Thursday, March 2, 2006

Maryland Democratic leaders are aiming to tie Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele to the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina to dampen his appeal among black voters in his U.S. Senate bid.

“I think it’s one of President Bush’s major failings as president, and I think it symbolizes a very disturbing approach to governing,” said Derek Walker, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.

“Bush has wrapped himself around Steele’s campaign, and Steele has wrapped himself around Bush. Steele needs to address that,” Mr. Walker said.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat and House minority whip, said: “I don’t think the African-American community is going to want to give a stamp of approval to the Bush administration.”

Mr. Steele, a Republican who became the first black to win statewide office in Maryland in 2002, is campaigning to replace Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat who is retiring. He has held fundraisers with President Bush and the president’s top political adviser, Karl Rove.

Regarding the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Steele said that, as the lieutenant governor of a non-Gulf state, “I have not been in a position to do anything about this.

“But when I get to the U.S. Senate, I will take the lead on this issue. Trust me,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Steele said, “My words on Katrina have been very clear.”

“I’ve freely addressed this issue from the beginning,” he said. “It was an incredible failure of the government to recognize and execute its responsibility on all levels. I’ve said it in print, on the radio, in public settings.”

Maryland Democrats have cited Hurricane Katrina in the Steele campaign to help secure the black vote — a large and historically loyal bloc.

“You might have a crossover of black Democrats voting for Steele. That’s what everybody is really worried about. It’s what we call a legacy vote,” says state Sen. Gloria Lawlah, Prince George’s Democrat and member of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland.

At a recent Black History Month breakfast in Greenbelt, Mr. Hoyer addressed several hundred black business owners, church officials and other local leaders. He noted the plight of Hurricane Katrina victims — many of whom are black.

“Katrina was a wretched event,” he said. “It made clear in our society that there were too many left out, left behind.”

After his breakfast speech, Mr. Hoyer equated voting for Mr. Steele with supporting the Bush administration.

Black voters in Maryland are “either going to send a vote to the Senate that is a Bush vote, or a vote to the Senate that is going to change these policies,” he said.

Meanwhile, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey, a Democrat, said his initial “concerns” about blacks voting for Mr. Steele have subsided.

“I had some concerns, but my sense is that the whole Katrina episode has reminded a lot in the African-American community as to why they’re Democrats,” Mr. Ivey said.

Isiah “Ike” Leggett, the former state Democratic Party chairman, however, said linking Mr. Steele to Hurricane Katrina is “a hard sell.”

“You can’t tie everything that has happened with the president and the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans in such a direct way to a person holding office in the state of Maryland,” said Mr. Leggett, who is running for Montgomery County executive.

Mr. Steele said that instead of “trying to create some boogeyman link between me and the Bush administration,” political leaders should be finding ways to hasten a recovery along the Gulf Coast that “really hasn’t even started.”

“No one’s asked the question, ‘What are you going to do with the 25 percent of the population that was homeless?’” he said.

At the Greenbelt breakfast, Mr. Hoyer ended his analysis of Hurricane Katrina by urging voters to stay with his party.

“Together, we can make America better. But not apart. Only together. Yes, America has challenges, but there are no challenges we cannot meet together,” he said, joining hands with a minister as they sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

“It makes people feel good because they dropped $50 for a breakfast and got to hear Steny go on for a while, but at the end of the day, what has he done?” Mr. Steele said.

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