- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

BALTIMORE — Maryland’s U.S. Senate candidates Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin clashed over racial issues last night in their first debate of the campaign.

“There are too many divisions in America along racial lines and along economic lines,” Mr. Cardin, a Democrat, said during the two-hour debate at the Greater Baltimore Urban League, which is based in a church that once served as a refuge for escaped slaves on the famed Underground Railroad.

“Voters in the African-American community want change, and if they vote for me, they will get change,” Mr. Cardin said. “I voted against [President] Bush’s budget because Bush’s budget is leading America in the wrong direction, and the people in the African-American community know that.”

Mr. Steele, a Republican and the first black elected to statewide office in Maryland, responded: “I appreciate your message of change, but it is an outdated message.”

“My opponent, Mr. Cardin, says he wants to be a change agent,” Mr. Steele told the boisterous crowd that filled the old church hall. “How can you be a change agent if you vote with your party 95 percent of the time?”

The candidates also clashed over the Iraq war, health care and education.

Mr. Cardin said his Republican opponent was allied with the president in support of the Iraq war and against raising the minimum wage and universal health care coverage.

“I’ve stood up to the presidents of both parties when it was in the interest of the citizens of Maryland,” said Mr. Cardin, who has been running on his experience as a 10-term congressman from Baltimore and former speaker of the state House of Delegates.

Mr. Steele criticized Mr. Cardin, 62, for spending 20 years in Congress and showing little change to the quality of life in his district.

“At what point, Mr. Cardin, will you begin looking at what is going on in your own back yard?” he said.

Earlier, Mr. Steele, 47, chided Mr. Cardin for opening remarks that focused almost exclusively on the lieutenant governor’s association with Mr. Bush.

“What you have just witnessed is the trouble with Washington,” Mr. Steele said. “They run their mouths, but they don’t listen. … After 40 years of humble public service, he still has not learned to look around the room, shut up and listen.”

The remark drew competing cheers and jeers from the crowd.

Mr. Steele said Mr. Cardin had ignored the other candidate in the debate, Kevin Zeese, 51, an anti-war activist running under the banners of the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties.

Mr. Cardin and Mr. Steele are expected to meet at least one more time before the Nov. 7 election, including an appearance Oct. 29 on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Mr. Cardin and Mr. Steele have similar stances on key issues, such as advocating an expedited exit strategy for troops in Iraq. But they confront each other from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Mr. Cardin is a liberal who last year received a 95 percent rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action.

Mr. Steele is a conservative, but with an independent streak that at times could put him at odds with his party.

The starkest contrast is on abortion. Mr. Steele is pro-life; Mr. Cardin is pro-choice.

However, racial politics remain the focus of the contest.

Black voters account for much of the Democrat’s 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration. Maryland has nearly 900,000 registered Republicans and about 1.7 million registered Democrats, of which an estimated 700,000 are black.

Mr. Steele’s ability to forge inroads to black communities has made the race one of the most closely watched in the country and one of the most hard-fought campaigns between the national parties.

Mr. Cardin has scrambled to connect with black voters since his narrow win in the Democratic primary over Kweisi Mfume, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 43.8 percent to 40.4 percent, despite outspending Mr. Mfume by about $3 million on television ads.

Mr. Mfume won by large margins in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, two of the state’s most populous and heavily Democratic jurisdictions that also are more than 65 percent black.

Mr. Cardin last week wooed black voters at a campaign rally in Prince George’s County with Mr. Mfume and Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat and the country’s only black senator.

However, the rally was tempered by Mr. Mfume’s public criticism that the state Democratic Party still lacks black candidates at the top of the ticket.

“The Democratic ticket of four nominees for statewide office … still looks like the Democratic ticket for state office in 1956,” he said.

The sting of racism keeps infecting the campaign.

Mr. Steele has criticized Mr. Cardin for stirring anti-Republican sentiment in black communities by repeatedly invoking Mr. Bush and the Hurricane Katrina disaster, which for some has come to symbolize the Bush administration’s supposed neglect of poor black people.

The references to Katrina and Mr. Bush follow the Democratic National Committee’s strategy of convincing voters that Mr. Steele is a “typical Republican” as opposed to a black candidate.

Mr. Cardin, who last year pledged not to use racial attacks against Mr. Steele, said he is not race-baiting by talking about the government’s response to the hurricane because it is an issue in the Senate race.

“It is about the failure of government to protect its most vulnerable citizens,” he said.

Mr. Zeese railed against the Democrats and Republicans, saying they are “status quo parties” that are beholden to corporate special interests. He advocated free college tuition, an end to the United States’ global military presence and development of clean energy technologies.

“We’ve got to say no more corporate control,” Mr. Zeese said. “We need a government of the people. That’s what I’m running for.”

The forum was Maryland’s first debate for statewide office to include a third-party candidate.

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