Politics Mondays: Black Democrats Split On Candidates by Charles Dean

Ask Janice Ballentine whom she supports for president in next February's Alabama Democratic Party primary and the Choctaw County woman will give you an answer - kind of.

"I kinda sorta like Hillary and I kinda sorta like Obama," Ballentine said. Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois are the two leading contenders for the 2008 Democratic Party nomination for president.

"I kinda sorta want Hillary because I like her and think she'd do a good job; and, of course, because she's a woman. But I kinda sorta want to vote for Obama because I like what I've seen of him; and, of course, he'd be our country's first African-American president, and that would be so historic. But Hillary's election would be, too."

Ballentine was one of about 400 members of the Alabama Democratic Conference attending the group's spring convention Saturday in the state capital.

Vital endorsement:

The ADC is the state's oldest and most influential black political organization, and its endorsement is considered vital to the candidate who gets it.

The ADC will not formally endorse a candidate in the state's Feb. 5 presidential primary until October. Long-time ADC watchers and members said Saturday it's likely the group will vote to endorse Clinton.

But some of those same observers said that Obama's presence in the race has divided members between support for the wife of a former president, Bill Clinton, who enjoyed and still enjoys overwhelming support among blacks; and Obama, whose candidacy gives blacks their strongest chance ever of seeing one of their own elected to the nation's highest office.

Willie Brown of Etowah County agrees that it's a tough choice.

"I like them both. And if I was a betting man I'd say that Clinton will probably win the primary, but it's going to be close," said Brown, who is an ADC member and Etowah County commissioner. "I haven't made up my mind between those two, but it's a choice that really divides your head and your heart. My head says Clinton but my heart says Obama."

More than color, sex:

Most of those interviewed Saturday said that neither gender nor race alone would lead them to choose between the two senators.

"Just being a black isn't enough for me," Gary Autrey, 50, of Mobile said of Obama. "I need to hear more about what he would do as president and I need to hear more from Hillary."

Bernice Haslam, 81, of Barbour County said what's good about the Clinton-Obama choice is that each has a chance to win.

"When I was a young girl I could never have dreamed that a woman, let alone a black man, might be president in my lifetime, but it looks like it could happen," Haslam said. "I'm just happy I've lived to see this day."

Joe Reed, long-time chairman of the ADC, said that polls he has seen show Clinton ahead in the overall primary race in Alabama and ahead among likely black voters.

Asked why, Reed said, "I think it's because people have so much respect for her husband and because she's handled herself so well."

Reed said Obama is running an impressive campaign for a candidate who has never been on the national stage.

"Obama is obviously smart and he's got a message people seem to like," Reed said. "I think a lot of the folk really would like to vote for both of them."

E-mail: cdean@bhamnews.com

Note: This article first appeared at The Birmingham News 2007 The Birmingham News 2007 al.com All Rights Reserved

Charles Dean

Monday, May 14, 2007