be a lot more independent,” says Mr. Johnson, who now owns an NBA franchise and a Bethesda-based development company.

According to Mr. Wynn, the black vote in the past “focused predominantly on civil rights issues. Now the focus is both civil rights and economic issues.”

Kevin Taylor, 34, a corporate sales manager for Comcast Cable in Prince George’s County, is a registered Democrat who says he has never considered voting Republican. However, he says he is “open to hearing from Steele. I think he’s a credible candidate.”

Mr. Steele’s background as an entrepreneur who has worked to help minority businesses appeals to a growing black middle and upper class, especially in Prince George’s County, where he lives.

The Republican Senate candidate “can come a long way with an argument that economic development needs to be improved, and what have the Democrats done for you lately,” says Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of the 3,000-member Hope Christian Church in Bowie.

“I am hearing in my community that [Mr. Steele] is going to get a lot of the black vote,” says Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. of Baltimore County.

But Mr. Steele’s appeal as a candidate does not necessarily translate into more black votes for Republicans, says Delegate Jill P. Carter of Baltimore.

“I don’t think blacks are going to vote for Steele. It’s not about Steele, who I like. It’s about casting a vote for the Bush agenda,” Ms. Carter says.

Nonetheless, Mr. Steele’s candidacy is hastening a shift in how Maryland’s black voters perceive the two political parties, says Rene Lavigne, an information technology business executive in Prince George’s County.

“People are not bound by party lines as they used to be. People are voting for the right guy for the job,” Mr. Lavigne says.

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