Race issues dog Cardin and Mfume in Senate primary

NEW CARROLLTON, Md. – Politicking at the entrance to the New Carrollton Metro station on a sticky and overcast morning recently, Democratic senate candidate Josh Rales shakes hands, slaps backs and asks for support in the September 12 primary.

NEW CARROLLTON, Md. – Politicking at the entrance to the New Carrollton Metro station on a sticky and overcast morning recently, Democratic senate candidate Josh Rales shakes hands, slaps backs and asks for support in the September 12 primary.

Rales, who made his fortune in real estate development, has sunk more than $1.4 million of his own money into the race. He has hired a star media consultant, David Doak, and pollster, Paul Maslin. He has drafted policy proposals on education and healthcare. He has spent more than of $500,000 on television advertising, casting himself as the Washington outsider in a race dominated by Rep. Ben Cardin (Md.) and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume (Md.), two of Maryland’s best known insiders. They are running to succeed retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.)

Most polls have shown a close race, but Cardin led Mfume 43-30 percent in a survey last week.
“The media is a rubber stamp for professional politicians,” Rales says, adding that he has put forward specific ideas, a long record of community involvement and experience as a successful businessman.

“This is not a good [candidate] vetting process we have. I’m not complaining. This is a systemic problem,” he says, “There’s so much inertia out there.”

Rales says he admires politicians who have moved from boardrooms, such as Gov. John Corzine (D-N.J.), New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R), former Va. Gov. Mark Warner (D) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).

Despite his mild frustration with the primary process, he politicks with the ease of a professional. His wife, Debby, is even more enthusiastic, introducing streams of commuters to her husband.

“Building trust takes time, especially when people are frustrated,” said Rales.

Even Mfume, a former congressman and chairman of the NAACP, is playing the outsider’s card. Asked if voters saw him as part of the Washington establishment, he said, “I don’t have Potomac Fever. I got cured when I walked away from Congress 10 years ago.”

But an outsider’s candidacy might not work in Maryland like it did in Connecticut, where outsider Ned Lamont capitalized on Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s (D-Conn.) support for the war in Iraq. “If there’s uncertainty about the button-downed politician, then there’s a vacuum,” said Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-Md.), who supports Cardin. “That’s not the case here because of Cardin’s record.”

The long shot candidates – Rales, history professor Allan Lichtman, former Baltimore County executive Dennis Rasmussen and 11 others – lack the institutional support of the Democratic Party and have not found a way to make inroads among black Democrats, some 40 percent of voters on primary day.

Cardin has captured support from the Democratic Party’s base, raised more than $4.8 million, and highlighted his 20-year record in the House, which includes bipartisan work on pension reform and healthcare. Mfume has worked to solidify his support in the black community. Maryland’s black lawmakers, Reps. Elijah Cummings and Al Wynn, endorsed Mfume at an event in Baltimore last Wednesday.

Both Cummings and Wynn say they will support the party’s nominee. 

“Mfume is getting a huge share of the African-American vote, 85 to 90 percent of that constituency. If African-Americans turn out in big numbers that makes Mfume viable,” said Keith Haller, an independent pollster.

Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, Inc., which conducted the most recent poll, found that Mfume led Cardin among black voters by 68 to 19 percent while Cardin led Mfume by 40 points among whites.

Black voters could carry Mfume to victory, but political observers wonders whether Wynn and Cummings, and other black leaders, would direct their resources to Mfume’s campaign. Only about 25 Mfume supporters turned out at last week’s event.

Cardin has won endorsements from black leaders, but Democrats worry that if Mfume loses, blacks will stay home Nov. 7 or vote in higher numbers for Steele than they would for a white Republican. The Gonzalez poll showed Cardin leading Steele 44 to 39 percent and Steele leading Mfume 42 to 38 percent. 

Other political insiders say that if Cardin wins the primary, he could benefit from Wynn and Cummings’ endorsement of Mfume because it would signal that the Democratic Party insiders did not line up against a black candidate. Black voters then would be less likely to punish Cardin by staying home on election day or voting for GOP Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who is black, the likely Republican nominee.

If Mfume wins, he will lag far behind Steele, who has raised more than $4.5 million and has support from the White House. Mfume has just $171,000 in hand.

At a meeting this summer in Nantucket, Mfume said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, promised that the “resources and energy would be there … to fight like hell to keep [the seat] Democratic.”

Cardin also flew to Nantucket to raise money, said his spokesman.

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