WASHINGTON FBB — WASHINGTON -- Democratic Representative William H. Gray III, the first black majority whip in the history of the House, began his last week in elective politics yesterday by warning Republicans against pushing racial "hot buttons" in next year's presidential election.
"That is a very dangerous game to play," the Philadelphia congressman said. "It's going to divide this country."
Mr. Gray surprised his political colleagues in June by announcing that he was quitting his 12-year career in Congress to become president of the United Negro College Fund. He begins his new job, raising money for 41 historically black colleges and universities, next week.
Addressing a luncheon in his honor at the Woman's National Democratic Club, Mr. Gray alluded to the "Willie Horton" television ads used by the Bush campaign in the 1988 election and said, "I'm afraid next year you'll meet Willie Quotas in the presidential election."
The Horton ads, criticized as being racially offensive, sought to disparage a state prison furlough program under Mr. Bush's Democratic opponent, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts.
Mr. Gray's allusion to "Willie Quotas" was a reference to conservatives' suggestion that the president use his opposition to racial quotas in employment as an issue in a re-election campaign next year.
Mr. Gray said there is a "crisis of race" in the nation that is "more disturbing to me than anything I've ever seen in public life." The crisis, he said, stems in part from the "willingness of some to play politics with race, to push buttons that raise up fear, division and doubt in order to gain politically."
The racial crisis, he said, is one of three crises that the nation faces in the 1990s.
The second, he said, is an "economic opportunity crisis" brought about by economic policies of the Reagan administration, which have led to "stagnation" by "taking from the needy and giving to the greedy."
Third, Mr. Gray said, there is -- for Democrats, at least -- a "political crisis." Democrats in Congress are becoming "permanently locked in a situation" where the liberal and conservative wings of the party are fighting each other while the Republican White House sets the nation's agenda, he said.