Political change: black Democratic defectors

August 13, 1998|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- This is the summer of Democratic discontent -- and I am not talking about Monica Lewinsky.

I'm talking about leading Democrats in key states who suddenly find themselves struggling to hold on to black votes they no longer can take for granted.

Although black voters often have turned out in unusually high numbers to support individual Republican candidates who have reached out to them, something new appears to be happening.

Democratic defector

"When was the last time you saw a black Democratic mayor defecting from a Democratic incumbent governor?" said Ron Walters, the chair of the Afro-American studies department at the University of Maryland. "When did you ever see black Democratic legislators raising money from Republicans? In the past we have seen some black voters vote for Republicans. This time we are seeing [African-American] political operatives using their leverage and refusing to be taken for granted."

The defections he was talking about have occurred in key states as varied as Florida, Missouri, Maryland and Illinois.

Florida's Democratic legislators split along racial lines in Jan- Schmoke uary after white state lawmakers ousted Rep. Willie Logan, who is black, from a prominent leadership position in the state House of Representatives.

In retaliation, Mr. Logan, U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings and other leading black Democrats openly opposed Democratic candidate Steve Geller in a special state Senate election. Mr. Geller won anyway, but lost five of the district's 12 precincts where blacks make up more than 80 percent of the population.

Mr. Logan also started, with Mr. Hastings' help, a political action committee that Mr. Hastings says has been funded more vigorously by Republicans than Democrats, according to the Washington Post.

Smirking at the sidelines is Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush, who admittedly paid little attention to black voters in the 1994 race and lost by a few percentage points to incumbent Lawton Chiles. This time around, Mr. Bush is aggressively courting black voters and in some polls has Curry taken a commanding lead that has drawn national attention and praise.

Vice President Al Gore flew to Florida on Friday to try to heal the racial split among Democratic leaders that threatens to scuttle gubernatorial candidate Buddy MacKay's chances and to strengthen the GOP's hold on the state legislature this year, damaging Mr. Gore's presidential aspirations in the delegate-rich state in 2000.

Elsewhere, in Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Emanuel Cleaver II, who is black, has been speaking kindly of Republican Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond's help in bringing major projects to his city and criticiz-ing Attorney General Jay Nixon, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, for supporting an end to court-ordered school desegregation.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and fellow black Democrat Wayne K. Curry, Prince George's County Executive, endorsed Eileen M. Rehrmann, a challenger to Gov. Parris N. Glendening in the Maryland Democratic primary. However, Ms. Rehrmann withdrew from the race this week because of a shortage of campaign funds and support.

A neutral Jackson

Less dramatic but almost as troublesome for party leaders is their Illinois gubernatorial candidate Glenn Poshard, whose downstate conservatism and reluctance to reach out vigorously to Chicago Democrats has turned off black Democrats like U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who has vowed to stay neutral. Polls show Mr. Poshard's opponent, George Ryan, may be headed toward the biggest black turnout for any Republican gubernatorial candidate in recent Illinois history.

That's good news to Mr. Walters, who wrote a book on black political leveraging. "I believe that if you're a minority and want to compete in the political system you can't afford to be taken for granted by one party and ignored by the other," he said.

Neither can Republicans afford to ignore a bloc whose votes can swing important elections. Recent polls also offer an opportunity to Republicans when they show young black voters, in particular, to be less firmly affiliated to any party than their elders are and more supportive of such conservative ideas as school vouchers.

It's too early to call it a trend, but political leaders may be learning some intriguing new voting habits for the first time since Franklin D. Roosevelt won African Americans over from the party of Abe Lincoln. African Americans seem to be renegotiating their relationship with the Democratic Party.

Like other groups, black voters can openly support Republicans or, at least, strategically sit out certain elections, which is almost the same thing, for it robs Democrats of that traditional vote.

Such a possibility has been talked about for years. But now, for the first time, it is black Democratic leaders who seem to be leading the way.

If it becomes a trend, national Democratic leaders will have only themselves to blame. That's one of the tricky things about democracy. It lets you take some voters for granted, but not forever.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/13/98

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