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Hip-Hop Fridays: Hip-Hop Mogul Holds Fundraiser For Steele by Jon Ward

BALTIMORE -- Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons said last night that even though many Democrats are not happy that he is supporting the U.S. Senate bid of a Republican, he doesn't care because Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is at the vanguard of the civil rights movement's last chapter.

"Lots of people don't like that I'm here, but that's all right," said Mr. Simmons at a fundraiser he headlined for Mr. Steele.

Mr. Simmons is a New York impresario who in 2004 helped the Democratic Party register 4 million voters via the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, which he co-founded with Benjamin Chavis, former executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

He said he supports Mr. Steele because he is "a giver of education and opportunity."

A crowd of about 300 mostly young black people paid $35 to attend the fundraiser with Mr. Simmons at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, where nationally known disc jockey Kid Capri spun records. About 100 people attended a $500 ticket VIP reception beforehand.

"The last leg of the civil rights movement is the economic empowerment step," said Mr. Simmons, who promoted the rap group Run-DMC in the 1980s and has since built a media and clothing empire called Phat Farm. "Some of the things [Mr. Steele] is doing are causing people to pay attention."

He also said Mr. Steele "may live a conservative lifestyle, but he's got an open mind."

Cathy Hughes, founder of Lanham-based Radio One, the seventh-largest national radio conglomerate and the largest aimed at black audiences, was scheduled to attend the fundraiser but could not because of a family illness.

Mr. Steele, seeking to replace retiring five-term Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat, called Mr. Simmons an "inspiration" and a "role model for what economic empowerment can do to create legacy wealth for our children."

Mr. Steele said that creating legacy wealth is the "the definition of the 21st century civil rights movement."

He then criticized both Republicans and Democrats for not doing enough to alleviate poverty in lower-class neighborhoods.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Simmons appeared with Mr. Steele, who also is black, at the Laurel Boys and Girls Club to tell children about the importance of an education.

Mr. Simmons, dressed in a T-shirt, baggy blue jeans and spotless white sneakers, said that he was "going wherever the lieutenant governor tells me to go."

He was accompanied by Mr. Chavis, who also worked for Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement.

"Personally, I'm a Democrat," Mr. Chavis said. "However, I'm here today to stand with Russell Simmons as he stands with the lieutenant governor of Maryland. It appears that Steele's candidacy offers a lot of hope and has inspired the positive aspirations of people in Maryland and across the country.

"This is being watched across the country. People's aspirations are transcending traditional political boundaries. Steele has emerged as an independent thinker."

U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 10-term congressman, is one of the two leading Democrats running to oppose Mr. Steele in the general election.

Mr. Cardin's chief opponent in the Democratic primary is Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and also a past president of the NAACP.

Mr. Chavis said he admired Mr. Mfume, whom he called a friend, and wished him well "on the Democratic side."

When asked whom he supports in the general election, Mr. Chavis said, "It's up to the voters."

Several parents at the boys and girls club said they are inclined to vote for Mr. Steele and do not think of him as a Republican, despite attempts by the Maryland Democratic Party to portray him as "a typical Republican in the eyes of voters, as opposed to an African-American candidate," as detailed in an internal party memo.

"Anybody affiliated with the president these days would make me take a second look at what they stand for," said Robin McCormick, 30, of Laurel, who brought her son to see Mr. Simmons and Mr. Steele. "But when I hear [Mr. Steele's] name, that's not what comes to mind."

Mrs. McCormick, a registered Democrat who works for the Department of Agriculture, said Mr. Simmons has "a large amount of influence."

Warren Branch, 33, and Anthony Phillips, 41, of Laurel, grew up in New York City, where Mr. Simmons came to fame, and brought along their sons to the club.

Mr. Simmons "definitely has enough power to be able to influence people," Mr. Branch said. Children "look at him and say, 'He looks just like us. He dresses just like us.'"

Mr. Phillips said he votes as a Democrat, "but if you're going to say something positive, and do it, it doesn't matter if you're Democrat or Republican. ... I don't think Russell Simmons would support somebody who doesn't have the same influences that he does."

This article appears in The Washington Times. Copyright 2006 The Washington Times.

Jon Ward

Friday, August 25, 2006

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