Black leaders adopt new pragmatism to avoid backlash on Clinton

September 30, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- "If we're going to force Bill Clinton to make a public statement that 'I'm the black candidate,' we're going to have the same problem we had last time."

This piece of political analysis is remarkable largely because it comes from Rep. Lucien Blackwell, who succeeded William Gray III in the House last year after a long career in city politics in which he earned a reputation as one of the city's most aggressively militant black leaders. As he says himself, "I used to be a real Mau Mau."

Moreover, as recently as four years ago, Mr. Blackwell was chairman of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign here. That he is performing a similar function for Democratic nominee Clinton this time speaks volumes about a new pragmatism among black political leaders -- here and in most of the cities, north and south, with substantial black populations.

The "problem" cited by Mr. Blackwell was the perception of both Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Walter F. Mondale in 1984 as Democratic candidates who caved in to Jesse Jackson and thus evoked a backlash among socially conservative white voters in the South and the major industrial states of the North.

Mr. Clinton has made a point of avoiding that perception -- particularly when he criticized rap singer Sister Souljah at a Jackson-sponsored meeting, and then continued to withhold the kind of special recognition that Mr. Jackson received in previous campaigns. As Mr. Blackwell sums it up, "He's not going to let it appear Jesse's controlling him."

The result has not been an unmixed blessing for Mr. Clinton. There has been no little muttering from Mr. Jackson about the Democratic nominee "distancing" himself and complaints from a few Jackson allies -- Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York most prominently -- that Mr. Clinton has not paid enough attention to black concerns. The Arkansas governor's history as head of the Democratic Leadership Council has not been forgotten by some liberals, black and white.

But politicians like Mr. Blackwell and Chaka Fattah, a state senator considered one of the rising stars of politics here, seem willing to be practical.

"He has not been as outgoing as other candidates have been," says Mr. Fattah. "What he's trying to do is win the presidency . . . You have to recognize there's a backlash when candidates appear to be too close to any group and when you add race to the mix, there's a percentage of white voters [you lose]."

The operative question, however, is whether this new pragmatism manifests itself in a heavy black turnout for the Democratic ticket Nov. 3.

The black vote dropped sharply in such cities as Philadelphia and Chicago four years ago, enough by some analyses to have cost Mr. Dukakis the electoral votes of both states. If the election becomes a close contest in the end, black turnout could be decisive -- as it was for Jimmy Carter in 1976 across the South and in several northern states.

In Pennsylvania blacks represent about 9 percent of the just under 6 million registered voters. But Neil Oxman, a leading consultant here, says they have been voting less than their share -- about 7 percent of the total -- in recent elections except in cases where there were prominent black candidates, such as former Mayor Wilson Goode in city elections, Jesse Jackson in the presidential primary.

But even that decline in turnout -- roughly 120,000 votes -- could have made the difference four years ago when Mr. Bush defeated Mr. Dukakis here by only 106,000 votes.

The low participation in 1988, says Mr. Fattah, may have been largely a product of disappointment in the black community when Mr. Jackson was passed over for the vice presidential nomination. There was, he says, "a notion that Jackson's run in the primaries deserved more attention" when the ticket was made up and "an expectation of something good at the convention" that didn't materialize.

This time, he points out, there was no such expectation because Mr. Jackson was not a candidate. Beyond that, he said, black voters could see another African-American, Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown, in a prominent role "at the table."

Nor is there any reason to believe President Bush can attract any measureable black support. "If we can get black people to the polls," says Mr. Blackwell, "there's no doubt in my mind they will vote for Clinton . . . Our job is to get them to the polls."

The Philadelphia congressman contends this is possible, moreover, without specific promises from Mr. Clinton to the black community. "I don't want him patronizing me," he says.

Four years ago, he argues, candidate George Bush "could play the color thing" and exploit the backlash with issues such as the Willie Horton prison furlough. This time, he says, the focus on the economy is too intense for such issues to divert voters. "That color thing is not going to fly this time," he says.

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