In Racially Aware Akron, Campaigns Playing Well So Far

By Steven A. Holmes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2008

AKRON, Ohio -- The pleasant summer evening was "Imagine Unity" night at Canal Park, home of the minor-league Akron Aeros, and was sponsored by a group of local ministers devoted to promoting reconciliation across racial, gender and religious lines.

Sitting in the stands along the right-field line, Judy McGovern pondered the question of whether race has been thrust into the presidential contest between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. Yes, she said, adding that she was not happy about it, and quickly assigning blame.

"Only one candidate is doing it," said McGovern, a retired communications specialist from Medina, who is supporting McCain. "Barack Obama is guilty of it, whether it's him or his campaign people. All that talk about how he looks different is typically done to make him a victim. I think that's wrong."

Such sentiments convince the Rev. Ronald J. Fowler, a black minister and Obama supporter, that the candidate will raise race only gingerly in the future.

"I think the intent on Obama's part was to use a little humor to try to make a point that being different sometimes is viewed as a liability when it's really an asset," said Fowler, one of the ministers behind Imagine Unity, as he sat in the office of the Rev. Knute Larson, a white evangelical minister and close friend.

"He did open the door, but I don't think he was trying to make that an issue. That's the last thing that Obama needs to do is to come out and remind people that 'I'm black.' If anything, he needs to do the very opposite -- 'I'm American' -- and to stick with that."

In a presidential campaign that features the first African American to secure the nomination of a major party, the issue of race has bubbled beneath the surface like magma waiting to burst through a fissure.

Many thought that time had come a few weeks back. The McCain campaign aired an anti-Obama commercial featuring Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, two white, female celebrities, and drew criticism that it was racially tinged. Then, Obama said his Republican opponent would point out that he does not "look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills," a comment that prompted the McCain campaign to accuse the Democrat of playing the "race card."

Both campaigns have since backed away from the touchy issue of race. In a series of interviews in this northeast Ohio city, which has aggressively engaged in efforts to promote racial harmony, people expressed satisfaction over the absence of racial themes in the contest and generally blamed the news media for periodically focusing on the matter.

"I really don't think race is being injected in the campaign at all, and I'm really glad that it's not," said Leila Lualdi, a software marketer who is white and an Obama supporter, as she chomped on a burrito at a Chipotle in the city's trendy Highland Square neighborhood. "I think the people who are injecting it are the ones who have to fill a 24-hour news cycle."

Todd McKenney said he is relieved about the racial discourse of the presidential campaign so far, but he is mightily worried about its future tone.

An independent who unsuccessfully ran for municipal judge last year as a Republican, McKenney said he didn't think the Paris Hilton-Britney Spears ad had much to do with race. He said he thought Obama's "dollar bills" assertion was unfair but a slip of the tongue.

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