- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2006

“That’s the guy I don’t like,” said my hairstylist, pointing to yet another slick commercial that popped up featuring Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican, in his bid to win a U.S. Senate seat.

Another friend is more amused. She refers to Mr. Steele’s “we’re in this together” campaign theme as the “EHarmony ads.”

My hairstylist is not “feelin’ the love.” And she is just the type of black, middle-class homeowner to whom Mr. Steele is pandering, hoping to get them to cross party lines to cast a vote for his historic candidacy.

Guess again. His is no cakewalk. It is going to take more than a few fighting words from has-been boxer (Mike Tyson) or hip-hop mogul (Russell Simmons) or the black version of P.T. Barnum (Don King) to woo suddenly coveted black voters.

“What I don’t like is how they’re always talking, talking about the other guy and why you shouldn’t vote” for their opponent,” said a Largo mother of three who is distrustful of most politicians. “But they don’t tell you why you should vote for them.” And, “I really don’t like black Republicans because they do all these things to get there, and then they forget where they come from,” she said. “That’s what I think when I see” Mr. Steele.

Like it or not, wrong or right, hers is the typically intractable anti-Republican sentiment that still runs high among black voters, many of whom lob far worse slurs at black conservatives than any white Democrat can dish out.

But the tide may be shifting, slightly. Another die-hard Democrat from Prince George’s County told me that publicly, he is supporting the party ticket, but privately, he is going to vote for Mr. Steele.

Why? “Just to make the Democrats crazy,” he said.

He suggested that Mr. Steele should have taken his message to black voters sooner. Still, he doesn’t think the black crossover vote will determine Mr. Steele’s fate. A loss would rest more with the number of white Republican voters who “just can’t bring themselves to vote for a black man.” The Washington Times reported earlier this week that Republicans, particularly in rural areas of the state, said they will vote instead for the Democratic candidate, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.

Ronald Walters, a political-science professor at the University of Maryland, agreed with the Prince George’s man, predicting that whatever gains Mr. Steele makes among black votes will be canceled by whites who will not vote for him as happened in Virginia with L. Douglas Wilder and in New York with David Dinkins, black Democrats who won by slim margins.

He also said he expects few black voters to cast ballots in favor of Mr. Steele, despite the historic aspects of his success.

Too bad. Too late. I know it was wishful thinking to want former Rep. Kweisi Mfume as Mr. Steele’s Democratic opponent.

We missed the rare and welcome opportunity to witness an election campaign that might not have deteriorated into name calling and race baiting on both sides.

No matter how hard we try, we simply cannot escape the age-old issues stemming from racial injustice and division in this country.

Even when the dueling candidates are of an apparently similar ethnic background, hurtful words still sully the debate and detract from common concerns.

Just when the brouhaha over the use of the “N-word” seems to have subsided in the Old Dominion, we cross the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to the Free State to hear words like “Oreo,” “Uncle Tom” and “slavishly” shamelessly thrown into the campaign dialogue, predictably followed by weak excuses and mea culpas.

Wasn’t it E.B. White who said to choose your words wisely and “make every word tell”? Sorry, but I’m not buying the I-didn’t-mean-any-offense line from Rep. Steny H. Hoyer.

For his part, Mr. Steele trots out black celebrities, slips into street dialect, spends most of his time in the ‘hood and chastises his benefactors for forgetting folks who still haven’t made it up the ladder as he has. But he pretends to have thin skin whenever the opposition alludes to its color.

Not surprisingly, a fair number of black Maryland voters resent politicians on both sides of the aisle who show up only to shower empty campaign promises when the margin for victory gets slim. The old-boy network in the Maryland Democrats’ cabal couldn’t reward its loyal black constituency by backing a single black candidate in a bid for a powerful statewide office. Then, they feared backlash from black Democrats, as they should, now that the folks they have traditionally taken for granted have a viable alternative.

The Republicans upped the ante by fielding a more attractive, articulate foe than the Democrats’ pedestrian Mr. Cardin.

In response, the white Democratic Party leaders have done their best to paint Mr. Steele as a puppet for the Republicans whom they suggest are determined to return their water boy and his people to those bygone Southern Maryland farms to harvest tobacco.

Talk about a picture speaking a thousand words. Should all Maryland voters be offended by the spectacle of a lineup of suited white men preaching fire and brimstone to a black audience about why they should stick with the very people who passed them over? At the eleventh hour to add “hope” to the mix of fear, they serve up “the first black president,” Bill Clinton, or the future first black vice-presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama.

“Give us free,” says the frustrated slave in “Amistad.”

No “EHarmony” here. Clearly politicians of every hue and stripe must think voters can’t see through their thinly veiled, self-serving divisive rhetoric.

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