Clinton woos blacks of the middle class

November 02, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Before a Mount Rushmorelike painting of seven revered and deceased black heroes, a tuxedoed Bill Clinton stood alone in a darkened hall recently to describe himself to an audience of black Americans.

The 10-minute speech by the Democratic presidential nominee to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Dinner in Washington expressed a simple, direct and unspoken -- though clearly understood -- contrast to the past 12 years. If the 4,000 black diners helped him fulfill his quest to win the presidency, he swore to provide "full participation, full partnership" in a Clinton White House.

"If I change my address, I will only be a tenant there," he said. "You still own the place, and I want you to act like it."

For Mr. Clinton, the moment was special only because it occurred in the harsh glare of a spotlighted public gathering. More typical of his efforts to court black support was the private fund-raiser hours earlier and a few blocks away at a downtown Washington art museum. That reception, sponsored by some 60 affluent black American business owners, produced $600,000 for the Arkansas governor.

"This was a historic event," Rodney Slater, one of Mr. Clinton's top black aides, said immediately after the fund-raiser. "This represents the fact that African-Americans want to be key players in the Clinton administration. When they can raise that kind of money -- that's more than African-Americans have ever raised for anybody -- you can bet the candidate will pay attention to them."

Like all contemporary Democratic presidential candidates, Mr. Clinton is counting on overwhelming support from the nation's black voters to propel him to victory. But to achieve that, he has taken a significantly different approach from the party's previous nominees.

Mr. Clinton has avoided offering himself as a benefactor of black Americans through dramatic, highly publicized appeals to them or by proposing a host of social programs. Rather, the Arkansas governor has conducted an almost Stealthlike campaign within black communities, quietly collecting chits from influential leaders and middle-class blacks while limiting efforts directed at poor, ghetto-dwelling African-Americans.

In targeting middle-class blacks, he has tried to blend their political and economic concerns into the same mix of issues aimed at attracting the highly coveted white suburban voting bloc.

He has done this to claim a larger share of the white vote -- especially suburban white males, who polls have suggested viewed previous Democratic presidential candidates as too eager to genuflect to black demands. With this strategy, Mr. Clinton sought to give his campaign an inclusive middle-class cast, effectively defusing race as an issue and avoiding the need reassure white voters that he would not unduly bend toward poor and needy blacks.

Surprisingly, as Mr. Clinton has pursued this strategy, polls show he has garnered increasingly enthusiastic black support.

In fact, if there has been any genius -- or luck -- to Mr. Clinton's handling of black voters, it has stemmed from amplifying the hard-edged pragmatism with which many black political leaders and their constituents approached the 1992 campaign.

"We're smart," Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., one of Mr. Clinton's earliest and most important black backers, said recently. "We know where our best interests lies. Even if it means that we campaign a little bit differently and not in the ways that we have before, we are out to win, and we can win with Bill Clinton."

Meanwhile, some blacks have remained lukewarm toward Mr. Clinton, worrying that his campaign strategy will serve only to get him elected without demonstrating a real commitment to helping poor black Americans. These leaders were distressed that the well-publicized bus tours that helped define the Clinton campaign immediately after the summer's Democratic National

Convention focused on small towns and rural America where the crowds were made up almost exclusively of white faces.

"We're going to have to put a lot of pressure on Brother Clinton once he gets in the White House," said Cornell West, director of Afro-American studies at Princeton University. "I hope he wins, but I recognize he's not a true warrior for our cause."

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