Democrats Fear Loss of Black Loyalty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 3, 1998; Page A01
Democrats running for top offices in states as diverse as Florida, Missouri, South Carolina and Maryland are facing the unexpected challenge of keeping the party's most loyal constituency black voters in the fold.
The situations vary from outright rebellion and open flirting with the GOP to growing rumblings of discontent from an increasingly independent black electorate, angry at a Democratic Party seen as taking them for granted.
Dependent for its survival in many areas on African American support, the Democratic Party faces problems with the black political community in certain states that have the potential to further weaken its national stature. Republicans are moving to capitalize on the fissure in the Democratic coalition, wooing black leaders and voters and pitching conservative ideas, such as school choice, to an increasingly receptive black audience.
In close elections, a decline of just a few percentage points among black voters either from defection to the Republican Party or staying away from the polls could make the difference between winning and losing for a Democratic candidate.
Nowhere is that clearer than in Florida, where the once-dominant Democratic Party is in danger of imploding amid racial tensions. Gubernatorial nominee Buddy MacKay, the lieutenant governor, is struggling to keep his candidacy viable in a state where the nomination was once a virtual guarantee of election. Moreover, the GOP appears very likely to strengthen its hold on the state legislature.
The situation in the nation's fourth-largest state poses a major problem for Vice President Gore's prospects in the 2000 presidential contest. The Clinton-Gore team carried Florida with its 25 electoral votes in 1996, but the state has become tough for presidential Democrats to carry. Further erosion of the party there will make it even tougher.
Lingering racial tensions erupted in January when Democrats in the Florida legislature voted along racial lines to remove Rep. Willie F. Logan, who is black, as the speaker-designate. They replaced him with Rep. Anne Mackenzie, a white lawmaker from Fort Lauderdale.
The move inspired a political backlash among black political and civic leaders who alleged that Logan was removed because the party did not want its most visible leader to be African American as it tried to woo suburban and rural white voters.
Logan did not go quietly. With U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, one of Florida's most prominent black politicians, and others, he vowed to seek political revenge and to begin working against some of the white Democrats who voted against him.
In a display of political muscle, Hastings, Logan and others told blacks voting in a special state Senate election that the Democratic candidate, Steve Geller, had voted to oust Logan. Geller won the election. But the GOP candidate defeated Geller in five of the district's 12 precincts where blacks made up more than 80 percent of the population, and Geller carried another by only one vote.
Earlier this month, Mackenzie, who has expressed frustration with the racial rift, announced that she was resigning as speaker-designate and not running for reelection in November. Several of the other Democrats who had voted to oust Logan have either switched parties widening the GOP's lead in the House or announced that they, too, would not seek reelection.
Meanwhile, Logan started, with Hastings's support, a political action committee to advocate issues important to blacks, and most of the PAC's money has come from Republicans, Hastings said. The situation has deteriorated so much that in recent weeks Gore has intervened.
Democrats also are dealing with a severe division among Missouri's black Democratic leadership, which is split in its willingness to support the likely Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, Attorney General Jay Nixon.
The Missouri dispute prompted by Nixon's support for ending controversial, federal court-ordered desegregation programs in Kansas City and St. Louis cuts both ways for Democrats in the state: It may hurt Nixon in heavily black city precincts, while helping him and other Democratic candidates in mostly white outstate regions.
In black areas, Nixon faces the prospect of a lower turnout and the loss of some voters to Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R), unless he succeeds in converting criticism into support.
Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver II, who is black, said Nixon's "desegregation work has not been well-received either in St. Louis or Kansas City. Many of us believe he played to the 'outstate' [white] areas for political purposes." The mayor, who said he was born a Democrat and "will go to my grave a Democrat," contended that "it pains me to make this statement to a reporter about a Democrat."
Cleaver then rattled off a list of major projects, many visible from City Hall, that Bond has helped bring to the city. "All that was done at a time when my people in my party were saying to me Kit Bond is not concerned with the urban core. Excuse me, am I blind?"
The situation in Maryland is slightly different, but no less vexing for Democrats. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D) and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), both of whom are black, have broken party ranks to endorse Eileen Rehrmann, who is challenging Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) in the primary.
In radio ads, Curry has blasted Glendening for shortchanging Prince George's schools and suggested that the governor was ashamed of residing in the majority black county.
In South Carolina, Republicans are reaching out to black voters to take advantage of perceived soft support for Democratic incumbents, such as Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, who will face Rep. Bob Inglis (R) in November.
In an independent poll in May, Hollings had a 47 percent to 42 percent lead over Inglis among all voters. But Inglis led Hollings 54 percent to 37 percent among white voters. Among black voters, Hollings held a 78 percent to 7 percent percent advantage, with the rest undecided.
Whit Ayres, Inglis's pollster, contended that Hollings's lead among blacks should be even stronger and that Inglis's number among blacks will improve as the campaign heats up. Fred Yang, Hollings's pollster, noted that Hollings's better than 10 to 1 edge among blacks is a strong showing at this time.
Inglis has campaigned on black college campuses and has supported GOP Gov. David M. Beasley's proposal to remove the Confederate flag from the dome of the state Capitol, angering many white conservatives. He also repudiated the so-called Southern Strategy of portraying the Democratic Party as too beholden to black voters.
No one is anticipating a massive black exodus to the Republican Party. According to David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the GOP is still considered by most blacks as "the white people's party."
The percentage of blacks who identify themselves as Democrats has remained steady for years, averaging around 82 percent now, according to the Joint Center, a black think tank based in the District of Columbia. But Democrats still have to worry. In 1994, 90 percent of black voters supported Democratic congressional candidates, according to election polling. In 1996, that number dropped to 82 percent.
"I would say as a sort of a basic premise that there's a lot of underlying disaffection with the Democratic Party [among blacks]," Bositis said.
The apparent softening of black support for the Democratic Party and its candidates is significant for a number of reasons: In many states, particularly in the South, whites are increasingly supporting the GOP, leaving the Democratic Party to rely more on black voters. For example, in Florida's last gubernatorial election, Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) won 95 percent of the black vote, but he defeated Jeb Bush (R) by 2 percent of the vote overall.
Republican success last year in Virginia resulted in part from the combination of low black turnout and the fact that among those who did turn out, an unusually high 20 percent voted for Republican James S. Gilmore III for governor, according to exit polls.
Gilmore benefited from the refusal of former governor L. Douglas Wilder, the state's best-known black politician, to endorse the Democratic nominee, Don Beyer, and Gilmore's plan to cut the car tax. Black men approved of the car tax cut, according to John McLaughlin, Gilmore's pollster.
Bositis said polls show that younger blacks particularly younger black men are increasingly independent-minded politically. They are far more inclined to be receptive to some conservative fiscal ideals and social policies, such as school choice. Older blacks, particularly those who lived through the civil rights movement, are more likely to identify themselves as liberal Democrats.
The rift in Florida has drawn national attention. Bush, who is running for governor again, is actively courting black voters, and his efforts are hurting the MacKay campaign. Various polls have shown anywhere from 15 percent to 18 percent of blacks supporting Bush a proportion that could doom MacKay if it holds steady.
Last month, Gore requested a session with MacKay and Hastings to try to resolve the disputes among the state's Democrats. They met Friday at the White House, and Hastings said another meeting was planned for this week so Gore could meet with more Florida Democrats in Fort Lauderdale. "If he wants to be in a position to win the 25 electoral votes here, [the Democrats] best get busy," Hastings said last week.
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