Monday, November 6, 2006

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The top two candidates in Maryland’s U.S. Senate race attended black churches yesterday in the key battleground of Prince George’s County, and received clear and not-so-clear endorsements from the pulpits.

“Everyone who’s your color is not your kind,” the Rev. Delman L. Coates told the mostly black congregation at Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton. “All your skinfolk is not your kinfolk.”

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Democratic nominee, who is white, looked on from the front pew as Mr. Coates subtly disparaged supporters of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the Republican nominee and the first black elected to statewide office in Maryland.

“On Tuesday, we have to have more on our minds than color,” the preacher told the roughly 1,500 parishioners. He rattled off a list of unsympathetic black people, including the slave who alerted the masters to Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 and the black man who shot Malcolm X in 1965.

He drew parallels between the election tomorrow and the biblical account of Jews choosing to free from crucifixion the thief Barabbas instead of Jesus Christ. The minister asked how the crowd that loved Jesus only days earlier was tricked to switch from “Jesuscrats” to “Barabblicans” for that vote.

“Can’t you just see the commercials that were designed to endear Barabbas to the crowd,” he said. “I can just see Barabbas well dressed, well groomed [and] holding a puppy.”

The reference to Mr. Steele’s TV ads drew laughter from the congregation and prompted several worshippers to stand and applaud.

The sermon highlighted the racial politics at play in the Senate race.

Mr. Steele’s potential to break the Democratic lock on black voters has helped make his party competitive for the first time in a generation in Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1.

Blacks make up nearly 30 percent of the population, with their numbers concentrated in the heavily Democratic population centers of Prince George’s County and Baltimore.

Mr. Steele last night began a round-the-clock bus tour of the state that started in Prince George’s County and was scheduled to roll through Baltimore and end in Hagerstown this morning.

“We are going to take this campaign to every Marylander — people working on the midnight shift, people getting up at the crack of dawn, the people whom Washington has been ignoring,” Mr. Steele said.

Mr. Steele also visited several Prince George’s County churches yesterday and was invited to the pulpit of First Baptist Church of Highland Park in Landover to read a proclamation commemorating the church’s 85th anniversary.

Joyce Powell, a church deaconess, avoided overt political endorsements when she prayed before the congregation of about 1,500.

“No matter who we pick, if [God] is not in it, then it’s going to fall,” she said. Politicians “might come into church, but they must have Christ in their hearts.”

Mr. Steele, who is Catholic, said church was not the place for campaigning. “I’ve never spoken a political word in a church at all, because it’s not appropriate,” he said.

Churchgoers appeared swayed by the candidates’ appearances.

“I’m crossing party lines to vote for [Steele]. I’m a Democrat,” said Josephine Mourning, 51, a real estate agent attending the Landover church. “I want someone who is for the people.”

At Mount Ennon, William W. Reese, 56, a federal worker from Fort Washington, said Mr. Coates’ “powerful” sermon reinforced his support for Mr. Cardin and probably steered some in the congregation away from Mr. Steele.

“The pastor brought the point home for those of us who are on the fence,” he said.

Mr. Cardin, a 10-term congressman from Baltimore, has struggled to woo black voters amid criticism the Democratic Party takes black voters for granted.

He has enlisted nationally recognized Democrats to energize the voter base and shore up black support in Prince George’s County.

Last night, former President Bill Clinton campaigned for Mr. Cardin in Prince George’s County for the second time in three weeks. Mr. Cardin also has held two rallies in the county with Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat and the only black senator.

Prominent black Democrats in Prince George’s County — including former County Executive Wayne K. Curry, all five black members of the county council and several ministers — broke party ranks last week to support Mr. Steele.

In Mr. Coates’ sermon, he compared them to the Jewish high priests who helped convince the crowd to free Barabbas instead of Jesus Christ.

He said criticism that the Democratic Party takes black voters for granted may be true but that is not a reason to “abandon core convictions.”

“The reason given to endorse this candidate cheapens democracy,” Mr. Coates said. “It does a disservice to our history and to the electoral process. … Don’t tell me about color. Give me a cause.”

Mr. Steele visited three churches in Prince George’s County and one in Montgomery County.

Mr. Cardin attended three church services in Prince George’s County, a spaghetti dinner at a Baltimore church and a candidates’ forum at a synagogue in Montgomery County.

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