There's been a fair amount of talk, at least in the press and the blogosphere, about naming Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele the replacement for outgoing Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman.
We can't tell how seriously Republicans are taking this talk, but if they're serious, they'd better slow down.
Michael Steele ran a decent campaign for Senate in Maryland against Democrat Ben Cardin for the open seat left by Paul Sarbanes' retirement. His television ads were fresh--albeit seriously lacking in substance. Steele is a relatively young, attractive guy, and as an African-American could literally put a new face on the Republican Party.
Steele, however, is ensnared in an incipient election scandal that we haven't heard the last of yet. Indeed, a criminal investigation is warranted and it's not likely that victorious Democrats in Maryland are going to let this one go.
Here's what happened: Shortly before the election, the campaigns of both Steele and Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, Jr. (also a Republican, running for re-election--unsucessfully) together hired six busloads of African-Americans from Philadelphia, many of them homeless, to distribute campaign literature on election day in black wards of Baltimore and Prince Georges County. So far, so good--we have no problem with hiring people to hand out literature on election day (notably, Republicans couldn't get African-American VOLUNTEERS to do this traditional volunteer work).
The problem is with what the paid workers were handing out: glossy brochures with photos of black Democratic leaders on the front, containing headlines reading "Democratic Sample Ballot" and then listing Steele and Ehrlich, with red check marks, along with a list of local Democratic candidates. Nothing in the brochures identified Steele and Ehrlich as Republicans.
There were other similar efforts to mislead black voters in Maryland. The Ehrlich and Steele campaigns mailed glossy brochures to voters in predominantly black Prince Georges County that had pictures of PG County Executive Jack Johnson, his predecessor, Wayne Curry, and former NAACP president/Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume. Above the pictures, the flier read, "Ehrlich-Steele Democrats" and underneath it said "These are OUR choices." Yet neither Johnson, Curry nor Mfume had endorsed Ehrlich, and only Curry had endorsed Steele (which has simply made Curry very unpopular in PG county).
Similarly misleading brochures showed up in Baltimore before the election as well.
This, my friends, is FRAUD. The Curmudgeon believes in giving political campaigns a lot of leeway in what they say and do in a campaign, mainly because the 1st Amendment is paramount here. But, there is a line one cannot cross, and these brochures from Steele and Ehrlich's campaign go far across that line. You simply cannot put out brochures saying--or clearly implying--that someone who had not endorsed you (indeed, has endorsed your opponent)--supports you. Nor can you say you are a Democrat when you're not.
What is particularly troubling here is that these brochures were aimed solely at African-American communities, on the assumption that black voters are somehow particularly gullible. And it's not the first time the Ehrlich/Steele campaign did it. In the 2002 Gubernatorial race, where Ehrlich and Steele ran together, the campaign used a similar tactic with glossy brochures using pictures of black Democratic leaders and falsely implying their support for the GOP duo.
Given this is the second time, Democrats should demand complete accountability of the Steele and Ehrlich campaigns, up to and including Steele and Ehrlich themselves. This was no small, last minute campaign event organized by a lowly campaign worker--it was an expensive, highly organized and orchestrated effort that had to have been approved at or near the top of the campaigns. Indeed, First Lady Kendel Ehrlich greeted the hired workers from Philadelphia early on election day, before they fanned out with their fraudulent brochures.
Today's Washington Post cites an anonymous source associated with Erhlich's campaign as saying that the purpose of the fliers was to "peel away one or two percentage points in jurisdictions where the governor would be running behind." That, of course, might be enough to swing a particularly close election.
Republicans would be unwise to select Steele as RNC chairman with this scandal hanging over his head. Instead of courting black voters, they might simply end up further offending African-Americans if they install as their party's chief a man who tried to trick blacks into voting for him.
Indeed, if Republicans are serious about seeking votes from African-Americans, they should ask for a vigorous and complete investigation of the actions of the Steele/Ehrlich campaigns, as well as push for guidelines making clear that these kind of campaign tactics are not to be tolerated.