Local black Democratic leaders will not attack Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele in his U.S. Senate race, even as they campaign and appear in ads for his opponent — Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a fellow Democrat.
“I think that is a tactical decision,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional representative. “If [Mr. Steele] has a large or fairly large black vote, why or how could you alienate that vote by going after him doing personal attacks? There is just no way.”
Former Prince George’s County Executive Wayne K. Curry, who has not yet endorsed anyone in the Senate race, said it is wise for black politicians to avoid criticizing Mr. Steele, a Republican and the first black to win a statewide election in Maryland.
“Obviously, that would make good sense because Michael is not disdained among African-Americans,” said Mr. Curry, who has attended a campaign event for Mr. Steele but not for Mr. Cardin.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings supported Kweisi Mfume, past president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in the Democratic primary for the Senate. He said there is no need to pillory Mr. Steele because his positions on various issues are unappealing among most black voters.
“I don’t think you have to attack Steele,” said Mr. Cummings, of Baltimore. “All you have to do is ask him where he is on issues like the Iraq war, universal health care, stem-cell research, college-tuition assistance, and who are going to be our judges, and on President Bush’s policies.”
Race has been prominent in the Maryland Senate contest, as Democrats have tried to blunt Mr. Steele’s appeal among blacks, their most loyal — and, some say, neglected — voting bloc.
Early in the campaign season, pollster Cornell Belcher identified an “emerging black swing vote” and advised Democrats in a memo to portray Mr. Steele as a “typical Republican in the eyes of voters, as opposed to an African-American candidate.”
A key battleground in the Maryland Senate race will be Prince George’s County, which has the highest concentration of blacks and registered Democrats in the state.
At The Washington Times on Monday, Mr. Steele — who was raised in Petworth — said that he supports full congressional voting rights for the District.
Mrs. Norton, who is working with Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, on a bill that would give the District a vote in the House, noted the significance of Mr. Steele’s support for the effort.
“We gave Maryland its black middle class, and they completely and totally identify with and understand that D.C. has no voting rights,” she said, “and so what Steele has done is identify himself with a traditional African-American political issue.”
But Mr. Curry said that Mr. Steele’s commercials have not addressed black voters’ concerns on issues such as education and that the lieutenant governor still has some work to do to “galvanize” black voters.
“For one, he’s got to prove to people he wouldn’t be another Clarence Thomas,” Mr. Curry said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Meanwhile, black Democratic leaders’ support for Mr. Cardin has appeared muted, at best.
Mr. Mfume, whom Mr. Cardin defeated in last month’s primary, has made only one appearance in support of the nominee, during which he noted the lack of diversity in the state party’s ticket by saying it “looks like the Democratic ticket for state office in 1956.”
He has since been out of sight and contact, but his son, Michael, has endorsed Mr. Steele.
Mrs. Norton said that she has not been contacted to record an ad for Mr. Cardin but added that she hopes someone from the region has, “because many of his people are our people.”
Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George’s County said he recorded a radio ad weeks ago for Mr. Cardin but was not sure when it would run.
Mr. Cardin yesterday said he was not aware of the Wynn ad.