A month before Sen. John F. Kerry is to accept the Democratic presidential nomination, African Americans who are experienced in getting out the vote say the candidate has done little to energize a constituency that could help ensure his election.
Although the Massachusetts senator has many black supporters, civil rights leaders and academics are grumbling about his absence from black communities and a lack of top black officials in his campaign.
"You pick up the paper . . . and you see a picture where he's surrounded by all whites," Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist who helped run two presidential campaigns, said of Kerry. "That's sensitive to black Democrats. It raises questions about the lack of blacks and Hispanics in his inner circle."
Nine out of 10 black Americans voted for former vice president Al Gore in 2000, following a decades-long trend of crucial support for Democrats. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that Kerry has similar support among black Americans, but Walters and others said he must do more to make sure they vote.
"What [Democrats] usually do is wait until the last minute and try to stir up interest in the black community, which would be a serious mistake," said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta and current chairman of the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda. "They tend to take us for granted."
Black Americans, Lowery said in a recent interview, are upset with the Bush administration for double-digit unemployment in their communities, poor schools in the era of the No Child Left Behind initiative and the billions of dollars being spent to fund the war in Iraq, which black Americans did not support, according to polls.
"As I travel around the country," he said, "I sense great frustration in the black community with this president, and they want to express their frustration at the ballot box. But I don't see Democrats taking advantage of that."
Lowery and other civil rights leaders questioned Kerry's familiarity with black voters. Over the years the Massachusetts senator has received high marks from the NAACP and National Urban League for votes that supported the civil rights agenda on such issues as welfare reform, judicial nominations and affirmative action, but he hails from a state without a significant black population, unlike Gore, who is from Tennessee, and former president Bill Clinton, who is from Arkansas.
Kerry has made traditional approaches to black voters, such as appearing at African American churches and giving interviews on black urban radio programs, including the popular "Tom Joyner Morning Show." But activists said he needs to do more. A source close to Kerry's campaign said his closest advisers do not understand the political dynamics of energizing black voters. They "haven't been sensitive to making him more visible in the black community," the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Alexis M. Herman, labor secretary under Clinton and an adviser to Kerry's campaign, said she is confident that the candidate will address concerns of black Americans. "I believe that the negative comments we are hearing will be abated," she said. "At the end of the day, John Kerry's going to meet the test. He's going to have more of a neighborhood strategy."
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a staunch Kerry supporter, said, "The candidate is very sensitive to the African American community. He's constantly asking me what else can he do. I tell him to make sure we're prepared for the ground war. Television is nice, but it's the foot soldiers who count."
Marcus Jadotte, who is black, has been a deputy manager for the Kerry campaign for months. In a recent interview, he acknowledged that the campaign had been criticized for not including enough black people and said, "We have to do a better job of telling people we're here."
Devona Dolliole, a black public relations aide for the campaign, said Kerry is making moves that will counter that impression. Former presidential adviser Vernon E. Jordan Jr. became Kerry's lead debate negotiator last week. In addition, the campaign has placed several black Americans in prominent positions, including Art Collins as a senior adviser, Brian Burke as director of policy outreach and Rodney Shelton, Rodney Capel and Tony Wilson as state directors in Arkansas, New York and Missouri, respectively. Terry Edmonds is director of speechwriting.
But the second-guessing continues. It started around April, when Kerry seemed to be assured the Democratic nomination. At the time, Jadotte was one of the few black Americans in a senior position in the senator's campaign.
Most black politicians and strategists backed the campaigns of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), said David A. Bositis, a researcher for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
"The election is still five months away," he said. "I have no doubt that Kerry in his campaign is going to mobilize the black vote."
Bositis said some of those who are critical of Kerry, such as Lowery, are dependent on money candidates spend on get-out-the-vote efforts. Whatever Kerry does during the campaign, black activists might not be satisfied, he said.
"There's one thing about this campaign that isn't going to be satisfying to black voters," Bositis said. "The war is going to be the underlying issue of this campaign. There's not going to be a lot of talk about the kind of issues that African Americans would rather hear about."
After so many Democrats were swept out of office in the 2002 elections, a number of black pundits blasted Democratic candidates for waxing conservative and not embracing a campaign message that appealed to black voters.
"The issue is not whether black voters will choose a Democrat, it's how many will turn out to vote," Lowery said.
Jesse L. Jackson said there are 1.1 million unregistered black voters in Georgia and New Jersey alone, yet the party is doing little to enlist them.
Jackson -- the nation's most widely recognized black American, according to polls -- said he is ready to get off the bench and into the game for Kerry, but no one is asking.
"I'm not very close to the campaign," said Jackson, who was traveling throughout Appalachian states in an attempt to interest people in Democratic causes and register them to vote.
Kerry, however, is scheduled to speak today at the annual conference of Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition in Chicago.
More than ever, Jackson said, black Americans are primed to vote against a sitting president. "Bush has a closed-door policy on civil rights and labor," he said. "He has not met with the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Congressional Black Caucus, except for once, or organized labor. We don't have access to our government."
Jadotte said it is too early to begin a get-out-the-vote effort. When that happens -- soon, he said -- Kerry's organization will hammer at the issues Jackson mentioned.
Kerry, Jadotte said, is targeting black voters in what he considers to be swing states: Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas and Virginia in the South; Washington in the West; and Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Arthur Blackwell II, a member of the Police Board of Commissioners in Detroit, said he is a ground soldier for Kerry. Critics of the candidate, he said, are overly fond of Clinton and his centrist formula for capturing the White House.
"We need to be a little more sophisticated this time," Blackwell said. "Clinton was a good president, but Clinton nearly destroyed the Democratic Party. [Kerry's] not a warm, fuzzy guy, like maybe a Bill Clinton. You can't reinvent somebody. He's a very personable guy, very smart, but he has his own personality."
Personality is not the issue, said Felicia Davis, executive director of the Benjamin E. Mays Educational Resource Center in Atlanta. It is Kerry's low profile in black communities. "Mr. Kerry shouldn't have any problem at all finding qualified, tremendous black people, and yet there were none around his campaign," she said.
Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, said Kerry must move now, because Republicans appear eager to compete for black votes.
"The most important thing for African Americans is that our votes are vigorously competed for," Morial said. "The complexity of the African American vote is going to make a big difference."