If it is true, as GOP strategist Ed Rollins boasted Tuesday, that the campaign of Republican Governor-elect Christine Todd Whitman paid black ministers in New Jersey $500,000 not to get the vote out for Democratic Gov. Jim Florio in last week's election, both the Republican Party and those who accepted its money ought be ashamed. If it is not true, Mr. Rollins owes both New Jersey's black community and Ms. Whitman an apology.
Mr. Rollins, who served as political director of the Reagan White House and helped George Bush win the presidency in 1988, began backing off his claim almost as soon as it was made. At the same time, however, he insisted he did nothing illegal in paying black ministers -- many of whom had already endorsed Mr. Florio's losing re-election bid -- to take a back seat in get-out-the vote efforts for the Democratic candidate. Mr. Rollins' credibility and tactics are under attack.
A spokesman for Ms. Whitman denied any knowledge of any payments to suppress the black vote. Not surprisingly, no black ministers have come forward and admitted taking money from )) GOP operatives. The chairman of the political action committee for the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey has denounced the allegations.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Democratic State Committee is seeking a court order to take depositions to investigate whether laws were broken and whether that cost Mr. Florio the election. Ms. Whitman won by fewer than 40,000 votes out of 2.5 million cast.
We hesitate to give too much credence to Mr. Rollins' statements until more is known. Donations to churches and charities made by the Whitman campaign must be reported to the state in its final campaign report, due at the end of the month. If there is a smoking gun, it is likely to be found there. It is also conceivable that Mr. Rollins deliberately overstated his actions as a way of discrediting the role of black clergymen in future New Jersey campaigns.
In either case, this is a tawdry affair. It took a hard-fought struggle for African-Americans to secure the right to vote. If it turns out Mr. Rollins' people indeed tried to bribe black leaders into betraying that legacy, not only Ms. Whitman's victory but the GOP's larger goal of reaching out to blacks will suffer the inevitable taint of this ignominious reversion to the politics of cynicism.