Dean is expected to get support of Cummings

Endorsement seen as key to African-American vote

November 21, 2003|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Howard Dean is expected soon to announce that he has won the support of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, a nod that could help the former Vermont governor gain traction with African-American voters in his pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination.

Cummings' backing might also help Dean repair any damage over his recent comments invoking the Confederate flag.

With a formal endorsement likely within days, Cummings praised Dean enthusiastically in an interview this week, calling him "somebody who can energize our base" and "the kind of candidate we need to run for president of the United States."

"I like Howard Dean very much," the Baltimore congressman said. "He's the type of person who speaks truth to power. If Democrats are going to win, we have to have somebody like that to energize our base."

The support of Cummings could help give Dean an edge in a race in which none of the nine Democratic hopefuls - not even the two African-American candidates, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun - has yet galvanized the black vote.

African-American voters represent a crucial bloc once the primaries move beyond the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the populations are largely white.

"It is up for grabs," says David Bositis, senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "What black voters are most looking for is somebody who's going to beat Bush. Nobody has jumped out as that person yet. What you do in that situation is you keep your powder dry, and you watch."

If Dean is to sustain momentum after the New Hampshire primary - where he holds a big lead in most polls - he will have to continue to pile up victories in the Southern and industrial states that follow.

African-Americans account for roughly half of the Democratic voters in the Deep South and at least that much in South Carolina, which holds the critical first Southern primary, a week after New Hampshire's.

Dean already has won the endorsement of Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. of Illinois, son of the civil rights activist and former presidential contender; as well as of Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas, vice chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus; former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and several other black leaders.

Cummings noted that his endorsement would be his alone and not the official position of the black caucus.

Other key caucus members have thrown their support behind other candidates. For example, Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County has endorsed Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Still, the support of the black caucus chairman could go a long way toward helping Dean rally African-American support and extinguish any lingering ill will from his recent remark that he wanted to be the candidate of Southern white voters who display Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.

Dean apologized for using the inflammatory symbol of the flag to make his point, and Cummings defended Dean's remark as "an honest mistake."

But even before the flag uproar, Dean had been dogged by the perception that his campaign appealed mainly to upscale, well-educated whites.

That complaint was blunted somewhat in recent days by endorsements of Dean by two major labor unions - one of them, the Service Employees International Union, the largest and most ethnically diverse union in the AFL-CIO.

Still, Dean's audiences have often reflected the small state he governed for 11 years, which is 97 percent white.

At a campaign rally Monday in Baltimore, Dean appeared with Cummings and other black officials and union leaders, but his audience was largely white. Similarly, at a town hall meeting that his campaign set up last month at a black church in Charleston, S.C., as a way to connect with African-Americans, Dean found the church pews filled - but mainly with white South Carolinians.

Cummings, who appeared with Dean at two other events in Washington on Monday, acknowledged that the crowds were roughly 90 percent white. But he said he was impressed that Dean nonetheless spent about one-third of his time talking about race. "I have never seen a candidate do that," he said.

"The thing that impresses me is Dean talks about race to white people and black people," Cummings said. "And he's very frank, honest and sincere about it. Dean has consistently talked about revitalizing our cities, investing in our schools - issues vital to any city's ability to stay alive."

Jeremy D. Mayer, author of Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns 1960 to 2000, says the black vote has been crucial to nearly every Democratic nomination since 1960.

"People like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have used the black vote and their understanding of the black community to win the nomination," says Mayer, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia.

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