The Blame Game by Salim Muwakkil

Black voters did their part
for the Democrats - but their
issues are on the back burner

The GOP's stunning sweep on Election Day has dashed Democrats' political
hopes of congressional gains and further marginalized the party's most
reliable bloc of voters, the black electorate.

The black Democratic candidates who ran high-profile statewide races all
lost. African-American voters also were expected to provide the margin of
victories for Democrats in a number of state House and Senate races. Those
expectations never materialized. According to Ron Walters of the University
of Maryland, a leading analyst of black politics, Democrats failed to
ignite the passion of the black electorate. "There were several reasons,"
he notes, "but the main ones were a lack of national leadership, failure to
develop a clear alternative ideology and a Republican-lite issues platform."

In attempting to explain the sweeping GOP victory, many analysts, like
Walters, initially speculated that African-Americans didn't turn out to
vote. But surprisingly, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation
reports that African-American turnout was about 39.3 percent this year. In
the 1998 midterm election, it was 37.5 percent. Analysts are finding that
although black voters did their part for the Democrats, the GOP efforts to
energize white voters were unusually successful.

David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies says
that despite historical patterns favoring opposition parties in midterm
elections, Democrats were fighting some pretty high odds. Facing a popular,
wartime president who effectively nationalized the election and wielded his
eminence to boost the campaigns of key GOP candidates, their options were
limited. "Given the heavily Republican tenor of the times," Bositis says,
"the Democrats didn't fare too badly."

Political consultant Donna Brazile, former manager of Al Gore's
presidential campaign, says the black vote was critical in Mark Pryor's win
of a Senate seat in Arkansas and Phil Bredesen's gubernatorial victory in
Tennessee-and it kept Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan competitive in her
narrow loss to Jim Talent in Missouri.

The black electorate pretty much held its own in this election; in fact,
the Congressional Black Caucus actually increased its number from 38 to 39.
(Georgia state Sen. David Scott won the election for the state's recently
created 13th Congressional District.) All the black members of the 108th
Congress will be Democrats after J.C. Watts, the lone black Republican,
steps down from his Oklahoma seat in January.

Newcomer Scott will join Florida's Kendrick Meek as Black Caucus freshmen.
Meek succeeds his mother, Rep. Carrie Meek, as a representative from Miami.
The two other black freshmen are Georgia's Denise Majette and Alabama's
Artur Davis, who defeated incumbents Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard,
respectively, in the primaries. Both of these races were bathed in
controversial claims that Majette and Davis were doing the bidding of
Washington lobbyists seeking to oust two of Congress' rare critics of
Israeli policy. Both had voted against a congressional resolution last May
that applauded Ariel Sharon's military incursions into Palestinian
territory, provided millions in additional aid to the Israeli military, and
blamed the problems of the Middle East solely on the Palestinians.

Although in Israel McKinney's views would be considered to the right of
Gush Shalom, a venerable peace organization, here she and Hilliard were
targeted by the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee
(AIPAC), which lavished campaign contributions on their opponents. Their
races were object lessons in what happens to any member of Congress who
strays too far from the pro-Israeli consensus on the Middle East. Davis and
Majette are not likely to offer challenging critiques of U.S. foreign
policy, nor are they expected to deviate much from the moderate domestic
positions they outlined during their campaigns.

Tennessee's Harold Ford Jr. and New York's Gregory W. Meeks, two re-elected
incumbents, also have sought to distinguish themselves from their
predecessors by staking out moderate-right positions in national politics.
And no matter what its stand ideologically, the Congressional Black Caucus
will be further marginalized by the Democrats' minority status.

The two African-American challengers for gubernatorial offices failed. In
Nevada, the Republican incumbent trounced state Sen. Joe Neal by a margin
of more than 50 percent. New York state comptroller H. Carl McCall fell
short in his race against popular incumbent George Pataki. "McCall ran a
respectable race," Bositis says. "Remember-not only is Pataki a hero of
9/11, he is a pretty liberal Republican."

But many observers slammed McCall's campaign for its timid treatment of
issues important to the black community. In a state that has been the
location of some of the most horrific examples of police
brutality-including the police killing of unarmed Amadou Diallo and the
broomstick attack on innocent Abner Louima-and for complaints of racial
profiling, McCall barely mentioned the subjects in his campaign rhetoric.
"In the campaign of H. Carl McCall, the first black candidate from a major
party to run for governor in New York, there is no surer way to kill a
conversation than to bring up the subject of race," wrote Shaila K. Dewan
in a New York Times story describing the campaign's last days.

Ron Kirk, the Texas senatorial candidate and former Dallas mayor, also
sought to de-emphasize race in his doomed campaign. Ironically, his
candidacy was heralded as part of a multi-ethnic "dream ticket," which
included a Mexican-American candidate for governor and a white candidate
for lieutenant governor. Kirk's racial identity initially was marketed to
boost his chances against his popular Republican opponent, but it was
played down during the campaign. All three members of the "dream ticket"

McCall and Kirk were simply trying to navigate their campaigns through the
pock-mocked terrain of post-civil rights America. Like other black
politicians seeking a statewide office, they were forced to struggle with
the dilemma of how to remain relevant to their base of support without
alienating other voters. Even the much-heralded new breed of black
politician, like Ford or New Jersey's Corey Booker - the young, black Ivy
Leaguer who challenged old-guard Newark Mayor Sharpe James and lost - have
yet to figure out how to resolve this dilemma.

Although many of these "new school" black politicians tried to avoid the
protest tactics and civil rights idioms of their predecessors, they found
few other ways to connect with their base. Majette defeated McKinney with a
heavy infusion of support from sources outside not only her district, but
her party. (In fact, allies of McKinney have filed suit in U.S. District
Court in Atlanta charging that "malicious" crossover voting by Republicans
for Majette interfered with the voting rights of the 4th District
Democrats. They filed for equitable relief under the Voting Rights Act,
asking that McKinney be declared the winner. Not much chance of that,
experts say.)

While Majette and Alabama's Davis do represent moderate alternatives to
Hilliard and McKinney, white voters heavily supported their victories. And
although recent surveys by the Joint Center for Political and Economic
Studies have showed that African-Americans, particularly younger
respondents, identify less with the Democratic Party than do older blacks,
there are few indications of any major political realignment.
African-Americans are much less likely to give Bush support for the war on
Iraq that some pundits claim the election vouchsafed. According to a recent
poll conducted by Bositis' group, only 6 percent of blacks in America see
the war as a key concern, and only 19.2 percent of them support it.

But like the progressives who share much of their political profile, the
views of the African-American electorate will drift to the back burner
until at least 2004. So they need to get to work now.

Salim Muwakkil is editor of In These Times Magazine and can be contacted via e-mail at:

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Salim Muwakkil

Thursday, December 12, 2002