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Can Kweisi Make It in Maryland?

Stalwart progressive and former NAACP chair Kweisi Mfume faces a tough challenge in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat from Maryland, but don't count him out.
 
 
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I knew Kweisi Mfume was the real thing when I realized he had forgotten his talking points.

Every political candidate has a 60-second spiel about his or her campaign that rolls off the tongue at appearance after appearance. But after more than an hour speaking with Mfume about everything from the war in Iraq to the Democrats' lack of backbone to Americans' endangered voting rights (a podcast of the interview is available here), it was only when I packed up my voice recorder to leave that he said he had forgotten to mention one thing. I pulled the recorder back out, and he gave me his bumper sticker spiel. I think we both knew that it wouldn't make it into this article.

Echoes of the 2004 Democratic presidential primary can be heard in Maryland as a crowded field vies to replace Paul Sarbanes in the Senate. Mfume, a vocal critic of the war in Iraq, was the first to toss his hat in the ring and looked pretty strong, but the Democratic establishment wouldn't get behind him, claiming he couldn't win in the general election. Now Joe Trippi, the guru behind Howard Dean's campaign, is volunteering his services for Mfume and it's déjà vu all over again.

Mfume, with five terms in the House and nine years running the NAACP under his belt, is that rarest specimen among Democrats: someone who isn't afraid of the risk of standing up and talking about the progressive values he stands for.

After the Maryland Supreme Court ruled that the state's ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional, Mfume was the only candidate to come out for full civil rights for gays and lesbians; his fellow Democrats danced around the issue. Want to talk about election reform? Mfume's for paper trails, same-day registration and national election standards. "Voting," he says, "is a birthright that goes with your citizenship. It's not a privilege, but it's been redefined that way over the years." Want to talk about reform? "I think elections ought to be publicly funded," he says. "If we can put salary caps on football teams and basketball teams, it seems that we ought to be able to do that for candidates running for office."

Mfume's sick of mushy Democrats. "People want principled leadership that will stand up and fight for what they believe in," he says. "There has to be a counter-propaganda program in this state that says no, what the extreme far-right-wing is saying is not right. And no, we don't have to accept it, and no, that's not the world we're going to have defined for us."

Mfume's personal story sounds more like an afterschool special than real life. He was a high-school dropout and self-described "hustler" who turned his life around in his early 20s. He went back to school, worked his way through a master's degree at Johns Hopkins, and was elected to the Baltimore City Council at 31, where he served for seven years before being elected to Congress in 1986.

Joe Trippi says that Mfume's is "an all-American story." "He knows what it's like, and people from all walks of life respond to what he's accomplished," says Trippi.

When Mfume threw his hat in the ring three days after Sarbanes announced that he wouldn't seek reelection, it looked like it would be a smooth sail for him, at least on paper. Maryland went big for Kerry, by a 13-point spread, and in 2004 Democrats had a 56 to 30 registration advantage. Blacks and Latinos account for around 40 percent of the state's Democrats.

But this is the Democratic Party, and in the ensuing months Mfume would run up against a timid party establishment, some ugly racial politics and the idea that he'd have a tough time against the likely GOP candidate, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a hard-right African-American backed heavily by D.C.'s conservative establishment.

That can be a self-fulfilling prophecy; the money follows candidates who have the best chance of winning. If you're labeled "unelectable," it's hard to raise the cash you need to prove your critics wrong. "How do you stop Mfume?" Joe Trippi asked. "You say he can't win."

For six weeks after his announcement, Mfume was the lone candidate. I spoke with a number of Democratic operatives for this story, on and off the record, and several told me that House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and his allies tried to kill Mfume's candidacy. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which is in charge of recruiting and aiding Senate candidates across the country, was less than neutral early on, according to Trippi, but has since backed off after taking heat for favoring a candidate in an open primary race.

The field began to get crowded with the entry of Ben Cardin, the 10-term congressman from Maryland's 3rd District and a close ally of Hoyer. Several others have since joined the field, including Dennis Rasmussen, a former state senator, and businessman Josh Rales, a millionaire and "fiscally conservative but socially liberal" Dem who donated the maximum to George W. Bush in 2003. Rales pledged to put hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into the race. A handful of other candidates, none of whom have much in the way of name recognition or money, also entered the fray.

The September primary is still seven months away. There's scarce data with which to predict how it will shake out; Maryland hasn't had a truly open Democratic primary for a major statewide office for over a decade.

While most agree that key Democratic leaders have been cool to Mfume's candidacy, the reason varies, according to whom you ask.

Mfume himself isn't sure: "I think in many respects this has become a manifestation of the good old boy network in the Democratic Party refusing to embrace me. Now was that because I'm black, because I'm an independent Democrat? Was it because I'm from the city and not some other part of the state? I don't know."

Joe Trippi told me it was more about Cardin and his allies allies trying to get a free run to the nomination. "A lot of people around Cardin wanted to have a clear race so they wouldn't have to spend money on the primary," he said.

According to Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland and a Cardin backer, it's simply electoral calculus. "Mfume will play great among the African-American community and with liberal Democrats in the Big Three counties [Baltimore City, Prince George's and Montgomery], but his background is going to be a problem among moderate white Democrats in the rural and suburban areas where he's going to need to pull votes to win." Schaller added that, although the state is solidly "blue," some of the fastest growing counties are those that went for Bush in 2004.

Terry Lierman, head of the Maryland Democratic Party said that "anyone who thinks Maryland is a slam-dunk blue state need only look to the fact that Bush won in 18 of the state's 24 jurisdictions." He adds that Kerry won Maryland with fewer votes than Gore got in 2000.

But when you crunch the numbers, it's clear that whoever ends up the nominee will have a big advantage. It's true that Kerry won in only six of the state's 24 counties, but they're the most populous counties, accounting for almost 63 percent of registered voters in 2004. They favored Kerry by a 35-point spread, compared to the 18 counties that went for Bush by 23 points. In 2004's other statewide race, liberal Dem Barbara Mikulski, the incumbent, slaughtered her Republican challenger 65 to 34.

As for the race issue, both candidates will turn off some members of their respective parties. Mfume's tenure with the NAACP and "fighting progressive" style will probably alienate some white "moderates," but there are also Republicans who will simply stay home in a race between two African-American candidates. An important factor in whether the Republicans can turn out their base will be decided in the state house, as Maryland Dems try to keep a proposed ban on gay marriage off the ballot.

As for Cardin, he bristles at the idea that he's been "anointed" by party hacks. "I have a record," he told the Washington Post . And he does: Cardin is a solid, lunch-pail Democrat with a decent progressive record. He voted against the war but hasn't signed on to any of his fellow Democrats' calls for withdrawal. Cardin's running on key domestic issues: preserving Social Security, making health care more affordable, pension reform and fiscal sanity. On each and every issue Cardin's a tinkerer; you'll hear no calls for universal health care pass his lips.

Two Democrats familiar with the race dismissed the idea that the party establishment was backing Cardin, noting that state Democratic Party Chair Terry Lierman is quietly backing Mfume (Lierman told me that he and the state party are "militantly neutral" in the primary). Thomas Schaller said that charges of a party conspiracy against Mfume are "ludicrous."

Speaking on background, several people said they were concerned with Mfume's "baggage" -- the flip side to his inspiring personal story. Mfume's a bachelor with six children (one adopted) by five mothers. There were rumors that he left the NAACP after some female staffers had accused him of favoritism towards employees with whom he had a romantic involvement, a charge he and several board members interviewed by the Washington Post denied. Mfume points out that he served nine years at the NAACP on a five-year contract, and the board of directors was willing to extend his tenure. But he concedes that he did get involved with at least one staffer, which he now calls a "boneheaded" mistake.

According to Schaller, the right is drooling for a showdown against Mfume. "I do right-wing talk radio in Maryland, and I read [syndicated conservative columnist] Blair Lee. These guys are all talking about what a motivating story Mfume has, but if he gets the nomination, that's going to turn right around, and they're going to destroy him."

Whatever the case, when a powerbroker like Steny Hoyer starts working his Rolodex, it drives big-money donors away, and Mfume is getting killed in the fundraising department. While a November Baltimore Sun poll -- this far away from the primary you can only use it as a general gauge -- found him in a statistical tie with Cardin (and with the Republican Steele, whom Cardin led by 10 points), Cardin raised almost $3 million in 2005, against just over $400,000 for Mfume. More importantly, Mfume only has $125,000 cash on hand to Cardin's $2.1 million.

Mfume's campaign is putting a bright face on the gap, noting that he has several major fundraisers coming up, but if the campaign doesn't turn around the fundraising by May or June, the race could be finished. Rales' personal fortune will also come into play.

But Mfume's got a natural base of support. He's the only African-American candidate in a wide primary field; if some of those white suburban voters get peeled away from Cardin by Rales, Rasmussen and the rest of the field, and Mfume gets strong backing from Maryland's black voters, he could sneak into the nomination through the back door.

The African-American community is still smarting from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's failed run for governor in 2002. According to Mfume, "The entire black community was ignored by the Democratic Party [in 2002]. No one was consulted about a running mate. None of the elected officials were talked to, none of the black clergy, no one in the black community. It was a huge insult …"

Townsend ended up running with retired Adm. Charles Larson, who had been a Republican just weeks before the race, and Ehrlich grabbed Michael Steele. Mfume says of the race: "Long story short, the election takes place, you have a large black community feeling put off. Some stayed home, some voted like good Democrats, and some crossed over."

According to the Washington Post , the Dems' "swift support" for Cardin is culminating in an African-American "backlash" against his candidacy. "Kweisi was the first to announce," state Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel told the Post, "but the party only came alive when Cardin showed up. It's caused some chagrin."

As for Steele's part, he's played the race card early and often. Steele, who has never run on his own for any office, has taken flack from black leaders for being a dark face in front of a conservative movement that's done nothing for the African-American community. In turn, he's accused his detractors of "racism." The ugliness culminated with a story widely disseminated in the conservative press -- and picked up by the mainstream media -- about a 2002 debate in which Steele was supposedly "pelted" with Oreo cookies -- a reference to being black on the outside and white on the inside. "It was raining Oreos," Gov. Ehrlich's Communications Director Paul Schurick told the Sun. "They were thick in the air like locusts." The story, it turned out, was a complete fabrication, but it set the tone.

Mfume managed to stay above the fray, but he echoes the sentiment of many black leaders who increasingly feel taken for granted by the party's leadership: "It's been 143 years since Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and this party, the Democratic Party in the state of Maryland, has never nominated any black person or Latino person for any statewide office," he said. "Now, to me that speaks volumes about the 'free' state of Maryland and the 'progressive' state of Maryland. Not one in 143 years, and as far as they're concerned, I won't be the nominee of this party this time."

With ugly accusations flying around, a field with eight candidates and some stark differences in ideology, Maryland's Senate race is shaping up to be anything but dull.

Mfume promises to see it through to the end, and his campaign strategy has the hallmarks of the kind of populism that Joe Trippi injected into Howard Dean's run. The campaign's trying to get $10 dollars from 300,000 Marylanders, and Mfume's going to the reddest Maryland counties to talk with people face-to-face in places where the conventional wisdom says he shouldn't bother wasting his time.

Mfume says, "this has to be a campaign about issues, not about personality. This has got to be a people's campaign." The question is whether there's any room for a people's campaign in modern American politics.

Joshua Holland is a staff writer at AlterNet.