For Area Blacks, a House Divided

By Nikita Stewart and Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 11, 2008

It was Saturday night, and supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had gathered at the elegant Prince George's County home of Vennard and Janelle Wright.

The crowd of black Democratic supporters was small -- fewer than two dozen people -- until a few more arrived from another event minutes before things were set to end, and the plentiful trays of fruit, vegetables and sushi would be put away.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown was there to speak for his candidate. "Some of us are supporting Hillary because we're looking for someone with experience and strength of leadership," he told the gathering.

But he never mentioned what his host found hard to ignore: Among elected officials, clergy, community activists and other leaders in the black community, Clinton supporters increasingly seem out of step with the majority of African American voters.

"Some people said they were going to come, but that was more to show support for me than for Hillary," said Wright, 34, an information technology executive. "It was tough. A lot of people here [in Prince George's] are supporting Barack Obama."

Although Obama's campaign has crossed racial lines -- as seen this weekend in Nebraska, Washington and Maine -- strategists from both camps say that the large black populations in Virginia, Maryland and the District could help deliver victory for him in the "Potomac Primary." Voter registration does not record race, but African Americans make up 57 percent of the population in the District, 30 percent in Maryland and 20 percent in Virginia.

Some, such as former Prince George's county executive Wayne K. Curry, Virginia state Del. Lionel Spruill Sr. (Chesapeake) and District Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (Ward 5), have held their ground for Clinton. But a tidal wave of support among blacks, evident in exit polls in earlier primaries, has pushed others who had been silent or wavering into Obama's camp.

A few, such as the Rev. Jo Ann Browning, co-pastor of the influential 10,000-member Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, have even switched their support.

It was a womanly bond that originally drew Browning to Clinton. "Sexism is so alive in America," she said. "Being an African American female, it's my reality."

But she was in a house divided because her husband, the Rev. Grainger Browning Jr., senior pastor of Ebenezer, had aligned himself with Obama. Then last month, she attended an Obama fundraiser at Prince George's Community College.

"I think that was the beginning of me really listening to him. What I just heard from him was out of his heart. Who he is. His uniqueness as an African American man. I heard and I felt his desire to bring about unity," she said.

Grainger Browning said he has watched the congregation swing to Obama. Before the primaries, he said, the congregation's applause was about 70-30 for Clinton. But since Obama's primary wins, "my guess is that it's about 70-30 for Obama. I'm just going by applause," he said. "We haven't done a poll."

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