Republican Plan to Suppress Black Vote Lands Two in Court

In a room last summer, the brain trust behind the only Republican governor to lead Maryland since Spiro Agnew sat thumbing through a campaign strategy to suppress turnout among the state’s black voters.

It was a document that could have seemed like a relic, more likely to be found in a campaign office during the time of Agnew and the 1960s civil rights movement than during a campaign in 2010 to reelect former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Now, the document in the hands of the Office of the Maryland State Prosecutor. It constitutes the centerpiece of indictments issued this week that that accuse one of Ehrlich’s most trusted aides, as well as a campaign consultant, of conspiring to suppress the black vote last year.

For the defense, the document is no less important. The voter suppression strategy was flatly rejected by those present at the meeting last summer, according to an attorney for Paul Schurick, Ehrlich’s de facto campaign manager, and the apparent inspiration for the document’s namesake, “The Schurick Doctrine.”

“So, they’ve got this document, which was rejected and they are trying to look at all the remaining activity through this filter, as if it was their blueprint, which it absolutely was not,” said Schurick’s attorney, Peter Zeidenberg, who said it was likely the meeting last summer took place at Ehrlich’s campaign headquarters in Annapolis.

“There was a meeting and any suggestion of voter suppression was flatly and unequivocally rejected at that time,” he said. “The fact that the prosecutor has chosen to leave that in the indictment is going to be vigorously protested at trial.”

The indictments, handed up by a grand jury in Baltimore on Thursday, allege that the strategy was carried out.

The effort culminated, according to the indictments with Election Night robo-calls to mostly black neighborhoods in Baltimore and Washington’s eastern Maryland suburbs. The calls told tens of thousands of residents to “relax” and not worry about voting, because Democrats had already won.

State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt, said he has the document, and that authorities seized it from the Baltimore home of Schurick’s alleged co-conspirator, Julius Henson, late last year. Henson did not return a phone call on Friday.

Davitt, an appointee of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), declined to elaborate further on the document or to directly address Zeidenberg’s claims about the meeting.

Davitt noted the indictment alleges the staff of Ehrlich’s campaign, which was cash-strapped at the time, rejected the voter-suppression plan at the meeting principally out of concern for its cost. The indictment says Henson and Schurick acted on the robo-calls on Election Day, when Ehrlich was on his way to losing to O’Malley by a double-digit margin.

Davitt said Friday that the defendants will be arraigned July 18 and that a trial could be set within 60 days.

But even before Schurick or Henson appear in court, political analysts and leading members of Maryland’s black community said Friday that the image painted in the indictment of a Republican strategy session to target Maryland’s black voters could resonate in the 2012 presidential race, and possibly long after in state politics.

“We know this goes on behind closed doors and this is going to make us more aware for a long time,” said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland state conference of the NAACP. “It’s an appalling situation and it’s going to open a lot of people’s eyes, not just here, but everywhere.”

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College, said the notion that there may be a Republican “doctrine” to suppress black votes, will almost surely be used by Democrats in Maryland and beyond to bolster claims that Republican efforts to require voters to show ID or to shorten early-voting initiatives are part of a broader conspiracy to help GOP candidates.

“There is already a narrative out there that this is really an effort to reduce turnout among traditionally Democratic constituencies,” he said. “By itself, the Maryland case doesn’t do much, but tied into these others, it becomes one of many.”

Asked why he chose to seek indictments in Baltimore, which is heavily Democratic, Davitt said Henson is based there and it is where many of the robo-calls were placed.

“The calls went to both Baltimore and Prince George’s County, so there is somewhat of a choice,” Davitt said. “We had the basis to bring it in Prince George’s as well . . . I suppose there are also arguments to be made for Anne Arundel County because that’s where the campaign was located.”