Al Smith, the rough-riding cowboy of Charles County politics, strode to a red-white-and-blue tree stump to deliver, well, his stump speech. The brim of his 10-gallon hat cast a slight shadow over Smith's face as he took to the bully pulpit to deliver his pitch.
He's been saying things like this: "I do not want to see Charles County become another Prince George's County."
And this: "There's a crime wave coming from the northern border."
And this: "The welcome sign is not held out for those people that do not want to abide by the law."
In a county whose black population has surged in recent years partly because of an influx of residents from neighboring Prince George's, the nation's wealthiest majority-black county, Smith's comments have hit a nerve. He has riled not only many African Americans but also white leaders of the county's political establishment, who say they sense racial overtones in his remarks.
Race, always a delicate subject in politics, is particularly so now in fast-changing Southern Maryland. Where slavery once drove a tobacco-based economy, African Americans are fueling a population boom. And in the campaign to lead Charles's Board of Commissioners, race has emerged as a major issue.
Those tensions came to a boil last week after racist epithets were spray-painted in a majority-black Charles neighborhood. Local NAACP leaders stood on the steps of the county government building and lashed out at Smith, accusing him of inciting such incidents with his remarks.
"I am frustrated to my wits' end," William Braxton, president of the local NAACP branch, said as Smith stood a few feet away wearing his cream-colored Stetson and cowboy boots.
"When a commissioner speaks up and refers to African Americans as 'you people' . . . we stand here today and tell you to your face, sir, that your comments are offensive to African Americans," Braxton continued. "We pay your taxes."
Smith, who often reminds people that his campaign manager, Charles Lollar, is black, said he had not intended for his comments to be interpreted as critical of African Americans. But he insisted that much of Charles's crime is committed in Waldorf -- which is near the county line -- by Prince George's residents.