Can Old Loyalties Trump Racial Solidarity?
Friday, May 18, 2007
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Displayed prominently on the wall of state Sen. Robert Ford's legislative office is a picture of Hillary Rodham Clinton delivering a speech for her husband's 1992 presidential campaign. It became an image that Ford could not shake as every major 2008 Democratic presidential candidate came calling in search of his endorsement.
John Edwards reminded Ford of the role he played in the former North Carolina senator's campaign just four years ago. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) stressed his vast experience. Ford dined with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- "super résumé," Ford observed -- and met with Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.). And like many Democrats here and across the country, he has marveled at the excitement surrounding Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's potentially historic candidacy.
Still, when Sen. Clinton (D-N.Y.) and then her husband, Bill, called, Ford could not say no. Ford said he had decided that Hillary Clinton was the best qualified for the job. "She's already spent eight years in the White House," he said.
By the time the Clintons called, Ford's mind was all but made up. "I guess you can say that sealed the deal," Ford said of the calls. "Besides, if I supported someone else, I'd have to take down Senator Clinton's picture."
The large number of well-known Democratic candidates has further complicated the quadrennial choice faced by elected officials here as they size up the presidential field.
The dilemma is particularly pointed for black elected officials such as Ford, who are faced with a field that includes three candidates -- Edwards, Clinton and Obama -- with strong claims on African American voters. The black vote is projected to account for half of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina's January primary, raising the stakes for candidates trying to win support from black leaders. In Florida, which has moved its primary up to Jan. 29, black voters are nearly a quarter of the Democratic electorate.
The presidential candidates have been wooing black elected officials with face-to-face meetings, phone calls, campaign contributions and wave after wave of flattery. "I've spoken with every candidate; it's been an awesome experience," said state Rep. Bakari Sellers, who has all but decided to endorse Obama.
Previously routine civic and political events, meanwhile, have taken on new prominence as the candidates and their surrogates vie for visibility and support. Tonight, Bill Clinton is the headliner at the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP's annual Freedom Fund celebration.
Event organizers have been trying for years to schedule Clinton as a guest speaker, but it was only this year, with his wife running for president, that he has been available.
"We extended an invitation to him each year for the past four or five years, but we've been unable to get him," said Lonnie Randolph Jr., president of the South Carolina NAACP. "There are those who make it seem like he is coming this year because of the presidential candidate in his family. But all I know is we're glad to have him."
Officially, the event is nonpolitical. In reality, it is anything but. More than 2,600 people are expected to pack the sanctuary of Bible Way Church for Clinton's remarks, which organizers say will make it the biggest turnout in recent memory.
Bible Way's pastor happens to be state Sen. Darrell Jackson (D), who has endorsed Clinton and whose public relations firm has signed on as a consultant to her campaign. In 2004, Jackson backed Edwards, who won South Carolina that year.