A gospel choir, a congressman, aldermen, the mayor--almost the entire leadership of black Chicago except the Rev. Jesse Jackson--greeted Michael S. Dukakis as he came to the South Side on Monday.
In the past, Democratic candidates could count automatically on building huge margins in this, one of the nation’s oldest and largest black communities. So reliable were these voters that no nominee in memory bothered to come here to ask for votes.
Today, however, expectations have risen, and, among many black voters, remain unsatisfied. “We’ve got a lot of people,” said Rep. Charles A. Hayes (D-Ill.), “who are not turned on. We need to turn them on.”
Polls back him up, showing that a significant percentage of black voters in several key states remain undecided.
Could Be an Opportunity
That lack of commitment could present Democratic presidential nominee Dukakis with an opportunity--states where he now is neck-and-neck with his Republican opponent, Vice President George Bush, could become Dukakis states if the black vote turns out. But by the same token, apathy among black voters could end whatever hopes Dukakis has of prevailing in November.
So Dukakis has stepped up efforts to appeal to this traditional Democratic voting bloc. Monday’s rally was only his second large, public rally in a black neighborhood since July’s Democratic convention. Aides indicate that more such events, including possibly a rally in the Watts section of Los Angeles, are under discussion.
In addition, the campaign has launched a major radio advertising effort aimed at black voters, featuring advertisements by such prominent black figures as Dick Gregory and elected officials, including Reps. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) and Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton).
Jackson has participated in some of the advertisements. But while Dukakis was on Jackson’s turf in Chicago, the activist minister was in Philadelphia at a voter registration rally. A top aide, the Rev. Willie Barrow, attended the rally and sat on stage.
Dukakis “does not need an escort to campaign in the black community,” said Donna Brazile, Dukakis’ deputy field director and senior black political operative. Jackson, she said, “left it up to us to come in and generate the enthusiasm.”
The difficulty for Dukakis has been finding a way to generate enthusiasm among black voters without at the same time turning off the white, conservative “Reagan Democrats” his campaign has tried so hard to reach.
Hope Put on Overall Theme
The campaign’s hope is that Dukakis’ overall theme, his emphasis on jobs, education and health care, will cross racial lines.
The choice, he told the nearly 2,000 people gathered in Chicago’s ornate Moorish Regal Theatre, is between “an America of privilege . . . where the rich get richer and the rest of us just get by” and “an America of hope and opportunity for all our citizens.”
And, calling on the country to “aim high,” he endorsed the major points of the legislative agenda that has been pushed by black members of Congress--civil rights, affirmative action, an increase in the minimum wage, aid to black colleges and a war on drugs. He drew thunderous applause with a pledge to “break the back of apartheid” in South Africa.
Illinois, where Dukakis holds a narrow lead over Bush, poses a particularly tough problem for him. The death last fall of Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black chief executive, left a gap in the city’s leadership that was underscored by the cheers of “Harold, Harold” that met each mention of his name.
Dukakis’ efforts to turn out the large black vote in Chicago that he needs to win in Illinois have been complicated by the jockeying within the black community over the expected mayoral election in February.
Repeatedly, speakers at Monday’s rally, standing in front of a huge “Chicago United, Dukakis-Bentsen ’88" banner, urged the audience to put November unity ahead of February fights.
“I believe in taking first things first,” said Hayes. “The November election is the first thing on our agenda.”
Given that the landing of the space shuttle was certain to dominate the news, Dukakis aides over the weekend shelved plans to launch a major initiative on home ownership this week. Instead, they mapped out most of the day with an eye toward receiving local coverage in hotly contested states.
Stumbles on Basic Question
Earlier Monday, for example, Dukakis chatted with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at a Hartford, Conn., elementary school. In an exchange with the children, he stumbled over a basic question that many politicians seem unable to answer: Why are you running?
The questioner was 9-year-old Steven Maturo, who is supposed to play Dukakis in a class play on the election. Judging by his appearance--he was the only child in class wearing a coat and tie--he has the role in hand. But his question did not elicit much that will aid his acting.
“It was a very important decision for me to make and a difficult one,” Dukakis began. Then he rambled for a moment about things America needs to do “if we’re going to be the best.”
Finally, he concluded: “My family was very supportive, all of my children as well as my wife thought that I should run, and that’s very important, so here I am.”