Allan Lichtman: Maryland Democrat for U.S. Senate

“We present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.” Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail

I am a Democratic candidate for U. S. Senate in Maryland, and a University professor who has taught for 33 years. Yet I write to you from a Baltimore County jail , from memory, because the jailer allows no paper, no pen or pencil in his cell.

I am in jail because I put my body on the line to uphold the right of the people to choose their United States Senator from Maryland, not have their Senator chosen for them by media chieftains or organization heads. I am in jail because I protested the arbitrary and restrictive decisions made by the Maryland League of Women Voters (MLWV), Maryland Public Television (MPT), and public radio station WAMU to exclude from the most important televised debate of the campaign, significant candidates with fresh ideas for the voters to hear and weigh: myself, Josh Rales, and Dennis Rasmussen, all of whom are running vigorous statewide campaigns.

It is ironic that MPT, supported by taxpayer dollars, with a mission to educate and inform the public, should have adopted a standard for debating (15 percent in the polls by July 1 — two days prior to the filing deadline) so restrictive that it excludes all but the two old-line politicians running for U. S. Senate in Maryland. It is beyond irony that the League of Women Voters, founded by suffragists dedicated to opening politics to the excluded, should now be shutting down the political process in Maryland.

The standard adopted by the League and MPT is not only contrary to their past practice, but would have excluded from the 1994 gubernatorial debates in Maryland, Ellen Sauerbrey, who went on to upset the frontrunner and win the Republican nomination, becoming the first woman nominated for governor by a major party in Maryland. It would have excluded from participation in primary debates every woman who ever sought a major party nomination for president. In vain, I tried to reverse this decision and give candidates an opportunity make their case to the voters, by filing petitions with the MLWV, the National League of Women Voters, and the FCC.

I took my protest directly to Maryland Public Television on the evening of August 31, asking only that the excluded candidates be allowed to participate in the debate.

I did not have to be arrested because I was not interfering with any activities at MPT. I was not even in the lobby of the building. I was standing in a tiny outer foyer in front of locked doors to the lobby asking for democracy to work and for voters to decide the senatorial election. MPT could have let me stand there and talk and held their debate. Instead, they decided to call in the police and have me forcibly removed and arrested on the extraordinary charge of “trespassing on public property after hours.” Is it hardly “after hours” when public television is airing a public event.

My background and my ideas are different from the two candidates privileged to debate — Representative Ben Cardin and former Representative Kweisi Mfume. If allowed to debate I would have presented voters the choice of electing the Senate’s only lifetime teacher and a civil rights expert in 70 cases. I would have explained that unlike the so-called frontrunners, as Senator, I would vote only for funds to bring our brave troops home safely and promptly from Iraq. I would have proposed legislation for reducing fossil fuel consumption by 50 percent over 20 years and for securing our voting rights.

Where were Cardin and Mfume when Lichtman, Rales, and Rasmussen were calling for democracy in Maryland? They were sneaking into the backdoor at MPT. This is exactly the kind of backdoor, locked-down politics you can expect from these old-line politicians if you send them to the United States Senate.

Getting arrested is painful and humiliating. I still have welts on my wrist from the bite of the steel handcuffs and a pain in my back from where I was pushed into the police car. They strip away everything you have at the jailhouse, including your belt and your shoelaces, and they clamp leg irons on your feet that dig into your tendons. That’s the response of MPT to a candidate exercising free speech rights — clamp him in irons!

I do not blame the police officers. Too often we blame the foot-soldiers, not the commanders. The blame falls squarely on the leaders of the organizations that set up the debate and on the directors of MPT — none of whom had the courage to speak with me directly, but placed their burdens on the shoulders of a lone security guard. Shame on the leadership of MPT.

They can try to silence my voice, but I continue speaking out for the people of Maryland and America. The issues raised in my protest go far beyond a Senate race in Maryland, but cut to the heart of what it means to live in a free and democratic society.

Getting arrested in Baltimore County in 2006 is obviously not the same as getting arrested in Birmingham in 1963. But the times are no less urgent today than during the great civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

The cause is no less great. At stake in this year’s elections are war and peace, the survival of our planet, the preservation of our cherished liberties, and the opportunities for our children to have an excellent education and good jobs.

Bethesda, Maryland