Obama Wave Stuns Clinton's Black Supporters

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

You can see the confusion on some of their faces, hear the concern in their voices. How in the world do we deal with this?

Hillary Clinton's black supporters -- especially the most prominent ones -- hadn't expected their candidate to be in a dogfight right now. They thought Barack Obama was an election cycle or two away from being serious presidential timber. They thought Bill Clinton's presidency and the close relationships the Clintons had forged with African Americans would translate into goo-gobs of votes in '08. They were wrong.

Remember all the commentator chatter last summer: Is Barack Obama black enough?

Well, he's black enough now.

Obama has swamped Clinton among black voters in each of the 20 contests that had exit polls and large enough samples of African Americans to be meaningful. Just to put that kind of shutout in perspective, black voters represent the only demographic group that the New York senator has not carried at least once during the Democratic primary campaign. Obama now has such a lock on the loyalties of African Americans -- 84 percent of the black vote in Alabama, 87 percent in Georgia, 84 percent in Maryland, and on and on -- that the black vote is no longer contestable.

Which brings us back to the dilemma facing some of Clinton's high-profile black supporters -- those with titles and constituencies of their own. They are feeling some kind of crazy pressure. Last Friday, about 25 of them held an hour-long conference call to discuss what one described as an effort to "pester, intimidate, question our blackness" for not supporting Obama.

The catalyst for the call was a report in the New York Times that Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was wavering in his support of Clinton. Lewis would not comment, but according to the Times, the congressman had indicated he was prepared to fully flip and back Obama and thus be more in step with his congressional district, which voted 3-to-1 for Obama on Super Tuesday. This bit of news was extremely significant, for Lewis is one of the coveted "superdelegates," those 796 elected officials and party insiders who are not bound by anything that has or will happen at the polls. They are free to choose the candidate of their liking, as unpledged delegates to the national convention. And with the nomination fight so razor-close, they are being wooed -- some say harassed -- like never before.

Lewis's office tried to put the brakes on the notion that a switch of allegiance to Obama was imminent. But too late. Some of Clinton's other black supporters decided to rally and try to blunt the fallout. Among those on the conference call were Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer, former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, and congresswomen Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio.

Palmer was among the more forceful voices, urging others on the call, as he put it yesterday, "to stand up and say why you're for Hillary Clinton in the face of adversity. We can't afford to be wishy-washy . . . Stand up. Fight. Advocate for your candidate. Don't capitulate. . . . Don't let nobody intimidate or threaten you. Just hold on."

In an interview Palmer still sounded riled about a few things he had heard about. One of them, reported by the Associated Press, was a private conversation between Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a Clinton supporter, and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), one of Obama's national campaign co-chairmen. Both lawmakers are superdelegates. Jackson had asked Cleaver if he wanted to go down in history as someone who prevented an African American from occupying the White House for the first time. Separately, Jackson told the AP that supporting Clinton in districts where Obama won overwhelmingly might place those politicians at risk of a primary challenge.

It just so happens that Palmer, the first black mayor of Trenton and an 18-year incumbent, presides over a city that voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Not that he is worried, mind you. Just bothered.

"To intimate that you may face a challenge for what you believe in, I just think that's over the top," said Palmer, who was first elected in 1990 by a 300-vote margin and has been reelected fairly easily ever since. "I think my citizens pretty much understand that I am a person who stands up for what I believe in. I'm not saying that if I run again somebody won't hold that against me. That's politics."

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