Rev. Kevin Slayton

At 78 years of age Senator Barbara Mikulski’s announcement came as a surprise to many. Thirty years is a long time to serve in any capacity. But to never have had a person of color to serve in this role in our state’s history is an even greater misfortune. I’ll say it; the next person to serve in this role should be a person of color. This state has produced many notable individuals of great intelligence and character. Yet, to this date none of color has been deemed worthy enough to hold such a distinguished seat of political influence.

From 1789 to 1913, U.S. senators from Maryland were chosen by the General Assembly. The 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913 changed that. No longer would they be chosen by the General Assembly, rather, the power of the vote would determine who held those seats. Obviously, African Americans living in our great state were not included in this process, considering that it was not until 1965 that they were given the right to vote.

The impact of strong African-American leadership from the Eastern Shore to Prince George’s County and Baltimore City is proven. But so is the voting power of their jurisdictions. No one knows this fact more so than those seeking elected office. We know this because the Black Church becomes the proverbial meeting place for the Black community and those interested in gaining their vote. During each election cycle many of these candidates parade through the sanctuaries and temples of our faith based institutions. The running joke is that many of us in the African-American community don’t see our politicians until election season on Sunday mornings during worship service. Seldom if ever is the same parade directed through our local synagogues or mosque. It is for that reason I feel empowered to address the vacancy in the public square.

For the past several decades the faith community has considered itself a necessary voice in the political public square. The needs and concerns of people of faith can be found in every sacred document of this nation since its foundation. One needs to look no further than the statement so eloquently cited in our Pledge of Allegiance “One nation under God” to sense the expectation of faith on our country’s civic engagement. In that simple statement we believe that we have pledged to govern ourselves in a moral and just manner acceptable to a Higher Power than ourselves.

The departure of Sen. Mikulski is not new territory for us. We’ve been here before in recent years. In 2006 former congressman and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume lost his senate race by 18,588 votes in his bid for the senate seat left vacant by the retirement of long term Senator Paul Sarbanes. Six years later State Sen. Anthony Muse would lose in the same exact primary senate race by ten times that number of votes.

For these reasons I believe the discussion about an African American replacement cannot begin soon enough. And I believe that now, more than ever, the time has come for a Maryland U.S. Senator who reflects the diversity of its citizenry. There are several qualified individuals who possess the skill, political savvy, intellect, and conviction to represent the interest of our state. The African American faith community stands poised and ready to engage this discussion. After all, the most recent gubernatorial election is a clear demonstration of what can be the result of a silent church. Why should the Black Church care who’s in this Senate seat? Need we say it again, Black lives matter. Not just when they are in prison. Not just when they are murdered and certainly not just when they are marginalized. But most importantly when they are on the ballot.

Maryland has long been a democratic-leaning state. In fact, according to a 2011 Gallup poll, based on party identification Maryland was the “most Democrat state (excluding DC, of course)” of the 50 in the union. People of color have been a loyal base of the Maryland Democratic Party and it’s time the party recognize and honor that loyalty. This doesn’t mean a candidate should be selected based solely on race. The party should support the most qualified individual of diverse background to serve, and there are plenty.

A fair and open vetting process of potential candidates would provide for an informed elevation of such individuals whether they’ve previously held political office or not. That would give community leaders, special interest groups and voters plenty of time to hold forums and debates to make sound decisions and endorsements. More importantly, it would ensure the critical time necessary to raise capital and organize against any additional opposition candidates.

Again, we have already seen the outcome when a qualified candidate is supported and endorsed by the party body political majority solely. Why wait for the party and big donors to tell us who they believe is best suited to represent our interest? The election of our state’s next senator is too important to the legacy of people of color in this state. A senator who reflects the contributions and conscience of a people committed to the progress of this government is long overdue. While this is a political interest, it is not about politics. This is about a long overdue and necessary dose of equality reform in our state electoral politics.

Any lesser consideration should be deemed an insult and a shame. If we can agree that Black lives matter, then let us agree that so do Black voices and Black votes.

Rev. Kevin Slayton is pastor of New Waverly United Methodist Church.