Ronald W. Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, is a well-known national political analyst. He helped run Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign in 1984 and is the author of "Black Presidential Politics in America." To coincide with the Democratic National Convention, he will speak Wednesday at a Northeastern University forum in Boston about the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi civil rights leader who challenged her state's all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City. He spoke with staff writer Hamil R. Harris.
QHow has the Democratic Party changed since the 1964 Atlantic City convention?
AThe Democratic Party has reflected the dominant political culture in shifting somewhat to the right. It can be easily [seen] in the administration of Jimmy Carter, who, between 1976 and 1980, professed to be a balanced budget moderate, sought not to follow the extensive record of social expenditure of [Lyndon B. Johnson]. Even Bill Clinton championed public policy issues, like the omnibus crime bill and the welfare reform act of 1996, that weren't characteristic of Democratic presidents. By offering the [vice presidential] spot to John McCain, and [with] his continued support of welfare reform, John Kerry has accepted the rightward shift of the Democratic Party.
You often speak about the black agenda at different political gatherings. Why is there a need for a black agenda?
Because public opinion polling indicates that there still exists a predominantly similar socioeconomic status of the black population in America, which is reflected in a strong consensus set of views on issues. Those issues range from the priority of targeted employment opportunities, to excellent education, to protective voting rights, to the closing of health gaps.
Music mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and other celebrities have launched a get-out-the-vote campaign, and you are part of a coalition of groups working to make sure there will not be a repeat of what happened in Florida in 2000. How important are these efforts?
Nonpartisan, grass-roots efforts and voter mobilization are critical in this election cycle. Many minority voters suffered disenfranchisement in the 2000 election cycle and are therefore determined this year to protect their vote by mastering the new voting systems sponsored by election reform.
Can you give an example of what safeguards have been implemented?
The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation has teamed with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights in sponsoring an election protection program [through which] voters may access a hotline to report perceived incidents of voting irregularity.
There is a lot of talk about the battleground states, while other states seem to be ignored. Is this the wave of the future?
The black vote will be critical in this election, because in the 2000 cycle, we saw for the first time that blacks had caught up to whites in terms of the percentage of registered voters. This means that in the South, the black population may play a role in winning these states for a Democratic candidate. This is one of the reasons why the Republicans have made such an effort to appeal to the Latino vote.
Why do we even need a nominating convention?
The convention is still an opportunity, especially for a challenger to introduce himself to the American people. . . . It also provides an opportunity for the ticket to mobilize the party faithful to begin the process of campaigning.