Black women face dilemma in Democratic primary

February 07, 2007|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Barack Obama is black. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a woman.

So if you're an African-American woman - and therefore, presumably, a Democrat - how do you choose between Senator Obama and Senator Clinton in what could turn out to be a precedent-setting presidential election?

That was the question on my mind as I wandered the lobby Friday at the Democratic National Committee's 2007 winter meeting, which doubled as the first cattle call for the party's 2008 presidential contenders. Before getting to the responses from several notable African-American women I cornered, let's pause to consider for a moment just how significant the black female vote might be in next year's Democratic primaries.

According to Census Bureau figures, in 2004, African-Americans cast 14 million votes nationwide. Now comes this stunner: Because African-American men not only are fewer in number but also register and vote at much lower rates, black women cast almost three of every five of these votes - 59 percent, to be precise. White women also outnumber, out-register and outvote white men, but the disparity is smaller (53 percent to 47 percent).

Whatever their color, female voters have never before wielded such electoral power. The black female Democrats with whom I spoke seem pleased that 2008 provides fresh options and plenty of influence.

"As an African-American woman, it's an honor to have an African-American and a woman vying seriously for the presidency of the United States, and I think our time has come," said Yvonne Atkinson Gates, DNC member and Clark County, Nev., commissioner. "For me, it's not about their race or gender, but who is going to be the best candidate."

This last sentiment - that neither race nor gender is an automatic qualifier - was a common refrain. But even if these politically savvy women were being coy, there were subtle differences in their replies.

Regena Thomas, a former New Jersey secretary of state, is a political insider who takes comfort in the fact that black women in the party increasingly find themselves on the inside. "African-American women will determine this nomination, I can guarantee you that," she predicted. "And I think there will be some African-American female leadership in every campaign."

Senator Obama's allure may be perceived as more generationally prospective, whereas the appeal of Senator Clinton - the former first lady married to the man novelist Toni Morrison once called the "first black president" - is deemed more historically retrospective. "He brings a lot to our heritage and culture, especially to our youth," said Victoria Haynes, a 47-year-old Denver native who worked on the campaign of newly elected Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. "She brings a lot of strength as a woman who came from behind her husband to lead as a woman."

Although Florida, Illinois and New Jersey are threatening to move their primaries to an earlier date, as of now, the only state among the first four events in the Democrats' 2008 nomination calendar that features a sizable statewide African-American population is South Carolina. That could put Gilda Cobb-Hunter right in the middle of a potential Clinton-Obama showdown.

A no-nonsense state representative from Orangeburg, site of the notorious 1968 massacre of three black college students, Ms. Cobb-Hunter is that rare politician who is pleasant to a fault but won't hesitate to offer her unvarnished opinion. "For most African-American women in South Carolina, I think the race is still wide open," she said, echoing the wait-and-see attitude. "We care about style, but we also care about substance."

Asked what she thinks about the political calculus of the Clinton-Obama choice, Ms. Cobb-Hunter shrugged.

"For me, first and foremost, it's about electability, because in 2008 I want to win the White House," she said. "The eternal optimist in me says that this country is ready to elect an African-American or a woman president, but the pessimist in me says, `Get real.'"

We'll see if Democrats and the rest of the voters keep it real in 2008. Until then, with Senator Obama in the race, Senator Clinton will have to work harder to lock down black voters who might otherwise have been hers for the taking. For his part, Mr. Obama would be wise not to underestimate the potential for female solidarity to trump race.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is schaller67@hotmail.com. His column will appear Wednesdays in The Sun.

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