Josh Kurtz: Marital Difficulties

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By Josh Kurtz

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, he knew he was doing the right thing. But he also figured he was inexorably changing the politics of the American South, and that the Democratic Party, once so dominant throughout the region, would suffer the consequences.

He was right.

In the same way, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) felt he was doing the right thing when he signed the DREAM Act into law last year and same-sex marriage just last week -- and he was.

But has O’Malley -- or any other state Democratic leader -- given much thought to what those two new laws, and the upcoming referendum fights over them, are going to do for the party and its most reliable constituency, African-American voters? Could we be witnessing the beginning of the end of what has been, for Maryland Democrats, a beautiful relationship? Are Maryland Republicans in any way equipped to exploit whatever fissures may exist between Democrats and their loyal supporters?

There have been murmurs of marital difficulties between the Democrats and African-American voters for quite a while now. A dozen years ago, Ike Leggett was perhaps the first official to openly warn that Democrats risked losing black voters if party leaders took them for granted and didn’t do more to promote black candidates for higher office.

That warning seemed prophetic when in 2002, the Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, tapped a white Republican to be her running mate, and she became the first Democratic candidate for governor to lose in 36 years. To add insult to injury, the Republicans won with a black candidate for lieutenant governor.

A decade later, not much has changed.

Black and Latino candidates for attorney general were overrun by Doug Gansler in the 2006 Democratic primary. Kweisi Mfume lost the Senate primary that year to Ben Cardin. O’Malley tapped Anthony Brown to be his running mate, but Brown only has the distinction of being the first black Democrat to be elected lieutenant governor.

It is entirely conceivable that had Mfume bothered to raise money six years ago, he’d be sitting in the Senate today, instead of Cardin. The way in which Mfume smoked Cardin in Baltimore city and Prince George’s County was eye-opening. While losing statewide by just 3.2 points, Mfume won the city -- where Cardin had been a popular figure for 40 years -- by more than 2-1. He won Prince George’s by almost 5-1, an astonishing ratio.

I caught up with Cardin last week and asked him about his Democratic primary challenge from Prince George’s state Sen. Anthony Muse. I prefaced my question by noting that no one thinks Muse can win except possibly for Muse himself. But Cardin cut me off, noting that some other people feel he can win, too.

Muse’s candidacy, it seems to me -- in contrast to Mfume’s and Michael Steele’s and Anthony Brown’s, not to mention Stu Simms’ and Tom Perez’ -- is based almost entirely on racial appeals. Judging from the events listed on his campaign website, he is spending the lion’s share of his time talking to fellow ministers, as well as business leaders and young professionals, in Prince George’s County.

So I asked Cardin what he made of the argument that some African-Americans believe the Democratic Party is taking them for granted and not doing enough to encourage minority candidates -- the basis for Muse‘s candidacy. Cardin didn’t answer directly, but his response was telling just the same.

“I’d be glad to put up my record of the last 45 years against anyone’s,” he began.

And with that, he rattled off a list of accomplishments -- from fighting voter disenfranchisement to probing the poor record of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under George W. Bush. From sponsoring a racial profiling bill with a young Senate colleague named Barack Obama to appointing the first black committee chairman in the House of Delegates back when he was speaker. Demanding better results from the Small Business Administration in helping minority-owned businesses -- and getting it.

“I could show you my record of inclusion, my own personal commitment to judge people, as Dr. King asked us, by the content of their character,” he went on. “All I’m asking people to do is judge me by my record.”

It’s a fine record, it is. It has merited the endorsements of Obama (“knowing I had a competitive primary,” Cardin points out) and Rushern Baker, and Mfume himself, among many other African-American leaders.

There are other white liberal Democrats out there who have amassed equally fine records on race relations through the years. And you will always have minority leaders who will credit their white colleagues for the work they do -- or who will, say, fall in line behind a redistricting plan, as Baker and Leggett and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did of O’Malley’s new congressional map, even as other African-American politicians and leaders criticize it.

But something is going on here.

When a group called the Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee, as symbolic a name as you’re going to find in politics today, sues to overturn the state’s redistricting map, its law suit is funded not by liberal Democrats or the ACLU or the NAACP, but by the Legacy Foundation, a conservative group based in Iowa. And its case is handled by a firm with ties to Republican operatives and politicians.

When an African-American leader steps forward to take on the Democratic establishment in a high profile primary, it’s a charlatan like Tony Muse -- who happened to be marching in lockstep with conservatives and Republicans to defeat the gay marriage legislation.

Are these outliers, mischief makers? Or a sign of something else?

The black community is undeniably divided over same sex marriage and the DREAM Act, and conservatives are poised to exploit that. The attempts to divide minorities over immigrant rights are shameful. But a coalition of the Catholic church and black ministers in opposition to gay marriage could be very powerful indeed.

It’s laughable to think that the Maryland Republican Party is in any condition to take advantage in a significant way at this stage. The state GOP doesn’t know how to run a two-car parade -- or appeal to white voters, let alone minorities. There is little in today’s Republican agenda that seems particularly enticing to African-American voters.

But as historian Thomas Frank wrote in his 2004 book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” voters don’t always do rational things. Many people in Middle America, he persuasively argued, were voting against their own economic interests because Republicans were appealing to their baser instincts -- on social issues especially. Could we see the same thing start to happen with African-American voters in Maryland, on a smaller scale?

Privately, white Democrats are always telling themselves that as long as they have smart, rational leaders like Baker and Leggett and Rawlings-Blake to work with, things will be just fine, and they‘ll continue to rack up 90 percent of the black vote. They may want to rethink that calculation and, well, stop taking black voters -- and their leaders -- for granted.

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

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Prince George’s Agonistes

Annapolis Bits

A Grown-up David in a World of Juvenile Goliaths

Rich Man, Poor Campaign?

The Brawl We Won’t Be Seeing Here (Plus: Women Emerge in Maryland)

Free Shot

Miller’s Crossing

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?

O’Malley and the Mod Squad
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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.