Monday, March 28, 2005

Maryland Senate Race Heating Up

With Sarbanes Retiring, Senate Interest Simmers
Open Seat in Md. Seen as 'Once-in-a-Lifetime' Chance

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 28, 2005; Page B01

Barely two weeks after Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D) announced he would retire at the end of his term, the field for Maryland's 2006 U.S. Senate race has begun to take shape -- with three prominent Democrats and a leading Republican seriously considering bids.

Former Democratic congressman and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume waited just three days before printing up campaign signs and entering the race. Democratic Party officials said last week that they believe Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen will run as well.

Top state and national Republican officials, meanwhile, have been pressing Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele to become their party's nominee for the Senate seat that's been occupied by one man for nearly three decades.

"I think all of them recognize that, given how long it's been since one of these seats was open, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Barbara Hoffman, a former Democratic state senator who has discussed the race with Cardin and Van Hollen. "They know it's time."

Although Mfume was first into the race, he said in an interview Saturday that he recognizes he will face a fierce battle for the nomination. To prepare, he said, he spent the first full week forming a campaign apparatus, including reaching decisions about strategists and fundraisers that "will include names that are familiar to everyone."

"Paul [Sarbanes] caught everyone off guard," Mfume said. "We had to drop everything we were doing and get started. But right now I'm very energized. I haven't felt like this since 1979," the year he first ran for Baltimore City Council.

While other Democrats have voiced interest in the race, Cardin and Van Hollen have taken significant steps to put their Senate campaigns in motion. Both said in interviews that they expect to poll shortly to test their name recognition and performance in possible matchups.

Van Hollen, a former state senator from Kensington in his second term representing Maryland's 8th Congressional District, attended a labor rally in Baltimore County last week and announced that he had brought in veteran Democratic operative Michael Morrill to "play an active role as the exploratory team communicates with Democrats around the state." Morrill was communications director for former governor Parris N. Glendening (D).

Van Hollen sent a letter to supporters Tuesday, asking for financial help and seeking "input and support as I seriously and actively explore this possibility."

Cardin, a former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, is in his 10th term representing Maryland's 3rd Congressional District, which includes parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties. He said repeatedly during an interview last week that he "will not run away from a tough battle."

His effort to drive home that point was intended to challenge perceptions that he is unwilling to take risks with his career. Last week, Maryland GOP Chairman John Kane called him "Congressman Cold Feet" because twice in the past 20 years -- in 1985 and 1997 -- Cardin expressed interest in runs for governor but backed out.

"There was no way I could win those races," Cardin said during the interview in Annapolis, which he gave after conducting a town hall-style meeting for two dozen constituents on the subject of Social Security reform. "At the time, my supporters told me not to get in. And if I had gotten in, I would have lost."

That is not what his supporters are telling him this time, Cardin said. "It's only been nine days, but in those nine days it's been very encouraging. I'm feeling very confident that my record will appeal to the voters of this state. I'm convinced of that."

Though it's too soon to tell exactly how the field will look -- several other Democratic potential candidates, including Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Elijah E. Cummings, are pondering their options -- veteran Maryland political observers said last week that the contest will test several long-standing political assumptions about race and geography.

For Mfume to win a three-way Democratic primary, he will have to find backing beyond the black communities in Baltimore and Prince George's County, said Timothy Maloney, a former state delegate who practices law in Prince George's. For Cardin to succeed, he will need to strike a chord with voters in the Washington suburbs who have had little exposure to him over the years. And for Van Hollen to prevail, he will have to disabuse Baltimore voters of the notion that Montgomery County breeds politicians who are wealthy and aloof.

Two decades ago, Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery) helped organize then-Rep. Michael Barnes's attempt to mount a bid for the U.S. Senate after Barnes served in the 8th District House seat Van Hollen occupies. Bronrott said he believes the perception of Montgomery "as a gold-plated place" helped seal Barnes's defeat.

"It will be interesting to see how much Maryland has changed in 20 years," Bronrott said.

Unlike the Democrats, Kane said his party is going to take its time sorting out who will run. He does not deny that his party's sights are on Steele, especially since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has taken himself out of consideration, committing to seeking a second term in state government.

Steele confirmed in a brief interview that he has been called by national party and elected officials, though he would not name them.

"There's something appealing about it," Steele said of the race. "I'm seriously at the point where I'm ready to entertain a conversation on this."

Steele's departure to run for Senate would, in part, hinge on the impact to Ehrlich's reelection bid. Ehrlich essentially launched Steele's political career by selecting him as a running mate.

Hoffman said that although she can understand the GOP's interest in anointing Steele, he is not a battle-tested candidate. His election to statewide office, the first for a black candidate in Maryland, came on a ticket with Ehrlich. She noted that three Maryland lieutenant governors have run statewide, and all three lost.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's), who ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) last year, said he has not decided whether to try for the seat. But he thought his chances would be greatly improved from his last attempt.

"An open seat creates a whole different dynamic," he said.

Maryland is fortunate to have a good number of very good candidates. I still think this race is Mfume's to lose. The Democratic Party learned a tough lesson in 2000 when Kathleen Kennedy Townsend snubbed the Black community and picked a white moderate Republican for her running mate. It infuriated the Black community which rightly feels that the state party takes it for granted. This time, the powers that be understand clearly that if Mfume, who is Black, does not get the nod, it'll confirm what Maryland blacks have said all along, that liberal talk is cheap and at the end of the day, racism still rules.

I personally don't see how Van Hollen or anyone else can survive a party primary and not win Baltimore and Prince George's County. Also Charles County, approx 38% black and in Southern Maryland, will give a significant vote to Mfume. The Southern MD area is interesting because recently there's been a spat about Blacks ascending in the party ranks. While, Blacks are a major part of voters, somehow, we haven't seen to many African Americans in Democratic leadership positions. So there is a sensitivity to the fact that we need to put our money where our diversity mouth is.

The other thing about Mfume is that liberals on the far left are very conscious about the dearth of Blacks in the Senate. Mfume is liberal and there are no disqualifying factors. If he loses, it'll greatly hurt liberal credibility in the state. The other thing is that many of the Democrats in red MD areas are liberal, liberal, so I think Mfume will pick off some of those votes.

On the Republican side, Michael Steele, Black Republican Lt. Gov is mulling a run. I don't see him doing anything significant, but you never know. The Catholic vote in Maryland went overwhelmingly to Bush and Steele has a very good reputation among Catholics. So between Catholics and PG County Blacks and then the deep red parts of the States, he could mount something significant. The problem though is that Governor Ehrlich has been embroiled in a few very bizzare scandal type things and we have to see how Steele comes out of this whole mess.

I've met the man, Steele, that is. I like him. But he is a staunch Republican and an uncritical Catholic. It would be a frosty night in hell before I vote for him. I'd shake his hand, though.

Anyway, Mfume it is. I think he'd serve Maryland very well and it is about time we got some more Black faces in the Senate and not ones who go on trips with Nigerian dictators.


Post a Comment

<< Home