Black power and the election

November 29, 1998|By Paul Delaney

DETAILED analyses of the Nov. 3 elections by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies show that the Democrats did much better than was realized at first glance.

Turns out that what happened in Washington -- the dismal GOP showing on Election Day that upended the party's congressional leadership -- was only the tip of a iceberg.

In House elections, for instance, African Americans gave 89 percent of their votes to Democrats, 11 percent to Republicans.

Looking ahead and beyond the Washington beltway, the election results put Democrats in a position not only to retake the House and possibly the Senate in 2000, but also to deflate Republican hopes of becoming the majority party. The Democrats could well re-establish their once-dominant status.

Their prospects are based on some solid performances, particularly in the South:

* Winning key state legislatures or at least one house in those bodies. Democrats recaptured the North Carolina House and control 17 of 22 southern legislatures.

* Winning races in which Democrats were the underdogs and outspent by the GOP. In Maryland, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey was the favorite and outspent Gov. Parris N. Glendening in a losing effort.

* Labor got out the vote the old-fashioned way, pounding the pavement.

* A successful strategy orchestrated by Rep. Charles Rangel of New York and Martin Frost of Texas concentrated get-out-the-vote efforts in industrial areas heavily targeted by Republicans.

And much of that success turned on the African-American vote.

While black voter turnout was up in a number of key states, it was down substantially in five big states: California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida, where 40 percent of the population resides.

"The low turnout this year was not surprising; the elections of 1994 were more important," said David A. Bositis, senior research analyst for the Joint Center, which is based in Washington.

Heavy turnouts

Even with a generally low-voter turnout, Mr. Bositis noted two impressive factors this year: heavy votes in what he termed the "black belt" states stretching from Louisiana to Maryland, including Alabama, Georgia, South and North Carolinas, and turnout in the Midwestern states of Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and Michigan that beat back Republicans who were flush with cash.

For example, black turnout in Georgia rose from 19 percent in 1994 to 29 percent this year, from 13 percent to 21 percent in Maryland, and from 22 percent to 25 percent in South Carolina. With the help of blacks, Democrats elected governors in Alabama and South Carolina, kicking out Republicans, and withstood strong GOP challenges in Maryland and Georgia to retain governors' seats.

The powerful impact of the heavier voting is reflected in the lopsided votes for Democrats: Mr. Glendening received 90 percent of black votes and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, 95 percent; Governor-elect Don Siegelman in Alabama, 95 percent; and Governor-elect Jim Hodges, South Carolina, 92 percent.

Some of the most crucial victories for the Democrats were in statehouse elections, where the battle over redrawing boundary lines for congressional districts will take place in the first few years of the next decade.

For example, Georgia is set to gain two new districts. Democrats there control the legislature and the governor's office. Presumably, one of the seats will be won by a minority. There will be court battles, of course, but by controlling the government, Democrats will guide the mapmaker's pen.

In Alabama, since voters kicked out right-wing Republican Gov. Fob James Jr., redistricting should be a less messy fight for the Democrat-controlled legislature.

In South Carolina, along with a Democratic governor-elect, the party now controls one house of the legislature.

In several key states where Republican governors will reign -- Florida and Texas among them -- Democrats control one house, which puts them in a better position to negotiate redistricting plans.

Counting heads

Finally, back to the top of the list of controversial matters: the Census undercount. With the battle in the Republican Party over the issue, the fight to make sure all citizens are counted looms much more important.

That explains why Republicans have become extremely anxious and hard-nosed about new counting methods proposed by the Census Bureau to include those undercounted, most of them minorities, the poor, the young and inner-city residents, not typical GOP supporters.

After looking at the 1998 results, some smart Republicans now understand why the votes of many racial minorities, women and gays are worth courting rather than alienating.

If House Republicans can fight their way out of the impeachment bag and listen to some of their governors and other winners, perhaps they will learn something.

At the moment, though, 2000 looks farther away for the GOP than for the Democrats.

Paul Delaney is a Baltimore writer.

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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