Steeling Votes

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POLITICS NOVEMBER 1, 2006

Steeling Votes

In early October, Baltimore residents reported receiving suspicious calls from a polling organization that sounded as if its real purpose was not to survey opinion, but to tar Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O'Malley, who is running against incumbent Republican Robert Ehrlich. Ehrlich's campaign, accused of using "push polls," gave what could be construed as a non-denial denial. "We use a variety of strategies to reach Maryland voters to spread the word of Governor Ehrlich's accomplishments but also to show the difference between the two candidates," Ehrlich spokesman Shareese N. DeLeaver told The Baltimore Sun. "Would we refer to it as push polling? No."


Then, last week, reports surfaced on Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo of push polls being used to boost the candidacy of Republican Michael Steele, who is running for Senate against Representative Ben Cardin. The poll-taker, one Maryland resident told Marshall's blog, asked, "Do you want your own taxes raised or lowered?" and asserted that Cardin had voted to raise them. The poll-taker also asked, "Do you believe the words 'under God' should be in the pledge of allegiance?" and then asserted that Cardin had voted to remove them. Steele's spokesman, Doug Heye, denied any responsibility for the calls. "Our campaign has no knowledge of it," he said.


Should Ehrlich and Steele's campaigns be taken at their words? Not if their past record is taken into account. In 2002, Ehrlich and Steele, who was running as Ehrlich's lieutenant governor, defeated a rival Democratic ticket headed by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. In that campaign, Ehrlich and Steele, attempting to overcome Townsend's natural advantage in a traditionally Democratic state, resorted to tactics that were at best unethical and at worst illegal. Reported immediately after the election that year, they have now largely been forgotten, but officials in Maryland would be well advised to look out for a repeat performance from the two campaigns next week.


 In 1979, Maryland passed a law barring campaigns from paying workers on election day to button hole voters. The law was in response to the widespread use in Baltimore of "walking around money" to buy black votes. On the eve of the 2002 election, candidate Ehrlich complained to State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli that the Democrats were planning to pay campaign workers. Warned by Montanarelli, the Democrats complied with the state law. But Ehrlich and Steele did not.


Part of Ehrlich's strategy was to use Steele, an African American, to attract black votes away from Townsend, who is white, particularly in predominately black Prince George's County, a suburb of Washington, D.C. But to do this, he and Steele took a page out of the old Baltimore playbook. Campaign aides went to predominately black Bowie State College and to Washington, D.C.'s largest homeless shelter to hire African Americans to campaign for Ehrlich and Steele on election day. They didn't try to win them over politically; they offered them between $100 and $150 and free meals to pretend they were backing Ehrlich.


At Washington's homeless shelter, the campaign workers were instructed to say they were "volunteers" and to conceal that they were getting paid. They were told to go into black areas of Prince George's County and tell voters that by electing Ehrlich, they would give Maryland its first African American lieutenant governor. At Bowie State, students who agreed to campaign were given shirts with "Democrats for Ehrlich" written on them and a picture of Steele. One student who was recruited told The Baltimore Sun, "They had young African-Americans standing out there like we were supporting him, when they know most African-Americans are Democrats."


About 250 recruits, drawn by the promise of free meals and a day's pay, participated in what one recruit later called a "scam from the start." The students didn't get their meals, and they didn't get paid. The homeless recruits also weren't paid, and, that night, the van that had taken them at dawn to Prince George's County and was supposed to transport them back to Washington, D.C. never showed up.


Some of the homeless workers reportedly staged a protest that night in front of the Democrats for Ehrlich headquarters in New Carrollton, Maryland. The next day, they enlisted legal help from the homeless center to get the money they had been promised. But the protest had alerted the state prosecutor, and when one of Ehrlich's campaign workers finally showed up with the money, investigators were on hand to witness the homeless recruits being paid.


Ehrlich and Steele, of course, denied any knowledge of the scam. "We did everything aboveboard absolutely," Steele told The Washington Post. But campaign finance records revealed that, on the eve of the election, the campaign made payments to two aides who were implicated in the scandal. Moreover, three days before the election, Ehrlich's campaign paid $52,640 to a Washington, D.C. employment agency run by the same person who hired and eventually paid the homeless workers. A grand jury later indicted the agency head, along with the two campaign workers.


In April of 2003, a Maryland judge ruled that the 1979 law was too broad and infringed upon free speech. The case was dismissed against the three defendants, but the fact remains that Ehrlich and Steele's campaign nevertheless engaged in election-day activities that the state had outlawed and that they knew to be illegal--Ehrlich had, after all, charged Democrats with the same offense. These tactics were designed to deceive black voters about Ehrlich and Steele's support in the black community. This sordid incident should be kept in mind on election day this year, when the same two men, trying to overcome the handicap of being conservative Republicans, once again attempt to curry favor with the state's voters.


John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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