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."
D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) had been silent on the primary until last week, when the he endorsed Obama. He said he'd been torn between Obama and Clinton.
"Black leadership is not monolithic, just as white leadership is not monolithic," he said, adding that the momentum for Obama can't be denied.
"Whether anyone admits it, race and gender are a factor in everyone's minds. Not the factor, but a factor," he said. "The white Democrats have taken us for granted. They always thought our vote was there. The Republicans have ignored us. At last, we're in a leveraged position in the Democratic Party."
Bishop Glen A. Staples, pastor of the Temple of Praise Church in Southeast Washington, where former president Bill Clinton appeared yesterday, said Clinton and Obama differ little on the issues.
"Of course, a lot are going to Obama because they like that he's a black man. But a lot support Hillary because of past and present ties to" the Clintons, said Staples, who said he is undecided but will not reveal his choice publicly when he makes it.
Barry, who showed up at the church later, said he understands why black lawmakers are split between Obama and Clinton.
"In politics, it's about relationships, and the Clintons have had had long relationships with John Lewis [Ga.], with Maxine Waters [Calif.] and a number of other people -- Charlie Rangel [N.Y.]," he said, speaking of members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is divided on the two Democratic candidates. "In the final analysis, you have to look at your interest."
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton remains mum on her choice for president and said she hopes the Obama-Clinton battle will not hurt the Democrats in the November general election.
Former D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt, along with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder (D), now mayor of Richmond, are among those supporting Obama and actively pushing people to the polls.
"People underestimate the need for hope and renewal . . . and he's not afraid of being different," Wilder said. "He has elevated the thinking of Americans with his words about moving forward. . . . What he is doing with young people and their participation . . . I've never seen anything like it."
Pratt trekked to Alabama in the days preceding Super Tuesday to campaign for Obama. "I don't think people appreciated the firestorm created by Obama. Even when he announced his candidacy from Illinois, a lion's share of African Americans didn't take his candidacy seriously and were supporting Clinton," she said.
Now, Clinton supporters, particularly African Americans, are fighting a rolling tide, she said. "It's a tough phenomenon to battle," Pratt said. "When I did phone banks to voters in Huntsville, people would say, 'This is history.' "
That unfolding narrative has not been lost on black Clinton supporters.
"I felt the same euphoria" when the Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for president in the 1980s, said Curry, who is unwavering in his support for Clinton. And he has a message for his friends who support Obama: "I've been where you think you are going, son."
Obama doesn't have the substance or the experience that Clinton has, Curry said. He points to her extensive career in public service as the catalyst that drew him into her group of supporters. He said he first met Clinton in the early 1990s when Bill Clinton was president and was impressed with her commitment to issues "that are important to African Americans, such as education and health care."
Spruill knows he's standing virtually alone among his black peers in the Virginia House of Delegates. Among the 16 members of the state Black Legislative Caucus, which mainly consists of lawmakers from Richmond and Hampton Roads, only Spruill and Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond) support Clinton.
"What I see is that Hillary Clinton is the most qualified candidate and gives us the best chance to win," Spruill continued. "I want to win in November. She won't only win the battle, she'll win the war."
Debra Carter, former assistant secretary of transportation for Maryland, is also a Clinton supporter. "This is a moment in history where it is going to take courage to make a decision to do what is the best interest for this country at this point in time, and the best decision for me right now is Hillary Clinton," said Carter, who is organizing an African American rally for Clinton at Prince George's Community College tonight.
So far, only about 200 people have said they would attend. Her efforts have been met with some polite apologies. "They say, 'I'm sorry. We're going with Obama,' and then it's followed with a lot of love. At the end of the day, perhaps a dream ticket would be Clinton and Obama."
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris, Chris L. Jenkins, Anita Kumar, Jacqueline L. Salmon and David Nakamura contributed to this report.