Duke's campaign gleefully exploits raw nerve of race On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

November 15, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Carencro, La. -- PERCHED ON the railing at the finish line, Ed Hebert scans the crowd of 3,000 or so gathering at Evangeline Downs to hear David Duke. "This is working white America," he says, gesturing expansively. "Everybody here is white and everybody here works, and that's why they're for David Duke."

A few yards away Harold Boudreaux, a laid-off refinery worker, puts it in blunter terms: "There ain't any niggers here because they know old David Duke is going to take away their welfare benefits and all that special treatment."

This is the central lesson of the bizarre campaign for governor of Louisiana: Results aside, it has exposed both the dimensions and intensity of the race issue in the starkest terms. This has not been a case of candidate George Bush exploiting the issue by indirection through Willie Horton or a Jesse Helms playing on resentment of affirmative action.

This has been a campaign in which no one has missed the message. Although the parlous condition of the economy and a general reaction against the political establishment may have made a difference in Duke's support, racism has been the driving force for a significant segment of the electorate.

Asked about white welfare recipients, construction worker Ed Hebert laughs. "You're putting me on, boy," he says. "We know where the money's going, and they're all after Duke because he tells it like it is."

Mary Boudreaux, carrying a baby in her arms and leading a toddler, says: "It isn't just that we resent paying taxes. We know we have to pay taxes. But it makes me furious to see the money going to people who won't work and we know who they are. That's why everybody is so mad about affirmative action, they've already got nothing but affirmative action."

To some degree, this resentment is a product of the passage of time. Boudreaux is too young at 33 to remember the civil rights movement or the conditions that made it necessary. When David Duke argued for "equal rights for all," she had no context in her memory of the time that wasn't true. "I know about slavery and all that," she says, "but that was a long time ago."

But generational memories don't explain the phenomenon. Both Hebert and Boudreaux remember the civil rights days quite clearly but consider the issue no longer relevant. "I'm not saying there didn't have to be some changes," Boudreaux says. "But that was a long time ago, and we're talking about how it's turned out today and it's turned out all wrong for white people here in Lafayette Parish, I can tell you that."

For American politicians, the question now is how the issue will be used by those who don't have Duke's history in the Ku Klux Klan and, as a result, his vulnerability to a backlash from other elements of the electorate. Until Duke qualified for the runoff here, President Bush seemed determined to use his argument that the civil rights bill of 1991 was a "quota bill" to touch the same nerve next year. Even now that he has persuaded himself he could sign a bill, no one would be surprised to see him reminding voters next year that he saved them from "a quota bill."

No one knows just how substantial a minority of the electorate is driven by the race question. In the election of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder in Virginia two years ago, analyses of the returns suggested there might be 12 to 15 percent of whites who simply would not vote for a black candidate. But that is not the same as

measuring those for whom race is the most sensitive political nerve.

Race was not the only arrow in Duke's quiver. He demonstrated repeatedly that his fans could be stirred by swings at Ted Kennedy or "the liberal media" or "outsiders." But race was the issue his supporters used to define the differences between themselves and those they scorned.

A trucker named David Landry tells a visitor from Washington: "You live a protected life up there in some ivory tower in Washington, D.C. But we're the ones paying the bills for all those welfare babies, we're the ones got to worry about who's breaking into their truck every time we park it." He gestures to the crowd around him at Evangeline Downs, "It isn't these people here, it isn't the Cajuns."

It isn't a point that will be lost on other politicians. It is a totally practical business; the first priority is getting elected. And there is some substantial bloc of voters for whom race comes first.

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