- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin yesterday claimed the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat from Maryland, pitting himself against the Republican nominee — Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele — in a general election showdown that will hinge on racial issues and draw attention from across the country.

Just after 2 a.m. yesterday at the Wyndham Baltimore Hotel, Mr. Cardin delivered a victory speech aimed, in part, at shoring up support among black Democrats who may defect to Mr. Steele, the first black elected to statewide office in Maryland.

Mr. Cardin, who is white, appeared to have defeated Kweisi Mfume, past president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in large part with help from party leaders such as House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

With 96 percent of the state’s precincts reporting, Mr. Cardin had 229,835 votes, or 45 percent, and Mr. Mfume had 206,450 votes, or 40 percent. The Mfume campaign said the candidate would not contest the election results.

As Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” blasted over the hotel’s sound system, Mr. Cardin, 62, took the stage and invoked the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, which critics of President Bush say demonstrated the Republican Party’s indifference to poor, black communities.

“Katrina was not the disaster caused by nature. It was the disaster of government’s failure to help our most vulnerable people,” he said. “I am running for the United States Senate to change the priorities in Washington, to take on the moral challenges of our time and to never ever leave Americans behind.”

Later in the day, Mr. Steele, 47, began a statewide bus tour in the mostly black and downtrodden West Baltimore neighborhood of Park Heights, which borders a more affluent Jewish community with the same name in Baltimore County.

“I am no stranger to this neighborhood,” Mr. Steele said. “When I go to the United States Senate, I will represent both sides of Park Heights. … You’re going with me to Washington. You will have a seat in the halls of Congress. Your voice will be heard.”

Mr. Cardin, who is Jewish, has represented the Park Heights area in the U.S. House for 20 years.

Mr. Steele also delivered a message of economic empowerment and the establishment of legacy wealth in poor communities, which has become a central plank in his campaign.

“If you are not about ownership, then you are not about communities like this,” he said. Martin Luther “King made it very clear that we had to have a seat at the lunch counter. Our generation will be the generation that will own the diner. That’s what it is about for us in neighborhoods like this.”

Henry Wilkerson, a black barber in the neighborhood, said he would cross party lines to vote for Mr. Steele.

“I’m a Democrat, but if the right man says the right thing, I’ll be a Republican,” said Mr. Wilkerson, 55, who is also a pastor at a nearby Baptist church. “I believe he has moral standards, and I believe he has the spiritual standards that will govern is decision-making.”

Old allegiances, however, die hard.

“He’s a Republican. I don’t mess with Republicans,” a woman told her husband over the speaker of his cell phone as he stood in the crowd to see Mr. Steele.

Mr. Cardin is actively cultivating support among black voters, who make up as much as 40 percent of Democratic voters in Maryland.

He has made Baltimore City Council member Kenneth N. Harris Sr., a black Democrat, a central figure in his Senate campaign and has enlisted the support of black clergy in Baltimore and Prince George’s County.

The Rev. Marvis May, pastor of the Macedonia Baptist Church in Baltimore and a strong Cardin supporter in the city’s black faith community, said black voters would remain loyal to the Democratic Party and Mr. Cardin despite Mr. Steele’s racial appeal.

“It’s a done deal,” he said. “This is a Democratic state, and we are tired of President Bush. We are tired of Republicans.”

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

Late last month, Mr. Steele had $3.1 million in his campaign war chest, compared with Mr. Cardin’s $1.6 million. Those totals are likely to be eclipsed by the dollars that will pour into Maryland from the national fundraising wings of the Republican and Democratic parties.

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