Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Big Elephant in the Room -- Race Matters (Part II of a series): If you look through this blog you'll find my earlier post today, discussing the Maryland Senate race and my uncertainty regarding which candidate I should support. There are two other local/state races perplexing me: The race for Montgomery County Executive, between Ike Leggett and Steve Silverman; and the Maryland Attorney General's race between Doug Gansler and Stuart Simms. These two races, along with the Maryland Senate race discussed above, and even the upcoming November vote for Maryland Governor all have one thing in common: The big elephant in the room -- race.

There are, of course, real issues beyond race -- real reasons to support one candidate or another besides race. In the Montgomery County Executive race, the campaign has mostly seemed to be a clash of visions and personal styles. The Washington Post had this description of Steve Silverman: "Silverman, who has been on the council since 1998, has shown that he can raise money like a Republican and spend it like a liberal -- an effective combination in Montgomery, a heavily Democratic jurisdiction where many voters expect an array of services, including social programs that pick up where state and federal efforts leave off...His campaign emphasizes the light-rail link known as the Purple Line, which he hopes will one day connect Bethesda and New Carrollton. Silverman wants voters to see his advocacy of the Purple Line and of using county money to build roads as evidence that he will deliver on a central promise of his campaign: 'Sick of Traffic? Vote Silverman.'"

Leggett gets higher marks because he doesn't have the 'cozy with developers' reputation, and because he's far more popular with the other council members. He may not be the deal-maker that Silverman is, but he's more of a consensus builder. Silverman comes off as brash and ambitious. It's not clear to me that these are necessarily bad traits in a politician, but it does rub people the wrong way.

Silverman ran a truly despicable and badly written ad on TV last night. With a graphic that said "Leggett voted against a version of the Purple Line," this ad really insults the intelligence of voters. There have been multiple proposals for the Purple Line --

[For those who don't know, when the D.C. Metro was first conceived there was the idea of a circular route that would parallel the beltway and connect the different Metro lines and the suburban stations directly -- the so-called Purple Line. Because of the expense involved and questions of need, it is unlikely that the Purple Line would ever get constructed in such form, as a Metrorail line circling the entire Washington DC area. However, because of the nearly constant bumper-to-bumper traffic on the beltway through Montgomery County, there is some movement towards building some version of the Line, at least to connect the suburban cities of Bethesda and Silver Spring. This would offer a decent mass-transit alternative to the beltway traffic jams, and might relieve some of the load on the beltway and local roads. Debate has been waged over what type of line this should be -- a less expensive above-ground light-rail system or a much costlier, heavier rail system that would be largely, or at least partly underground, like the current Metro system. There has also been debate over the exact path of this Purple Line, and whether the Line should extend through the neighboring county of Prince George's, including stops at the University of Maryland and ending at New Carrolton -- endpoint of the orange line and location of an Amtrak station on the Northeast Corridor].

So -- there have been multiple proposals for the Purple Line. One would hope that the legislators have their own opinions about which would be best, and one would hope that they would express those opinions in their votes. Though I think the Purple Line is probably a good idea, I would hope that Mr. Leggett has voted against at least one version of the Purple Line. At least, that would suggest he has an opinion on the matter. Silverman's criticism of that is insultingly simplistic and suggests to me that there is truth to the criticism that Silverman has never met a development proposal he didn't like. The ad also shows some scary apartment block along with the graphic that the Washington Post said Mr. Leggett supported some massive development project -- though which project that was is not made clear. In short, if I’m any indication, this ad will cost Silverman a lot of votes.

In the race for Attorney-General, I'm not really clear what the issues are that separate the two candidates. The number one issue seems to be the personality and ambition of Gansler, currently State's attorney for Montgomery County -- the office that prosecuted the DC sniper case (this is a misnomer, since the shootings did not occur in the District -- most were in my 'hood, lower Montgomery County, around Rockville -- yes, that's the 'Rockville' in the old R.E.M. song "Don't Go Back to Rockville"). Gansler has always sought the spotlight, and has been running for the office for years, while his opponent, Stuart Simms, only joined the race recently.

Simms had been Douglas Duncan's announced choice for Lieutenant Governor. Duncan, the current Montgomery County executive, was running for Governor, and tabbed Simms for his running mate, after Duncan's primary opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, named his own running mate. Duncan dropped out of the race recently, citing a personal struggle with clinical depression (one could be cynical and note that Duncan's campaign was probably not getting statewide traction, but his courage in admitting depression is admirable). So, Simms decided to go for the A-G slot. Recently, the other major candidate, Tom Perez, a Hispanic, was disqualified, and he threw his support behind the African-American, Simms.

Anyway, it seems to me that the primary consideration in the Attorney-General race, as it has become in each of these races, is race itself. Four years ago, Republican congressman Robert Ehrlich broke new ground, and probably got himself elected Governor, by naming Michael Steele, a black man, as his running mate in the race for Governor. Now, Steele has been pushed into running for the open U.S. Senate seat for Maryland. His greatest appeal seems to be that he is black, and that he might siphon away enough black votes to elect a Republican to the seat. He just got the endorsement of rap mogul Russell Simmons.

In answering a question as to why he would be the better choice to oppose Steele, Kweisi Mfume focused on race. Because he and Steele "are of the same ilk," Mfume said that would eliminate race as a consideration in the general election. Mfume's primary challenger, Ben Cardin focused on the fact that his district encompasses parts of three counties that each supported Ehrlich for Governor on '02. Cardin was suggesting that he would have broader appeal than Mfume. Presumably, he is inplying that Mfume's appeal would be limited mostly to Baltimore City and Prince George's County whose politics are dominated by their large black populations. I'd like to think that white voters will not be so narrow. Besides, Cardin's district is largely a Democratic one, encompassing small, liberal pockets within counties that generally are more evenly split. Thus, his boast of broad, cross-party appeal is unconvincing.

Between the two contentions, I'd say Mfume has the better of the argument, but I’m deeply troubled by it. Race shouldn't be the best argument for voting for someone. It shouldn't be in Steele's case, and it shouldn't be in Mfume's case, either. In a sense, I'm OK with race being a factor. In this country, as Mfume said the other night, "race matters." It would be a very healthy thing to have more blacks in the Senate. I hold hope for Harold Ford's candidacy in Tennessee. And, I'd like to see Mfume get in, too.

I think it's OK if racial diversity becomes a consideration in casting one's vote. It's a curious argument -- kind of an electoral affirmative action. In theory, I guess that I'm OK with racial diversity being a consideration. I'm just really troubled that both parties are so busy playing racial politics. Even if one accepts that it can be a legitimate consideration, the candidate's race shouldn't be at the forefront of the campaign.

In the GOP's case, the party pushed Steele to run for the Senate seat because Republicans love the idea of a black Republican in the Senate, and they figure that a black candidate has a better chance of being elected to statewide office than would another white Republican. But race has become the big question and appeal in the Maryland Democratic Party this year, as well. When Steele announced his candidacy for Senate, the leading Democratic candidate for Governor, Martin O’Malley, quickly followed by making the unprecedented move of announcing his preference for a running mate. O’Malley tabbed a black candidate, Del. Anthony Brown, widely regarded as the one of the up-and-coming stars of Maryland politics. Not to be outdone, O’Malley’s then challenger for the Party nomination, Doug Duncan, named his own choice for Lieut. Gov., Stu Simms, also an African-American. The symbolism and the baldness of the Democratic candidates’ race-based strategy was not lost on anyone.

Race has also figured in the other major races here in Maryland. Besides Mfume's own appeal, based on his race, attention is being drawn to the racial differences between the Democratic primary A-G candidates, Simms and Gansler. Some party leaders are fearful of a backlash among the traditionally loyal African-American community should both Simms and Mfume lose to their white primary opponents. There’s more about these concerns in a local Gazette newspaper on the race question, found at

Even here, in Montgomery County, the County Executive campaign is down to two contenders, one white and one black. I have to admit that race is a consideration in each of these races, though I’m not sure how that will shake out. Even in my own personal case, I am still undecided in each case. I don’t want race to be the primary reason I vote for or against a candidate, but it’s hard to escape the whole question when the candidates for Governor haven’t been shy about playing the race card, and when most of the other races are between two serious contenders, one white and one black.

These electoral races and the issues are explored on other local blogs. See for example:

Outside the Beltway: African American Revolt if Simms and Mfume Lose?

A scathing indictment of Steve Silverman can be found at

The granddaddy listing for Maryland Democratic politics --

There’s even an article worth noting in the right-wing rag, The Washington Times:

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