Run Jesse, Run?

March 06, 1995|By Derrick Z. Jackson

WITH NEWT Gingrich holding court, Phil Gramm holding cash and Bill Clinton holding on for his political life, Jesse Jackson has threatened a third-party run for the presidency. Jesse Jackson has referred to the two parties as Demopublicans and Republocrats. "We are building a state-by-state infrastructure," he said, " . . . along the lines of the '88 campaign."

Mr. Jackson and African-American politics are at a precarious crossroad. America is drowning in bipartisan politics of fear, much of it racially charged. The Congressional Black Caucus was defrocked of influence when the Republicans won control of the House in last fall's midterm elections. So beaten down are African-Americans within the Democratic Party that Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Maryland and California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown have had no choice but to agree to Bill Clinton's review of affirmative action programs.

Mr. Jackson has hovered in his own limbo. He earned a total of 10 million votes in the 1984 and '88 primaries, only to watch some of the men he beat walk past him into the Democratic inner circle. Al Gore became vice president. Bruce Babbitt became Interior secretary. He has has grown increasingly irritated in public with Mr. Clinton's policies, particularly since the president won 83 percent of the African-American vote.

"In 1992," Mr. Jackson has said, "we worked real hard and voted for an urban policy and urban development and economic stimulus, for converting an excessive military budget into domestic reinvestment, for jobs and job training and racial equality and social justice. That's what we voted for."

Instead, Mr. Jackson said Mr. Clinton has fast-tracked jobs to Mexico and promotes the warehousing of African-American youth in new prisons. "If this were South Africa, we'd call it apartheid," Mr. Jackson said. "If this were Germany, we'd call it fascism. Here, we call it conservatism."

What are the elected African-American leadership and Mr. Jackson going to do about it? Ron Walters, chairman of Howard University's political science department and political strategist for Mr. Jackson in 1984, said, "I wish we had the unity of spirit to run a strong independent race. Jesse has done the most for the party in registering voters and gotten the least from it.

"With his black support, why should Mr. Clinton review affirmative action at all? The Democratic Leadership Council (the conservative wing of the party) is telling Mr. Clinton to stay after the white vote. Blacks and liberals need a way to remind Mr. Clinton that without their vote he cannot win."

David Bositis, an analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, said it is precisely a lack of unity that prevents any alternative to Bill Clinton. He said most of the Congressional Black Caucus will be desperate to help Democrats win back the House, and will thus be reluctant to tell their constituents to reject Bill Clinton for Jesse Jackson.

Moreover, Mr. Bositis said Mr. Jackson's Rainbow Coalition has not used the past four years to put together a structure that can raise millions of dollars to compete in the new, truncated schedule of big-state primaries. "They're not even players," Mr. Bositis said of the Rainbow. "They have not done anything. Jesse had his time in the '80s, but he is not hot news anymore. It is not a situation where suddenly, thousands of people will leap up to support him.

"I completely agree that Clinton does not deserve unqualified black support. But some of the Republicans are seriously scary people. Next year is going to be serious business, and there will be no room for ego tripping."

Mr. Bositis said the best way Mr. Jackson could regain influence among Democrats is to work for candidates in the fall elections. But Mr. Walters is concerned that will not matter, since Mr. Jackson and his 10 million votes have been treated with a 10-foot pole. Mr. Walters said that without a bold challenge to force Democrats to reshape their lust for white voters, policies that take African-Americans seriously are not in the cards.

"What should determine what Jackson will do is the level of resentment of the people," Mr. Walters said. "If blacks decide the midterm losses were just poor turnout, then you stay a Democrat and register people. But if people say 'We've had a Democratic president for the last four years and we're not going anywhere,' then you move to the independent option. You do not have to win outright. Ross Perot could not win with all his money. You are talking about a run for influence that we do not have right now."

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

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