• U.S.

Leaving Blacks Cold

4 minute read
Perry Bacon Jr./Washington

Because black voters are more opposed to President Bush than is almost any other voting bloc, John Kerry’s first move to secure their enthusiastic support might have been simply to follow Hippocrates’ instruction: do no harm. But when he appeared before the National Conference of Black Mayors in April, Kerry chose to speak not about their concerns but about his plan to make the U.S.’s chemical plants more secure–leaving the audience underwhelmed. And when Kerry’s campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, listed his top election strategists, it revealed that the group of six was all white, angering black activists who feel the Democratic Party takes African Americans for granted. Noting that Bill Clinton was sometimes called America’s first black President, Kerry said earlier this year, “I wouldn’t be upset if I could earn the right to be the second.” Responds a senior Clinton Administration official who is black: “That ain’t gonna happen. He’s not going to out-Clinton Clinton, and if he tried, he would look phony.”

Though Kerry did much better among black voters than his opponents did during the primaries, he hasn’t wowed many African Americans involved in politics. They say he lacks Clinton’s experience and resonance with blacks and Al Gore’s record–Gore having been the first U.S. presidential candidate to have a black, female campaign manager. Firing up African-American activists is important for Kerry because they help turn out black voters, who opt for Democrats 90% of the time and accounted for 1 of every 5 votes for Gore in 2000. If they don’t like the Democratic candidate, they might not turn out on polling day.

Kerry says two African Americans were prominent in his early life. He has said John Walker, the first black teacher at St. Paul’s, the New Hampshire prep school Kerry attended, was like “a father” to him. Kerry remains close to David Alston, who served on the swift boat that Kerry commanded in Vietnam and is now a minister in South Carolina. Supporters explain that Kerry has focused his political career mostly on security and foreign policy issues rather than on domestic matters that tend to concern African Americans because Edward Kennedy, the senior Massachusetts Senator, was already a leader on those matters.

But some Bay State detractors were left with the impression that Kerry wasn’t interested in issues that directly affected blacks. “There’s lingering doubt as to whether he gets it,” says Kevin Peterson, who runs a voter-registration group in Boston. Kerry is well remembered for saying, in a 1992 speech, affirmative action was “an inherently limited and divisive program” that “kept America thinking on racial terms.” Though a Democrat, Massachusetts state representative Byron Rushing has said he will not campaign for Kerry until he sees a strategy that will energize black voters. “People want to like Kerry. People want to be enthusiastic about him. But for whatever reason, they’re not,” says Julianne Malveaux, a Washington-based black activist and writer who attended a recent Florida retreat for African-American political consultants.

The Kerry campaign badly wants to assure African Americans that they have access to and the attention of the candidate. Kerry aides say Congressional Black Caucus chair Elijah Cummings, Representative Greg Meeks of New York City and deputy campaign manager Marcus Jadotte, all African Americans, are among those who talk with the candidate on his ever-present cell phone. Top campaign officials meet with the caucus every two weeks. Vernon Jordan, a former Clinton aide and a prominent black lawyer, was named last week to head the campaign’s presidential-debate negotiating team. Kerry has added a section to his campaign speech in which he quotes the black poet Langston Hughes, saying, “Let America be America again.” The candidate is scheduled to attend the Chicago conference of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition this week, in the first of what will be several appearances before influential black audiences.

Even if Kerry fails to build excitement among African Americans, he can still rely on one thing to help get them to the polls: George W. Bush. Only 17% of blacks have a favorable view of the President, while 80% have an unfavorable view, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. “Because of their antipathy for the other side, they don’t have to love [Kerry],” says Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. But from the Democrats’ point of view, it sure wouldn’t hurt.

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