Black lawmakers keep quiet on Cardin v. Mfume primary

Most members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are staying on the sidelines in the Senate Democratic primary between Maryland Rep. Ben Cardin and former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume.

Cardin has emerged as the favorite in an expanding field of Democratic candidates, but a recent Baltimore Sun poll showed Mfume trumping Cardin by 48 points among black voters, 63 to 15 percent, even though the two candidates were in a statistical dead heat. White voters overwhelmingly backed Cardin in the poll.

CBC members face a tough choice between their colleague and Mfume, a national black leader and former congressman, who are seeking to succeed retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.). The primary will be held Sept. 12, 2006.

The winner is expected to face Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R), who is African-American. The Sun poll found that Steele would beat Mfume but would lose to Cardin by 11 points.

Both Cardin and Mfume are trying to get a lock on endorsements from locally elected officials. Cardin, for example, has the backing of Ken Harris, a Baltimore city councilman who is running his campaign in Baltimore County. Mfume has secured an endorsement from Jack Johnson, Prince George’s County executive.

But Maryland’s black Democratic congressmen, Al Wynn and Elijah Cummings, have not taken sides.

“I’ve got friends in this race, and I’m always with my friends,” Wynn told The Hill when asked whom he supports.

Other CBC lawmakers are staying out of the race, too. Democratic Reps. Mel Watt (N.C.), Harold Ford (Tenn.), Charles Rangel (N.Y.), Stephanie Tubbs Jones (Ohio) and James Clyburn (S.C.) sidestepped the question of whom they would favor.

“I really have not taken a position because I don’t want anyone to think that it’s a caucus position. I’m staying out of it,” said Watt, the CBC’s chairman.

“I’m not getting involved in any race but Harold Ford Jr. for U.S. Senate,” said Ford.

“That’s above my pay grade,” joked Rangel, with whom Cardin serves on the Ways and Means Committee.

But Tubbs Jones, another member of Ways and Means, said that both candidates had spoken to her about the race and that she would consider making an endorsement in the primary.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who arrived in Congress with Cardin in 1986 and sits with him on the Ways and Means, said Cardin has not asked directly for his endorsement and that Mfume has not spoken to him about the race.

“I’ve known both men. Ben is a friend of mine. He’s highly respected as the most able of lawmakers,” Lewis said.

He said he hopes that Democrats will avoid a bitter primary.

Only Rep. Lacy Clay (Mo.) threw his support to one candidate. “I have no choice but to support Mfume,” adding that his father, a former lawmaker, and Mfume worked closely together in the House.

Keith Haller, who conducted The Sun’s poll, said, “At this stage, Cardin … should not be in trying to compete with Mfume among African-American Democrats. That will be a losing proposition. Cardin needs to remain true to his style and not try to reinvent his persona to match Mfume’s charismatic and more passionate positioning. That’s a remedy for disaster.”

“Cardin has spent an enormous amount of time in black churches, at Metro stations and getting endorsements,” said Tim Maloney, a lawyer in Prince George’s County and former Maryland state legislator who is backing Cardin.

Despite Mfume’s his national reputation, he has not been able to raise a substantial amount of money. He had just $97,000 in cash at the end of the third quarter, while Cardin had raked in more than $1.5 million.

Among lawmakers, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) gave Cardin $10,000 from his PAC and $4,000 from his personal campaign. Reps. Gary Ackerman (N.Y.), Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), Joe Crowley (N.Y.) and Diana DeGette (Colo.) have contributed to Cardin.

None has given to Mfume.

Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 and is advising Mfume, said Mfume’s campaign would attract white, progressive voters in Montgomery County and other parts of the state, in part by presenting himself as the anti-war candidate.

Cardin could also claim that mantle. He voted against the Iraq war resolution in 2002.

Trippi did not say what steps Mfume is taking to reach out to white voters but instead attacked Cardin.

“All Cardin has been doing is basically trying to force everyone else out of the race,” Trippi said. “He’s raising money, picking off endorsements, but that has not worked. It’s not going to happen for him.”

Asked for comment, Cardin said, “I’m running a campaign of inclusion so that all communities have access to my campaign. I’m very pleased with my position.”

He added, “I have very strong numbers,” referring to his internal polling.

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