Friday, September 15, 2006

Why Did Mfume Loose?

“The state (Maryland) is not ready for a Black candidate,” according to Wayne, a supporter of Ben Cardin. “I want to go with a winner,” said the Black business activist. Wayne is atypical of what you would expect of a Black Democrat in the state and Baltimore. He bucked the party apparatus in the 2002 election and help lead the coalition of “Democrats for Erhlich.” His independence is couch in the unspoken rule of “What have you done for me lately?” and an entrepreneurial class who is less out in front. Instead he and those of his ilk prefer to “wheel and deal” behind the scenes.

Without being prodded Wayne cuts to the chase. “Why did Mfume loose? I think that issue over women was critical,” according to him. It’s a mantra that I heard over and over in the final months leading up to the campaign and a fear that supporters of Mfume constantly expressed.

“Is there something more to the female allegations?” Do the Republicans have something on Mfume they plan on using in the general election?” With each inquiry the skepticism was evident.

“There was no way I was going to support Mfume” says Delegate Jill Carter of Baltimore, one of the Democrats rising stars. The issue of “honesty” was a factor for her and a number of Baltimore Democrats who literally inherited the legacy of Mfume in Baltimore politics. While Carter never said directly Mfume’s dalliances with female employees while at the NAACP was wrong. When I asked her about the issue her facial expression told the story.

I don’t want to suggest that this was the only issue to sink the Mfume campaign but it was this slow creep of doubts in the African-American community and the broader community that played a factor.

Here are some of my other observations:

No Longer a Rock Star – Mfume for a generation that came of age during the 70’s was larger than life. His street credibility was cache. He “stuck it to the man” while dressed in a suit and tie. People naturally rallied to him because they saw in him themselves. The myth and the man however were never able to energize this group. While supporters were prepared to votes for Mfume, they couldn’t convince their skeptical white friends to vote for someone who didn’t look like them. Lastly, where were their checks?

Losing Hip-Hop – This constituency should have been Mfume’s from the get go. Embracing this group is double edge sword. I still believe Hip-Hop has some growing pains. This however, is the electorate of the future. By tying in with the group you tap into technology and the cyberworld in which they pulse. The endorsement by Russell Simmons of Michael Steele should be a wake up call to any Black or White candidate in the Democratic Party. Caution to Republicans being Black isn’t enough.

Money – Mfume was polling at or near 40 percent without television ads. He had name recognition. His inability to raise capital in the state was due in part to three factors.
1. Multiple races where people were begging for political contributions.
2. Should have taken PAC (Political Action Committee)amd corporate money.
3. Should have had a heart to heart talk with the NAACP hierarchy and pleaded with them to let him speak at their national convention in Washington. This would have generated press and more importantly money from those outside of Maryland during what you call a meet and greet.

Campaign Strategy – Mfume’s team while competent needed an infusion of new blood. The head of Mfume’s election campaign and a veteran of Mfume campaigns, was mounting what I believe was an 80’s style campaign. Yes, speak to many groups, get the endorsements, and raise money but this campaign lacked imagination and energy. To some extent it was wonkish.

Television Ads and Other Promotional Tools –Dropping your television ad the last week before the primary was too late. Yes, I know he didn’t have money but, it was too late. I liked the message and the tagline, “It’s not where you start but how you finish that counts.” This should have been the campaign slogan. Drop that national Democratic line, “We can do better.” (I still don’t know what this means?) The campaign should have utilized the net more. There was a 3-4 minute testimonial from Mfume running on his website the month before the primary. It talked about why he was running. The campaign should have broken this item into four different thirty second commercials. I also believe in order to reach beyond your natural constituency there was a need for a commercial that didn’t show Mfume but talked about values and Maryland. With money being spent on electronic media (television and radio) direct mail was non-existent. Lastly, radio has somewhat lost it’s effectiveness with African-American electorate because of consolidation in the industry and it’s emphasis on entertaining rather than enlightenment. The medium can be used effectively if you want to define yourself and more importantly your opponent.

Style – This item is subjective and you may agree or disagree. He needed to loose the suit coat, shirt, and tie (Not all at once). I will tell you I am “clothes hound” but, over the years I have learned to temper my own fashion tastes. I where more polo shirts with jackets than I ever have in my lifetime. Yes, there are appropriate places to put on the uniform (suit and tie). People view those in the uniform these days with an air of superiority. In a campaign it is essential that you be of the people and not above the people.

Loosing the Base – Early on in the campaign I called the Mfume Campaign Headquarters to ask a question and didn’t get my call returned until two days later. (Reporters don’t often get their calls returned right away but when running a campaign it’s important at least to find out what the question is to formulate an answer.) I spoke with several people, who aren’t reporters, who also said they had a similar experience in trying to contact the campaign headquarters. I chalked this up to putting a staff in place. People who are trying to contact you are your base and it’s important to return phone calls and get answers.

The base constiuency for Mfume is Baltimore City and Baltimore County, but the place that was most excited about Mfume was Prince George’s County (What’s wrong with this picture?).

To attack or not attack – Political consultants will tell you when you’re down by ten percentage points going on the attack is not going to hurt you. The closest Mfume came to doing this was during the live televise debate on Maryland Public Television. During the debate I posed this question to both candidates. “A spotlight was shown on this congress and the influence of money on the political process. Mr. Cardin and Mr. Mfume during your time in congress you have both excepted money from special interest groups looking to influence legislation. What steps should be taken to make sure that legislation when it is drafted is in the best interest of both the citizenry and business interest?” Mr. Mfume answered that “I don’t go around and take special interest corporate dollars” (well that’s not exactly true) and he went on to questions Cardin’s acceptance of those dollars. This was his opening to separate himself from Cardin. He didn’t.

Lastly, during the debate Mfume suggested having him face Steele in the general election would remove race from off the table. I’m not certain if that would be case but, we’ll never find out in lieu of his lost to Cardin.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Notes from Steele Endorsement by Russell Simmons/Cathy Hughes

The arrival of an invitation for a Steele Fundraiser in Baltimore on August 24, 2006 was nothing new, except this was an endorsement event featuring Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Black media entrepreneur Cathy Hughes and founder of Radio One. While Simmons’ endorsement was not unusual, (he had allowed Steele to host a party during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York at the 40/40 Club) Hughes endorsement seemed highly unusual.

Hughes involvement in politics dates back to her first radio station purchase of WOL-AM in Washington, D.C. She dropped the music format and devoted the station to all talk, all the time. As the CEO, Business Manager and host of the Afternoon drive slot she routinely derided companies and politicians to purchase time on the station or face public ridicule. Additionally, she aligned herself with Democratic candidates both locally and nationally. Their appearances on the airwaves of WOL gave them a platform in the District in the wake of Republican Presidents and GOP control of both houses of congress.

The week before this event Steele received an award from Hughes at the Radio One Awards in Washington, DC. On hand was a who’s who in hip-hop and the rest of the music world but this is politics. I wanted to know how this would affect her standing with Democrat allies like Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson, and Senator Barrack Obama? I also wanted to know why Steele rather than Kwiesi Mfume, the former Congressional Black Caucus Chair and NAACP CEO? Mfume was a constant presence in her radio hosting days.

When I arrived at the fundraiser I was astonished to see a number of 18-34 year olds (Hip-Hop demographic numbers). The event was held at the New Douglas/Isaac Meyers Maritime Park near Baltimore’s Fells Point. With the water as a backdrop and 120 foot yacht called “Reenergized” adorned with Steele poster it had the feel of a “throw-down” rather than a fundraiser. Add to the mix DJ Kid Capri and the buzz was pure hip-hop.

Steele meandered his way through several private meet and greets before going upstairs for the formal announcement. As many of the attendees made their way to the room for the announcement I began to wonder if Republicans had found Hip-Hop (I had asked this question before on my Blog Site, Charles Black Politics Blog.).

This hip crowd with Blackberry’s, cell phones, and text messengers is truly the untapped voting block that is up for grabs. They have heard their parent’s arguments for the Democratic Party, and questioned “What have they done for you lately?” This group is tired of token faces and stories of how people marched for civil rights. Yes, they are keenly aware of historical significance but, are less tied to history. Their manta seems to be “What can you do for me now?” Sure they questioned what GOP has for them but, in Steele they see him as hip and an entrée into a world of power and influence.

When Simmons leaps to the stage he is dressed in his typical minimalist wardrobe, (I do believe the yoga has mellowed him) t-shirt, jeans, and Phat Farm sneakers. The hip-hop impresario explains to crowd how he “wants to lift people out to poverty” and to remove so called Rockefeller drug laws which send “people through a cycle of criminal behavior.” Simmons told the crowd every time he has a discussion with Steele “the discussion boils down to education and opportunity,” and with that he introduced Steele as the next United States Senator from the State of Maryland.

As Steele makes his way to the podium some one yells, “Steele for President,” “Yea, let me just let get through LG (Lieutenant Governor) first,” as the candidate soaks up the adulation of the crowd. He reminds the crowd of how cool it is to be endorsed by Simmons (especially while wearing a Phat Farm Suit).

At the top of the stump speech he apologizes for Cathy Hughes absence because of family illness but, he reminds the group that “she is on board and is a part of the new team.”

Steele points out the significance of being at this location, “Frederick Douglass first set foot (at this dock) in Baltimore as a slave… a generation after Mr. Douglass, a man named Isaac Myers created the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry-dock Company, one of the most successful black owned businesses in Baltimore. I can not think of two of the more appropriate symbols for our message tonight.”

Steele has championed a message Democrats have shied away from “creating legacy wealth.” The concept has deep traditions in the African-American community. From the time of slavery through the civil rights generation each group has looked to better the next. In those early days just out of slavery it was the purchase of land, from the 50’s through the 70’s it was education, and from the eighties to now it has been wealth creation through a business model.

Borrowing from a hip-hop advertising slogan Steele launches into “changing the game.” He believes everyone will have an opportunity to be involved in something important and everyone will benefit. “The greatest empowerment tools not only in the African-American community, in fact all communities is the creation of legacy wealth.” He calls it the new definition of the civil rights movement in the 21st century. He points to early efforts at integrating lunch counters, now “this generation is empowered to own the dinner.”

Steele a student of history has used it to his advantage. He made reference to a description of the state of the Black Community that caused him to pause.

“The African-American baby born in America today regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in that same place on the same day; a one third as much chance of completing college; one third as much chance of becoming a professional man or woman; twice as much chance of becoming unemployed; about one seventh as much chance of earning ten thousand dollars a year; a life expectance which is seven year’s shorter; and the prospect of earning half that during their lifetime.”

The irony, the passage he quoted was from President John F. Kennedy in 1963. It could easily apply to today’s African-African community.

With that he did something very un-Republican. Steele laid out an anti-poverty agenda that he would put forth if he were elected. Few politicians would tackle this subject and the subject would raise eyebrows and bear the scorn of conservatives of the party. Conservatives in the GOP have derided the New Deal legislation for years for its social programs (welfare) and entitlement programs (social security, Medicare, and Medicaid).

“We’re not going to talk about poverty in the senate we’re going to act to relieve this nation of the scourge of poverty…Empowerment creates opportunities that poverty will never let you see. I’m tired of people being blind.”

He recognizes that neither party will be receptive to idea. Utilizing a Clinton-ness tactic (stealing your opponents thunder) Steele suggested that the minimum wage be increased calling it a training wage. Conversely, he said the Democrats must give on tax breaks for small businesses. He then launched in to a litany of initiatives including reforming public schools, increasing Pell grants, expanding work-study programs for colleges and lastly he chastised the poverty exposed by the fallout from Hurricane Katrina.

If that wasn’t enough the senate candidate called for a new Marshall Plan for the Gulf Coast. I’m thinking he has truly gone off the deep-end. Most in the audience correctly thought he was talking about America’s role in rebuilding war ravaged Europe. Steele corrected us who were thinking about that plan, “right idea wrong Marshall. I’m talking about a Throughgood Marshall Plan. Quoting the former Supreme Court Justice, “none of us has gotten where we are by pulling up by our bootstraps. Someone bent down and helped us.” He proceed to name those who historically have help others, “Frederick Douglass, Isaac Myers, Kathy Hughes, Russell Simmons and oh Senator Steele,” as the crowd cheered.

In closing he asked the crowd to send him to the senate where “he can shake up a few things.” Whew, it wasn’t what I expected.

Steele has been on an anti Republican stump for the last month. Revelations about him and the party have trickled out. Does this mean he has the approval of White House operatives to run against the GOP. The strategy looks receptive especially in a state that is 3 to 1 democrat. He’s also taping into a constituency whose loyalty factor hasn’t been tested.

Afterward I question Steele’s press people about him sounding more like a independent rather than a Republican. “No, No, No he’s a Republican make no doubt about it.”