Black Leaders Torn Over Endorsement

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- When it comes to endorsing a candidate for president, Joe Reed is a pragmatist first, and he is betting on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as the Democrat to beat.

"She's electable. She's acceptable. What else is there?" said Reed, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the state's largest African American political organization, which endorsed Clinton in October at the urging of its veteran leader.

Jerome Gray, Reed's friend and longtime ADC colleague, has another view of the 2008 field. He's the Alabama political director for Sen. Barack Obama.

"Here is a young African American who is willing to put himself out there. Who is running well. Who is willing to take the country in a new direction," Gray said of the Illinois senator. "Why shouldn't we embrace him?"

For black leaders such as Reed and Gray, the Clinton-Obama rivalry represents a moment of choice for the black political establishment that grew from the civil rights movement. With the African American vote potentially critical once the primary campaign extends beyond overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire, the divided loyalties are making for a complex landscape in heavily black states such as South Carolina, which will hold its primary Jan. 26, and Georgia and Alabama, which will vote Feb. 5.

Along with Reed, the Clinton camp includes pioneering black politicians such as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), civil rights icon and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, as well as younger leaders such as Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.). The former first lady leads Obama in Congressional Black Caucus endorsements, 15 to 12.

Obama has lined up his own A-list of black support, including the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a prominent civil rights figure. But much of his support is coming from a new breed of Democratic politicians such as Gov. Deval L. Patrick of Massachusetts and Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Michael B. Coleman. Patrick and Coleman, like Obama, are dynamic figures who won their offices with broad support that included independents and Republicans. Coleman was courted by both Clintons but chose Obama as "a one-of-a-kind who comes along only every few generations."

"The black body politic is not a monolithic movement that goes the same way," said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), an Obama supporter who won a long-shot bid to unseat Rep. Cynthia McKinney last year. "The civil rights movement is a living, breathing animal that grows and morphs in different directions, and that's the way it should be."

The contest for black support is playing out across the country. On Thursday night at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, comedian Chris Rock told the audience at an Obama fundraiser they would be "real embarrassed" if Obama won and they had been backing Clinton. One reason Reed and other black leaders are backing Clinton is they do not believe the country is ready to elect an African American president.

"You'd say, 'I had that white lady! What was I thinking?' " Rock said, according to the Associated Press.

In the same week, Clinton picked up the endorsements of a group of black ministers in South Carolina while Oprah Winfrey announced trips to Iowa and New Hampshire for Obama.

Clinton worked hard for the ADC endorsement. Bill Clinton lobbied his old friend Reed by telephone, and the New York senator traveled to Birmingham to ask for the group's support in person.

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