• U.S.

What Does Jesse Really Want?

9 minute read
George J. Church

After his New York showing, Jackson can drive a hard bargain

When they write the history of this [primary], the longest chapter will be on Jackson. The man didn ‘t have two cents. He didn’t have one television or radio ad. And look what he did!

—New York Governor Mario Cuomo

What the Rev. Jesse Jackson did in last week’s New York Democratic primary was to instill an almost religious fervor for the act of voting—and specifically voting for him—in blacks. Campaigning to the edge of physical exhaustion, orating in as many as five churches a day in New York City’s ghettos, at the end literally marching hundreds of parishioners from a Harlem church to a nearby polling place, Jackson inspired an outpouring of black voters without precedent in the Empire State. An estimated 270,000 blacks cast ballots, easily double the turnout for the Carter-Kennedy primary in 1980. According to various exit polls, anywhere from 84% to 92% of them pulled the voting-machine lever for Jackson, well exceeding the percentages he drew in earlier primaries in Illinois and the South.

Among New York’s other minorities, Jackson ran only well enough to make his Rainbow Coalition a bit less monochromatic. He won less than a quarter of the Hispanic vote, about 10% of the votes of Asian Americans and a mere 6% to 7% of white ballots. Nonetheless, the tide of black votes pushed his statewide total to 26%, his best primary showing to date.

That performance revived, and with new urgency, the central question of the Jackson campaign: Just what does he want? Actually winning the nomination for himself is as far out of the question as ever, and Jackson disclaims any idea of bargaining for a Cabinet post or some other high-ranking job in a Democratic Administration. He recognizes that he is most effective as a preacher and civil rights leader, temperamentally unsuited to be a good, gray bureaucrat.

But Jackson’s chances of playing a pivotal role at the July convention in San Francisco are growing steadily, and he may be able to drive a hard bargain with the eventual nominee for support in the fall campaign against Ronald Reagan. In the wake of his New York showing, some Jackson aides have begun talking in euphoric, kingmaker tones. Says Press Secretary Frank Watkins: “Jesse has the balance of power in the election. By sitting on his hands or running as a third-party candidate he could return Reagan to power. By throwing his support to Hart, he could eliminate Mondale. By dropping out or throwing support to Mondale, he could eliminate Hart.” In Washington, the Democratic National Committee has begun studying what accommodations might be made hi the party platform to meet potential Jackson demands. Says one slightly apprehensive D.N.C. official: “If he walks in [to the convention] with 25 demands and wants floor fights on all of them, he will have done a disservice to the future ambitions of this party.”

Some of this talk clearly is exaggerated. The chances of a Jackson third-party candidacy are close to zero. Jackson, whose political shrewdness matches his evangelical fervor, realizes that an independent bid is the one thing that could damage his hero status in the black community, since it would help re-elect the Republican President many of his followers are passionately eager to defeat. In a speech last week to a nearly all-black crowd of 3,000 greeting him at a railroad station in Philadelphia, Jackson seemed to be preparing his followers for a unified effort against Reagan in the fall by stressing that their votes should not go exclusively to black candidates. Said Jackson: “When blacks vote in great numbers, our progressive white allies can win. Peace candidates can win. Latinos can win.”

In an interview with TIME aboard his charter plane flying from Pittsburgh to Madison, Wis., during which he came close to falling asleep from exhaustion, Jackson insisted that he had just two “litmus-test” demands for Mondale or Hart to meet hi return for his support. They are a “peace” plank and a solid commitment to end the runoff-primary system that, in his view, blocks the election of many more black candidates to federal and state office. Neither demand, however, would be easy for the eventual Democratic nominee to meet. “Peace” in Jackson’s terms includes his demand for an outright cut of at least 20% in military spending, which seems unrealistic to the point of political suicide. And runoff primaries are fiercely defended by many Southern whites whose votes would also be crucial in a campaign against Reagan.

How tough a bargain Jackson might be able to strike, of course, depends in large part on how crucial the bloc of delegates he brings to San Francisco turns out to be in deciding the nomination. Going into this week’s Pennsylvania primary, that bloc stood at 147 and it is sure to grow. Jackson is not campaigning in every state; indeed, he was talking last week of taking a brief vacation in the Caribbean after the Pennsylvania primary, a luxury neither Mondale nor Hart would dare contemplate. Nonetheless, by convention tune Jackson has high hopes of adding many more delegates from such states as Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio and California, each of which has a potential black vote estimated at 10% or higher.

In a closely divided convention, the Jackson bloc could become the target of a bidding war between candidates unable to amass the 1,967 votes needed for the nomination. But it is also possible that Mondale—less likely, Hart—could come into the convention with enough strength to win the prize no matter how the Jackson delegates voted. Even in such a case, though Jackson’s bargaining power would be reduced, it would be far from eliminated. For the eventual nominee, the difference between defeat and victory in November’s balloting could hinge on whether Jackson gave him a half-hearted endorsement or enlisted in his behalf the full fervor Jackson has inspired in the black community.

That fervor has to be seen to be believed. In New York, well-dressed, usually sedate congregations of black churches regularly welcomed him by clapping, stomping then-feet and screaming, “Win, Jesse, win!” Crowds punctuated his litanies with wild applause and shouts of encouragement. In Pittsburgh last week, appealing for more federal aid to education, Jackson intoned, “Full scholarship to Penn State, four years, $20,000. Full scholarship, state pen, four years, $90,000. Train our youth! Train our youth! Train our youth!” Applause and cheers rose to screams with each repetition.

Jackson often gives a religious flavor to his theme of voting as a means of elevating black pride and dignity. His current favorite line, repeated with variations at every stop, refers to the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. 16 years ago. In Pittsburgh last week it went like this: “On April 4, 1968, there was a crucifixion in Memphis. In New York this week we began to roll the stone away. The crucifixion of April 1968 will become the resurrection of April 1984.” Supporters sometimes come close to deifying Jackson too. The Rev. Calvin Butts introduced the candidate to the congregation of the Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem by crying: “Jesse Jackson is the son of God! He will set the devil running away!”

Amid such high emotions, Jackson has largely escaped the intense scrutiny and criticism on policy issues that other candidates must endure. His rivals would raise military spending much less than Reagan advocates, but Jackson nonetheless attacks them for backing any increase at all. Says he: “Gary Hart and Walter

Mondale can’t have a missile in one hand and a dove in the other.” His rivals have not responded with assaults on his plea for deep defense cuts, primarily because they do not see how it would gain them any votes. Jackson sometimes complains that the press does not feature his stands on issues as prominently as those of his rivals. But he has failed to provide figures on how much his domestic programs, such as increased aid to education and job retraining, would cost.

It might seem odd, then, that the core demand Jackson will press at the convention concerns the apparently technical matter of runoff primaries. But to Jackson it is central to his fundamental purpose: increasing black political power. Under the runoff system, which operates in ten Southern states and in some cities, two primaries are often necessary to decide a party nomination: if several candidates compete in the first and no one wins an outright majority, the two leaders must face each other in a second, runoff primary. In Jackson’s view, this system prevents black candidates from winning office except in areas where blacks are a majority of voters. Says he: “Second primaries are the civil rights issue of this campaign. We’re talking about displacing 20 Congressmen, about affecting Governors and Senators and mayors.” He adds: “I could not in good conscience embrace a candidate” who failed to pledge elimination of runoffs.

Officially, the convention could not abolish the system; that would require a state-by-state rewrite of election laws. Jackson replies that the party and its nominee could pledge to attack runoff primaries in court as violations of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. In any case, white Southern Democrats would fiercely resist an attack on runoffs. Says Georgia Democratic Chairman Bert Lance: “We are a majority-vote nation.” Lance professes to be a friend of Jackson’s but asserts that if Jackson presses an attack on runoffs at the convention, “he will run into a fellow who will go to the wall with him on it.”

A compromise might be possible.

Democratic National Committee officials are talking, for example, of lowering to 40% the percentage of votes that a candidate must win in a first primary in order to avoid a runoff. The Mondale camp indicates it could accept that; Hart has said he favors the single primary. Jackson yearns to put his political clout behind the nominee in a campaign that would cement his new standing as a national figure. Whether the contenders can come up with a deal that would permit him to do so is one of the questions that figure to make the Democratic Convention quite a show. —By George J. Church. Reported by Timothy Loughran/New York and Jack E. White with Jackson

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