Democrats return home, campaign chores ahead

July 19, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- A sea of small U.S. flags, many of them attached to blue and white Clinton pennants, spread across the floor of Madison Square Garden Thursday as Democratic Party leaders sang about a giant circle of friends.

But sober assessment of their candidate's chances came quickly after.

"We can soar all we want to here in New York," said the Maryland state treasurer and Clinton delegate, Lucille Maurer of Montgomery County, "but the campaign has to be won on the ground."

"We should be on the phone today getting our ducks in a line," said Delegate Joanne C. Benson, D-Prince George's. Ms. Benson had been pledged to support Paul E. Tsongas, but she completed the transition to Bill Clinton this week.

The delegates returned to Maryland, many of them daring to believe that Mr. Clinton can win the presidency. And now the work begins.

The overall organizing chore falls to Larry Gibson, the Baltimore lawyer, political organizer and adviser to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Mr. Gibson will be the Clinton campaign director in Maryland.

His selection for that job and the prominent role of Mayor Schmoke at the convention in New York reflect the Democratic Party's need for black voters in this year's election. The nation's mayors, many of them black, could represent a strong voter mobilization network.

In Baltimore, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of about 10-to-1, a solid turnout has always been the key to Democratic victory.

The campaign will be relying on Mr. Gibson and organizers like him in cities across the country to energize black voters, who have been the most loyal of Democratic voters. During this year's primary elections, they have turned out in underwhelming numbers.

In New York, with the candidate urging his party to join hands in the winner's circle, Maryland gave 83 of its 85 delegate votes to Mr. Clinton. Gov. William Donald Schaefer was one of those who cast his vote for Mr. Clinton, although he refused to give an endorsement.

Mr. Gibson may have better luck recruiting support from those voters abandoned last week by businessman Ross Perot.

Mr. Gibson will certainly want the help of activists and opinion leaders like Salima Siler Marriott, a black member of the House of Delegates from Baltimore.

Though not a convention delegate, Ms. Marriot traveled to Manhattan in search of inspiration. But she wasn't singing or rejoicing as Mr. Clinton accepted his party's nomination Thursday night. She liked his speech, and she sympathized with his dilemma: He had to be all things to all people without appearing to be the captive of anyone.

Still, she is not yet a convert. "I'm working on it," she said. "I'm seriously working on it. I just don't quite have it yet."

Mr. Clinton hadn't said quite enough about the issues that matter to her, hadn't salved the wounds she felt Mr. Clinton had inflicted on the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson at a Rainbow Coalition meeting several weeks ago by criticizing a black singer, Sister Souljah. Ms. Marriott thought the Clinton attack had been calculated in advance to win white support, and she found it offensive. Ms. Marriott and some of her black Democratic colleagues feel they are being asked to accept the proposition that their concerns will be addressed in a Clinton presidency even if they are given less overt attention by him during the campaign.

But Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th, worries that this approach asks black voters to accept "addition by subtraction," the proposition that more can be given if less is said.

The congressman said he found it difficult to make the leap of faith, though he knew it was rooted in pragmatic politics: Some voters will keep voting Republican if they think the Democrats are subservient to Mr. Jackson and his legion of supporters.

The Clinton campaign may calculate that it can follow such a strategy because Ms. Marriott and other black voters have no alternative. With Mr. Perot out of the race, voters who want change will vote for Mr. Clinton.

"He's clearly better," Ms. Marriott said. "And I feel better than I did when I came up here. I just don't have the fire in my belly that I need to mobilize my base of voters."

Mr. Mfume says he will campaign for the Clinton ticket, after expressing his personal concerns to the candidate during a recent meeting.

He said he would urge people to get involved, to vote and to take another chance that politics will improve their lives, that a candidate will keep his word.

What Larry Gibson must find now are more voters, white and black, as confident in the ticket as Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore.

"I have no reluctance at all," Mr. Rawlings said. Mr. Jackson, to whom Mr. Rawlings has been pledged in previous Democratic conventions, is a major reason for his confidence.

"It's important for me to have him constantly reminding Clinton and the Democrats that they must honor their commitments," Mr. Rawlings said.

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