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.
The ADC endorsement provides Clinton with a ready-made political operation that reaches 40 percent of Democratic primary voters, a potentially huge advantage. "Historically, very few candidates have won competitive primaries like this without the assistance of ADC," said Joe Turnham, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party. "Right now it's the political gem of the process, at least on our side."
Obama, meanwhile, has started from scratch in Alabama. The campaign only recently opened three offices there, and Gray is launching outreach efforts that target groups the ADC has tended to overlook, including students at historically black colleges. One reason Obama did not get the ADC endorsement is that unlike Clinton, he did not ask for it.
Thanks to Reed, Clinton's name will appear on the canary-yellow ADC sample ballot distributed in churches the Sunday before Election Day and handed to black voters as they approach the polls. Space on the ADC ballot is so valuable that candidates, including Clinton, pay to be listed on it.
"You pay what we call your fair share," Reed explained. "Kind of like the United Way."
But Gray, who served as the ADC's field director for 30 years until he retired this summer, is not so sure it will work this time.
"They're going to rely on the endorsement sample ballot," Gray said of the ADC. "I said to Joe Reed months ago, with a candidate like Barack Obama, you're not going to get that kind of commitment from black voters."
Obama's Alabama campaign chairman is Rep. Artur Davis, who beat Reed's longtime friend Rep. Earl Hilliard in a 2002 Democratic primary.
"The reality is, Joe has evolved from a time when blacks had no political influence in the state and were the whipping boys in every campaign, to a time when blacks have a significant influence and when whites are now willing to vote for black candidates," Davis said. "But when you've had to live that transition, you're naturally going to have a skepticism about how far we've come."
The ADC was founded in 1960 by a group of lawyers, professors and labor leaders to back the Kennedy-Johnson ticket, and in 1970, it chose Reed, a 29-year-old education activist, as its chairman. Former governor George Wallace called the group the "Black Bloc," and Republican candidates still use images of Reed in ads to disparage their Democratic opponents. "Even today, the politics of race is very prevalent," Reed said.
When Bill Clinton won the presidency, Reed paid numerous visits to the White House and served on a state patronage committee that recommended federal nominees.
"He was in and out of the White House telling us what do to all the time," the former first lady said of Reed when she appeared before ADC delegates earlier this month to ask for their endorsement.
"In this business, there's a thing called gratitude," Reed said. "The Clintons have been identified with our cause. So it's that backdrop, it's that commitment. Is there anything wrong with the rest of them? No." Obama, he added, "has got all the qualifications. But he ain't going to be nominated."
Obama's backers are not intimidated. State Sen. Quinton T. Ross Jr., a high school principal who beat Reed five years ago by running a campaign similar to the one Gray is organizing for Obama, targeting younger black voters.
"It was student against teacher," Ross said of the tactics he learned from Reed. "And he just taught me well."