Josh Kurtz: Anthony Brown and the Black Vote

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By: Josh Kurtz 

For several years, leading African-American Democrats in Maryland – sometimes publicly, and more often privately – have bitterly complained that the party takes black voters for granted.

Equally raw is their assertion that Democratic bosses haven’t done enough through the years to encourage and promote African-American candidates, particularly for statewide office.

They have not been wrong.

But here we are, two weeks before Election Day and two days before early voting begins, and the African-American Democratic nominee for governor, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, anointed by party leaders and poised to make history, is struggling to gin up the black vote.

What’s going on here?

The answer – and specifically, Brown’s ability to build a sizeable black turnout – could hold the key to this election.

The Brown campaign, no doubt, would like to think of Sunday’s rally with President Obama at a Prince George’s County high school as one of the signature moments of this election. The joint was jumping, with 8,000 screaming Democrats, most of them African-American, pledging to grant Obama’s wish to make Brown Maryland’s next governor.

But the grim reality, for Brown and his lieutenants, was that a breakfast the following morning, also in Prince George’s County, was more typical of the kind of campaign events that are taking place.

This was the Prince George’s Democratic Central Committee’s Ploughman and Fisherman unity breakfast, at the charmless Camelot banquet hall across the road from the Six Flags America amusement park, where Fright Fest, somehow appropriately, is the current attraction. In other words, this was a gathering of a subset of the most serious and dedicated Democrats in Brown’s backyard, also predominantly African-American.

But any enthusiasm from the Obama rally the day before, according to several people who were at the breakfast, did not seem to carry over. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, always a crowd pleaser, was at full throttle, reminding folks of the historic nature of Brown’s candidacy. Brown himself delivered the same message – just as he had during his final debate the other day with Republican Larry Hogan – to a smattering of applause.

Brown has hardly been subtle about courting African-American voters. Since he has become a candidate, most of his TV ads seem designed to remind voters that he is black (and a military veteran). Nothing wrong with that.

While there wasn’t necessarily an uptick in the number of African-Americans who went to the polls, Brown’s advantage with that segment of the electorate definitely contributed to his easy win in the Democratic primary, even as Doug Gansler and Heather Mizeur made strong appeals to black voters.

The African-American vote was always going to provide part of Brown’s structural advantage in this campaign, and there is little doubt that Brown, percentagewise, will win the overwhelming support of African-American voters again in the general election. The question becomes how many black voters Brown can actually turn out.

Why has this become such a challenge for the Democrat? Here are several possible factors, in no particular order:

*African-American voters, while still enthusiastic about Obama and generally loyal to Democrats, are as fed up about the direction of the country and state – and the state of modern political discourse – as everyone else.

*Black voters also have “O’Malley fatigue” – though not as acutely as white voters in the Baltimore suburbs and exurbs who once supported Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

*Nothing can top the excitement of electing the first African-American president. After Obama, the thrill is gone – and black voters rarely turn out at the rate Democrats want and need them to.

*Brown, for all his smarts and assets, is not a dynamic performer, and it’s hard for anyone to get truly excited about him.

*Brown is not running an aspirational campaign the way Obama did, but is instead whaling away at Hogan, spreading fear that he will cut abortion rights and stymie gun control laws (yes, Obama ran plenty of negative ads himself).

*Brown operates with a discernible sense of entitlement, and fellow African-American leaders – as well as voters – are aware of the help he had along the way from powerful elected officials. Brown, unlike Obama, who invented and reinvented himself politically, shot to stardom like no one else in history, and muscled his way to the presidency against formidable foes like Hillary Clinton and John McCain, has largely ridden O’Malley’s coattails.

*Black voters are probably aware that Brown, like O’Malley, initially supported Clinton for president, and not Obama, in 2008 – even though he overlapped with Obama at Harvard Law School.

*Some African-American politicians are naturally going to be jealous of a pioneer like Brown – and others just aren’t crazy about him.

*Brown, like Obama before him, is half-white, and has, from the moment he broke into politics, been the object of whispers that he isn’t “black enough.”

Whatever the reasons, Brown over the next two weeks is going to continue to need help reaching out to African-American voters.

Considering how Democratic Maryland is, all six of the last gubernatorial elections have, incredibly, been close (though in the end, 1998 and 2010 wound up being decided by double digits). And considering how important a part of the Democratic coalition African-American voters are, Anthony Brown is hardly the first candidate for governor forced to scramble to win the enthusiastic support of black voters.

Maryland Democrats, when the likes of Mikulski and Steny Hoyer and Elijah Cummings aren’t cajoling voters at the top of their voices, have almost always had to rely on surrogates to come in and be closers. In years past, if Ted Kennedy or Jesse Jackson came to town late in October, you knew it meant that Democrats were worried about their prospects.

Nowadays, the preferred surrogates are Bill Clinton, Michele Obama, and of course, the president himself. It would not be surprising to see any or all of them coming back here before Election Day – a failure not just of the Anthony Brown campaign, but of the vaunted Maryland Democratic machine itself.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at 

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.