- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2006

Residents in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore say there are many whites among them who will not vote for a black candidate, such as Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is running for the U.S. Senate.

“Here in rural parts of the state, race might be an issue. It shouldn’t, but it might,” Greg Slick, a physical education teacher at North Hagerstown High School, said at a recent Friday night varsity football game. “They are not openly going to say it.”

Mr. Slick, 52, a registered Republican who is white, said he will vote for Mr. Steele. But he added that the World Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is not based in nearby Sharpsburg by accident, despite public outcry every summer over the group’s annual rally at Antietam National Battlefield.

“Someone is drawing them here,” he said.

David Marshall, 54, a white waterman from Crisfield on the Eastern Shore, said he is sure some of the people he works with will vote against Mr. Steele because of his skin color.

However, he said he and his friends will vote for Mr. Steele, regardless of his race.

“The people I talk to say it won’t affect their vote,” Mr. Marshall said on a recent afternoon as he moored his trawler.

Racial politics in Maryland has focused on the Democratic Party’s efforts to secure support among its most loyal bloc — black voters, who increasingly say that the party has taken them for granted.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin — the Democratic Senate nominee who is a white, 10-term congressman from Baltimore — is trying to woo black votes amid criticism that the state party’s ticket lacks diversity.

But white voters in Republican strongholds in rural areas pose a threat to the senatorial ambitions of Mr. Steele, who already has battled race-baiting by Democrats in his Senate bid.

“On the Eastern Shore, there are a lot of rednecks,” said Dawn Thomas, 46, a white waitress at a Kent Island restaurant. “I know how my family is. They come from over here, and they’re very prejudiced.”

A Steele campaign adviser said the Senate nominee can do little to counter racism. However, the adviser remained confident that conservative rural voters from both parties will overwhelmingly support Mr. Steele.

In 2002, Mr. Steele became the first black to win a statewide election, as the running mate of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The Ehrlich-Steele ticket drew 2-to-1 support among voters in rural areas, such as Allegany, Washington and Wicomico counties. During a luncheon Monday at The Washington Times, Mr. Ehrlich said much of Mr. Steele’s support is from white women.

In last month’s primary election, Mr. Steele easily won the 10-candidate contest for the Republican Senate nomination, collecting thousands of votes over many white contenders who garnered only double-digit support in rural jurisdictions.

Such results prompted Paula A. Lampton, chairwoman of the Washington County Republican Central Committee, to say that race is not an issue.

“I’ve lived here for 30 years and I haven’t seen it,” she said. Mr. Steele “is very well-received when he comes here. He definitely represents our values and our needs in this portion of Western Maryland.”

In addition, Catherine Poe, president of the Talbot County Democratic Forum, said she expects solid support for Mr. Steele among Republicans on the Eastern Shore.

“I know the Republican base is jazzed up and working way hard,” she said. “Republicans are much more disciplined. They will stick with their guy.”

However, an elected Eastern Shore official — a white Republican — said privately that racism probably will hurt Mr. Steele “a little bit” among white voters.

In Hagerstown, Gail Curtis, a black hairstylist, said local residents have shouted racial slurs at her and her children. She has “no doubt” that some white voters will be reluctant to cast a ballot for Mr. Steele because of his race.

“It’s bad,” said Ms. Curtis, 35. “This town is extremely set back in time. But it is changing.”

Hagerstown City Council member Alesia Parson-McBean, a Democrat who last year became the first black elected to the council, said racial tensions are easing but acknowledged the persistence of old prejudices.

“I know within my first year [in office] I received hate mail and all these things,” Mrs. Parson-McBean said. “It splintered people and caused division in our city, and much of the division was based on race.”

Last year, Mrs. Parson-McBean and black high-school students were the target of death threats from Jeffrey Shifler, who was a member of the Boonsboro Police Department.

Shifler, 42, pleaded guilty in August to federal civil rights charges for hate mail and telephone calls to the council member threatening to burn her house down and for calls to the school board threatening to shoot black students. He is scheduled to be sentenced in December.

“That was considered amazing for this area,” Mrs. Parson-McBean said of Shifler’s prosecution. “I’m hoping we already learned from the ugliness of the past and are headed to a brighter future.”

Mr. Steele’s potential to break the Democratic lock on black urban votes has made Maryland’s Senate race one of the country’s most closely watched campaigns and one of the most fiercely fought between the national parties.

The Senate has one black member — Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat and the fifth black senator in U.S. history.

The country has not had a black governor since L. Douglas Wilder, a Virginia Democrat, left office 12 years ago. He was the country’s second black governor: Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback led Louisiana from 1872 to 1873.

Mr. Steele is among three black U.S. Senate candidates and three black gubernatorial candidates — a record number — on the Nov. 7 ballot. Only Democrat Deval Patrick in the Massachusetts governor’s race is ahead in the polls.

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