By LETICIA LINN, Capital News Service
LANDOVER, Md. - Differences among the three U.S. Senate candidates were most pointed when talking about the death penalty Friday in what will likely be the last debate in the race before Tuesday's general election.
The Collective Banking Group of Prince George's County and Vicinity, a coalition of more than 100 black churches, organized the debate among Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, tri-party candidate Kevin Zeese and Democrat Rep. Ben Cardin.
Both Zeese and Steele said they opposed the death penalty.
Cardin said capital punishment should be applied only for "the worst of the worst," and criticized Steele for failing to review the state's use of the death penalty as he was supposed to do.
Steele finished his report on disparities in the application of the death penalty (a University of Maryland study found both racial and geographic differences in the sanction's application), and recommended further studies, but did not release his findings, said Cardin. Steele gave the final report to Gov. Robert Ehrlich this year.
"I really was looking forward to the review of the death penalty in Maryland," Cardin said. "I am troubled by the application of the death penalty geographically in this country . . . I am troubled by the inequities in the use of death penalty. I think as a nation we need to take that off."
Steele hit back, questioning Cardin's vote against a bill that would have allowed Death Row convicts to use DNA evidence to prove their innocence.
He said the study required by Ehrlich fell into "the executive privilege of state," which is why it was not public. He said the differences in the application of the death penalty were not only geographic but also racial and economic, which Cardin "failed to address."
"I am against the death penalty for a lot of good reasons, moral and ethical, but also for a lot of legal reasons," Steele, a former Catholic seminarian, said. He said that if the sanction should be applied, it should not make a difference where the crime was committed.
"That is the system we have right now, and there is no fairness in that," he said. "It's only injustice."
Zeese, who represents the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties, said he opposes capital punishment in all circumstances and said it is an example of how much work the criminal justice system needs to fix its problems.
"The death penalty is applied based on ZIP code, race economics and, most important, the quality of your lawyer," he said.
Candidates debated for an hour on issues ranging from ex-convicts right to vote, Supreme Court appointments, minimum wage and the situation in Darfur, Sudan, to education. The tone was much milder than the candidates' previous meeting Oct. 25, when they spoke loudly and interrupted each other.
Cardin used the issue of ex-convicts voting to talk about voting access in general and a Republican Party handbook for Election Day poll watchers that instructed them to challenge voters' credentials.
"That's voter suppression," Cardin said, and called the two other candidates to encourage voters to vote.
Steele did not answer during the debate, but in a press conference after, he said he did not read the handbook.
"The party does what it does," he said. "To the extent that voters seem concerned about (it) . . . the state party needs to address that."
Zeese condemned any action that prevented voters from voting, and called to "open up the democracy."
Cardin did not stay at the press conference because he had a rally with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., with the other Maryland Democratic candidates.
Obama addressed a raucous pep rally Friday afternoon at historically black Bowie State University. Acknowledging that having an African American like Steele, running for office as a Republican was a good thing, Obama cautioned voters to judge the candidates for U.S. Senate based on their positions rather than their skin color.
"Take a look at Michael Steele's record and what he's stood for, and take a look at Ben Cardin's record and what he stood for," Obama urged of the hundreds in attendance. "Ben Cardin is your man."
Speakers also drew spirited applause by calling for more affordable higher education, more available health coverage and for a speedy return of soldiers stationed in Iraq.
(Capital News Service reporter David Silverman also contributed to this report.)