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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Racial politics in the campaign: the big elephant in the room

By Steve Charing
Senior Political Analyst

In a rare Democratic sweep of national and local elections, the country voted on the Bush administration and Republican-led Congress and determined that enough was enough. With some contests still in dispute at deadline, it is clear the Democrats’ victories were stunning and a new direction will be in order. Throughout the campaign, however, one factor—an ugly one—emerged during several key contests. And that factor is race.

Whether the issue of race contributed to the eventual outcome in these elections will undoubtedly be a matter of speculation and analysis by pundits, the media and elected officials. But that element clearly played a significant role in these battles, which is mind boggling considering we are over four decades removed from major national civil rights laws passed in 1965.

Following that landmark legislation that had been initiated by President Kennedy and then stewarded by southerner President Johnson, many disaffected southern Democrats began to search for another home. These "Dixicrats," as they were dubbed, were significantly slower in supporting civil rights than their northern brethren. They began to find more comfort within the Republican Party and some of their segregationist leaders.

While it is true that other conservative issues, such as strong defense, smaller government and so-called family values, were factors in folks’ migrating to the Republican Party, the hushed-up matter of race cannot be understated. Racists and homophobes have found a sanctuary in the GOP. If you disagree, consider this: do you think the uproar over tough immigration reform, led by angry Republicans, would have been as intense if it were white Canadians sneaking over the U.S. border?

GOP operatives have also used race baiting as a means to attract votes—a phenomenon admitted to by Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman for which he apologized on behalf of the party. They also use gay bashing for the same purpose, but don’t expect any apologies, even from Mehlman.

In 2006, race clearly was one of the most controversial topics in the battle for the U.S. Senate in both Tennessee and Virginia. A distasteful television ad late in the campaign—subsequently pulled—played on the prejudices of Tennessee’s white rural voters by suggesting that Rep. Harold Ford, an African-American Democrat, had no qualms about dating white women. Even if it were true, what this had to do with the competence of the candidate is beyond imagination. But this smear tactic exploited the racial divide for political gain. It worked, although it is still unclear how much of a role race played in the outcome.

In Virginia, not only did Senator Allen inflict damage to his campaign by being caught on camera referring to a dark-skinned Indian staffer of Jim Webb as "Maccaca," a racial slur of some sort, but he was also charged with using the "N" word during his time in college. He was also alleged to have participated in a disgusting racial prank. Throw in the obviously anti-Semitic remarks he made when it was disclosed his mother was Jewish, and one can see that this virulently anti-gay Senator clearly has problems with minorities. This backlash helped to sink Allen although the results may await a recount and other delays.

Here in Maryland, race was a factor as well. Governor Ehrlich sent racially coded messages in his effort to disparage Baltimore City that had been protested by Mayor Martin O’Malley. He also denounced the reliability of the state’s voting machines that may have suppressed votes in Baltimore and Prince George’s County.

A stronger than expected turnout of African-American voters, opposed to the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, would spell doom for Ehrlich. African-Americans supported O’Malley by over 4-1.

The battle between Rep. Ben Cardin and African-American Lt. Governor Michael Steele contained the most overt racial implications in Maryland. Not that there was anything racial said or done between the two candidates, but the issue of race hovered over the campaign like a drop cloth.

There were segments of the black community upset that Kweise Mfume lost to Ben Cardin in the primary and felt the Democrat "machine" was responsible. "I heard many black people voice disappointment and anger regarding the race for Senator," said Meredith Moise, of the National Black Justice Coalition. "Many feel that Mfume was dismissed and Cardin was crowned."

It is important to note that Mfume lost by only 19,000 votes statewide. If black turnout was greater, he could have won. But the African-American community, with their poor turnout, should not be held blameless, although some of it was attributable to snafus at several Baltimore’s polls.

A good number of African-Americans who endorsed Steele and voted for him did so simply because he is black. One needs to get beyond the color of skin when making electoral choices and also examine the policies with respect to the issues to determine if they would be beneficial. For example, Republicans like Steele staunchly oppose affirmative action and an increase to the minimum wage.

Ms. Moise noted that many blacks believed there was a lack of diversity in the candidates nominated for top state offices. But keep in mind that Anthony Brown should have been credited as a black Lt. Governor candidate no less than how Michael Steele was touted four years ago. Plus the Republicans have not fielded any African-Americans in the state legislature, so the diversity argument isn’t compelling.

Steele did, in fact, tap into black anger during his campaign. In doing so he chose to accept the politically dubious endorsements from two convicted felons—Don King and Mike Tyson—as well as a rap industry mogul Russell Simmons.

But it was not enough as African-Americans supported the victorious Cardin by 3 to 1. The war in Iraq and President Bush were the main issues for the electorate, and Cardin did an effective job of tying Steele to the administration.

The Ehrlich and Steele campaigns were accused of using poor black unemployed and homeless people from Philadelphia to hand out fake sample ballots in at least four Prince George’s County polling places in an attempt to dupe largely African-American voters into thinking that the candidates were Democrats. The flier also misled the voters by suggesting that several prominent black Democrats endorsed their elections whereby only one did.

"I think it's pretty low that Ehrlich and Steele would print up a fake ballot and bus in unemployed people and exploit them," said Martin O'Malley on the morning of the election as reported in the Washington Post. "It doesn't get much lower than that."

Race has always been and will be a force to be dealt with in elections. It is forever part of the political landscape. But how it is addressed during the election campaigns from both major parties will signal how far our society has progressed or not.

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