- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

This could be the year that black voters finally send a strong, concerted message to Democrats: Stop taking the black vote for granted.

Lynn Swann (who won my heart as a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers) wants to be the governor of my birth state, Pennsylvania. Michael Steele, who broke Maryland’s lieutenant governor barrier, is comfortably poised in the Senate race. In Ohio, conservatives have invested high hopes in Ken Blackwell becoming governor. Republican Michiganders have cast their sights on former local lawmaker Keith Butler, a pastor whose congregation numbers about 21,000.

Not all of the races are definitively black and white, but there is a distinctly issue-driven agenda that could bolster Republican candidates. It’s called the Suburban Agenda, but could easily be dubbed the Black Agenda or, as House Speaker Denny Hastert called it, “Everyday stuff.” Spearheaded by Rep. Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois, the agenda includes such quality-of-life “stuff” as education and crime, concerns that always are on the minds of the average voter. As Mr. Kirk said, “American families are focused on keeping their kids safe, securing a strong financial future, preserving the natural beauty of their communities and ensuring health coverage,.”

No governor or big-city mayor could afford to squabble with such an agenda, and black Republicans running statewide can easily massage it into their platforms.

Having stayed closeted until RNC honchos Ed Gillespie and Ken Mehlman swung wide the door, black Republicans have their own mantles. Many of them don’t tout the civil-rights battle cry of old, either, although they wouldn’t tarnish themselves if they did. Perhaps that’s why Howard Dean’s Democrats are more nervous than they’re letting on.

Just look at Maryland. Mike Steele’s pairing with Bob Ehrlich in 2002 led to Maryland’s first Republican governor in two generations and its first black to ever win statewide office. Maryland Democrats have had a lock on the statehouse in Annapolis and the Free State’s congressional delegation for so long, they think the elected posts are their birthright. The Republicans taught Democrats that blacks won’t necessarily vote Democratic, but they may vote black. How else to explain the fact that both leading Democrats in the race for Maryland governor — Martin O’Malley of Baltimore and Doug Duncan of Montgomery County — have tickets that mimic Ehrlich-Steele? Imitation is the best form of flattery, eh?

Race, meanwhile, is an issue in the Democratic senatorial contest. The Maryland Senate race is on because Paul Sarbanes, the senior Democrat, finally decided to step aside. First, former congressman and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume tossed his kofi in the ring, then came Ben Cardin, who wants to elevate himself from House to Senate and who has significant support among Jews and liberals. With both the former and the current Democratic congressmen standing on the same ground on most issues (both oppose the war in Iraq, and Mr. Cardin voted “no” in 2002), the battleground for these two liberals with be over the black vote in the heavily populated Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and the Baltimore and Annapolis areas.

Much Republican hope is settled in Ohio, which President Bush won in 2004 and where Secretary of State Ken Blackwell won the May 2 Republican gubernatorial primary. Mr. Blackwell has won statewide elections three times, and he was chairman of Steve Forbes’ 2000 presidential campaign. He’s a stealth political strategist (an occasional annoyance to Republican Gov. Bob Taft) and the political opposite of Democratic opponent, Rep. Ted Strickland.

If you still need convincing that Dean’s donkeys are nervous asses, read the lips of John Conyers, one of the granddaddies of the Congressional Black Caucus, who wrote this on the day of the May 2 Blackwell victory: “Just as the presidential election turned on the Buckeye State, so too could the 06 Midterms. It looks like we’re heading for a Strickland-Blackwell Governors Race, and a Brown-DeWine Senate battle. Both are critical — we need the Ohio Governors mansion to help catapult our Presidential nominee in 08, as well as to [e]nsure fair redistricting in 2010. There are also a number of key house races — Wilson looks good as a write-in in Strickland’s old district, and we [Democrats] have several other pick-up opportunities. So Ohio could be ground zero again, and the road to the Majority may well go through Columbus.”

Ohio and Pennsylvania, as the politically astute Barry Casselman pointed out in his May 11 column, are two of the three states that make up the “West Pennsylhio” cluster. Mr. Casselman suggests we play closer attention to such clusters and their collective electoral votes “because the conventional model or red and blue states is very old news.” Indeed.

“The Mickey Mouse Club” was one of the few programs I was allowed to watch as a youngster, since it would hold my attention while my homemaker mom prepared dinner. I took particular delight on Wednesdays, “Anything Can Happen Day,” because expectations would run the course. With several black Republicans coming into their own and running head-to-head in statewide races against Democrats in Ohio and elsewhere, 2006 is the “Anything Can Happen Year.” And that’s good news. Good news indeed.

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