Josh Kurtz: Black and Blue?

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I was appearing on a cable TV show about state politics recently, and the interviewer asked me, “Who is the voice of the black community in Maryland?”

The question seemed patently absurd. I mean, it’s an awfully big community. Do African-Americans in Maryland require one voice? Or was the question a reflection of white people’s patronizing desire to neatly categorize black voters?

The question reminded me a little of what white people were asking of the Rev. Jesse Jackson during his 1984 and 1988 White House campaigns: What does Jesse want? The question was often followed by a follow-up: Does he want to be president, or does he want to be president of black America?

Watching Jackson stump primary states from coast to coast, the answer back then seemed pretty obvious to me.

And the answer to the cable questioner’s query also seemed obvious: The black community is big enough in Maryland, and has matured enough as a political entity, I said, that it has a diverse set of voices. I mean, nobody is suggesting that Martin O’Malley “speaks for the white community.”

A better question to ask is, how are African-Americans doing as a political force in Maryland? Are the political parties doing enough to reach out to black voters — especially the Democrats, who rely so heavily on black turnout and are often accused of taking African-Americans for granted? Who are the most promising black political leaders in the state?

A decade ago, Ike Leggett, then finishing his fourth term on the Montgomery County Council, began sounding the warning to Maryland Democrats: If we don’t start doing a serious job of promoting African-Americans for high office, he said, we will suffer the consequences. Most black leaders nodded their heads in assent.

But even if they agreed with Leggett, a few saw selfish motives. Pete Rawlings, then the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in Annapolis, told me that Leggett probably figured that “if he were a white boy,” he’d be a lot higher up the political food chain. And some political cynics, black and white, felt that by speaking out, Leggett was auditioning to become Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s running mate in the 2002 gubernatorial election.

When Townsend lost to Republican Bob Ehrlich that November — in part because she had chosen a white Republican running mate at the same time that Ehrlich put Michael Steele on his ticket — Leggett’s Cassandra act seemed remarkably clairvoyant. It wasn’t that the Democrats’ percentage of the black vote had fallen off that dramatically from the 1998 gubernatorial election, when Gov. Parris Glendening (D) ran up the score on Ellen Sauerbrey (R) with full-throated (and nasty, according to Republicans) appeals to African-American voters. It was that black enthusiasm and turnout for the Democratic ticket had dropped.

Ike Leggett did not say, “I told you so.” Instead, after the 2002 debacle, he took over the reins of the Maryland Democratic Party for two years, keeping the party afloat and together during a time when many party activists were deeply depressed. In 2006, he became Montgomery County’s first black county executive. That same year, as O’Malley was ousting Ehrlich from the governor’s mansion, the Democrats were electing their first African-American statewide official, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Two minority candidates, Stuart Simms and Tom Perez, ran serious campaigns for state attorney general in 2006, though both fell short. And Kweisi Mfume came close to upsetting Ben Cardin in the Democratic Senate primary that year. Chances are, if he had done any kind of serious fundraising, he’d be in the Senate today (and a general election race featuring Mfume and Steele would have been epic and historic).

But in 2010, another year of statewide elections, African-Americans are unlikely to make any gains. O’Malley is in a rematch with Ehrlich. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) is a shoo-in for a fifth term. And Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) are heavy favorites for re-election. All, of course, are white.

Leggett, though, is not despairing.

“At one point, I would have said the glass is half-empty,” he said in an interview last week. “Now it’s half-full.”

Leggett said he has no doubts that if O’Malley, Mikulski, Gansler and Franchot weren’t all seeking re-election, strong minority candidates would be running for at least some of those offices.

“You’ve got very strong progressive Democrats in all these top positions, with large support in the minority community,” he said. “You have to wait for shifts” for minority candidates to have opportunities they can take advantage of.

Clearly, voters are ready to embrace African-American candidates: Barack Obama got 61 percent of the vote in Maryland two years ago, a margin he surpassed in only a handful of other states. So which minority politicians should we keep our eyes on?

Although sometimes being lieutenant governor can be mistaken for entry into the Witness Protection Program, Brown continues to have tremendous potential. O’Malley has put him in charge of the state’s BRAC program, a high-profile task that dovetails nicely with Brown’s own military experience. The 48-year-old lieutenant governor, a man with no shortage of ambition and self-regard, will likely be among the top contenders for governor in 2014, though he could also plausibly run for Senate or attorney general.

The new Baltimore mayor, Stephanie Rawlings Blake (D), 40, inherited the job at a terrible time and under trying circumstances. But she’s smart and savvy, like her father, and if she handles herself well and actually moves the city forward instead of just treading water, she will have a bright future.

Prince George’s County will elect a new executive this year, and that person could also be a comer in state politics — especially if the winner is former Del. Rushern Baker (D), 51, who has an upbeat disposition, a broad and enlightened world view, and a wealth of contacts and good will around the state from his days in Annapolis.

Mystery surrounds another rising star from Prince George’s — outgoing State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey (D), 49, who has decided to try the private sector rather than pursue another office this year. Many people thought Ivey could wind up on Capitol Hill someday — someplace he’d clearly like to be. Has he derailed his political career by stepping aside?

Another Prince Georgian to watch: U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (D), 51, a passionate and ambitious progressive who put together a formidable coalition when she swamped former Rep. Albert Wynn (D) in the Democratic primary two years ago.

Then there’s Perez, 48, the former Montgomery County councilman and erstwhile AG candidate who is now the Obama administration’s assistant attorney general for civil rights. That’s a high-profile position that will put him in the thick of all the fights over reapportionment and redistricting in the next few years. Do not be surprised to see him running for office in Maryland again a few years from now.

Also worth watching: Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D), 53, who many Washington-area insiders believe is the odds-on choice to succeed Leggett in 2014, assuming he makes good on his pledge not to run for a third term.

Three more seasoned pols cannot be counted out yet: Mfume, the former Congressman and NAACP president who recently became the leader of the National Medical Association. He remains, at age 61, one of the purest political talents anywhere, with an inspiring story to tell, and he always seems to be on the verge of reigniting his political career.

Meanwhile, former Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry (D), 59, continues flitting around the political scene, needling Democratic leaders. He could be a formidable statewide candidate, but he needs focus and a message (there’s also a chance he could be plucked to be Ehrlich’s running mate).

And then there’s Rep. Elijah Cummings — progressive, knowledgeable, well respected. If a Senate seat comes open soon, Cummings, now 59, could be a top contender. But his time will pass at some point.

That’s a pretty formidable list of potential statewide candidates. And maybe that’s why the glass looks half-full to Leggett.

But he does express some concern about the party’s difficulties “developing a long-term farm team.” He offers Montgomery County as a primary example (with their majority-black populations, Prince George’s and Baltimore city will always have a ready list of African-American wannabes and rising stars).

This year, state Del. Herman Taylor is challenging Donna Edwards in the Democratic Congressional primary. Chances are, no African-American candidate will run for his legislative seat. And Del. Craig Rice (D), who is black, is talking openly of running for the County Council, especially if white incumbent Councilman Mike Knapp (D) does not seek re-election. But are any minorities going to run for his legislative seat?

“Politics — public service — for some people is just not what it used to be,” Leggett said.

Josh Kurtz is a managing editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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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.