Thursday, November 3, 2005

When Michael Steele, a Republican, announced that he would seek the Senate seat long held by the popular liberal Democrat Paul Sarbanes, Marylanders should have welcomed his candidacy. He has shattered a considerable number of color barriers on the southern side of the Mason-Dixon line — and he accomplished as much in a state where voters warm to Democrats and assail anyone attempting to whistle Dixie. But instead of encouraging a conservative-liberal, Democrat-Republican debate on the issues, Maryland Democrats have embarrassed themselves again.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has obtained Mr. Steele’s personal credit report, without his consent, and other liberals have tossed mean racial slurs at him, characterizing him as a minstrel clown. We thought the gutter bigotry that first played itself out in the gubernatorial race had lost its glamour in Maryland. Alas, it has not. During that campaign, the white president of the Maryland Senate, Thomas Miller, called Mr. Steele “Uncle Tom.” In a debate at the historically black college, Morgan State, Oreo cookies were thrown at Mr. Steele. The Baltimore Sun, Maryland’s largest daily newspaper, indulged in a little race-baiting as well, declaring that Mr. Steele brought little to the governor-lieutenant governor team “but the color of his skin.”

The racist attacks backfired: Robert Ehrlich became Maryland’s first Republican governor in 34 years. Mr. Steele became not only the first black lieutenant governor in state history, but its first Republican lieutenant governor. More accomplishments for a man who had been chairman of the Maryland state Republican Party.

A native of Maryland, the honorable Michael Steele holds an honorable place in history, and we are encouraged by his run for another historic first — the U.S. Senate. At the Republican National Convention last year, Mr. Steele reminded Democrats and Republicans alike about the threshold of color-blindness, where America stands at considerable distance from the day that Martin Luther King implored Americans to judge men by the content of their character and now the color of their skin. “[W]e have come even further,” Mr. Steele reminds us, “since a majority of Republicans in the United States Senate fought off the segregationist Democrats to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

With Democrats outnumbering Republicans nearly 2-to-1, the Democrats ought to feel a large comfort zone, one that leads to no temptation for race politics. But they remain in search of an identity as they woo black voters. Take two “leaders,” Martin O’Malley, the mayor of Baltimore, and Doug Duncan, the chief executive of Montgomery County, the two Democrats who are running governor. Typical Maryland Democrats, they condone the race-baiting by pointedly declining to repudiate it.

Interestingly, former congressmen Kweisi Mfume, a Steele opponent and a former official of the NAACP, laid bare the state of affairs in Maryland: “Racially tinged attacks have no place in this campaign for U.S Senate. If they did, I could very well be the object of public racial humiliation, based on my skin color, by people who don’t like my politics. Black bigotry can be just as cruel and evil as white bigotry in too many places.” Well said, Mr. Mfume.

The run for the Senate should turn on issues, debated fully. Racial attacks always prevent honest debate. Democrats black and white have a duty to eliminate the name-calling, and begin the debate.

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