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Doubts Raised on Turnout of Black Voters

Times Staff Writer

Gail Wilson, a 36-year-old mother of six living in South-Central Los Angeles’ troubled Nickerson Gardens housing project, expresses the frustration of many other black voters as she describes her choices in the Nov. 8 presidential election.

“Between the two candidates, it’s like picking from the bad or picking from the worse,” she complains. “They’re bringing up the right subjects, but they are not giving the right answers.”

Macieo Wells, a delegate for the Rev. Jesse Jackson at last summer’s Democratic National Convention, heeded Jackson’s call to throw his energies into Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis’ campaign. He works almost every day at the Everett, Wash., headquarters, but his heart is still with Jackson.

Misses the Feeling

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“I work for (Dukakis), and I will continue to work for him,” the retired federal worker says. “But I wish he could make me feel the way Jesse makes me feel.”

At WVON, an influential black-oriented radio station in Chicago, callers to the radio’s morning talk show seem decidedly indifferent to the Democratic nominee. “The feedback we’ve gotten thus far is a lukewarm endorsement for Dukakis, only because he’s a Democrat,” producer Deborah Mabin says.

Blacks have remained the Democrats’ most loyal bloc, and the party can still count on winning 80% or more of their support. The question this year is whether they will vote in numbers great enough to give the Democratic ticket a badly needed boost.

The decades since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have seen steadily increasing numbers of blacks showing up at the polls. Indeed, the gap between black and white voter participation has been virtually eliminated, and in some parts of the Midwest and West, blacks have even begun to vote in even greater proportions than whites.

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However, many activists fear that this year could mark a setback in black voter turnout. Preliminary indications are that voter registration efforts produced disappointing results, and black leaders contend that Dukakis has yet to inspire much beyond apathy, disillusionment and even anger in the black community.

Hard to Switch

The best many can say about the Massachusetts governor is that he is a better choice than Vice President George Bush, and his GOP running mate, Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle. Those whose hopes were lifted then crushed during Jackson’s campaign are also finding it hard to switch allegiances, particularly to a candidate whose relations with Jackson have been distant.

Others believe black interests have been trampled in the scramble by both parties to win the conservative vote. With their emphasis on patriotism and other “value issues,” both candidates and the media are seen as neglecting such problems as joblessness, civil rights and poverty.

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“The question of who wraps themselves best in the American flag is almost irrelevant in the black community,” said Steve Suitts, executive director of the Southern Regional Council, an Atlanta-based organization that studies racial issues.

‘Not a Rosy Picture’

For the organizations working to register and mobilize black voters, “it’s not a very rosy picture. . . . I’m hoping that we can break even,” said Sonia Jarvis, director of the National Coalition for Black Voter Participation.

Even that may be too optimistic. Projections being made from preliminary tallies of voter registration figures indicate that black turnout is likely to be about five percentage points lower than the record 55.5% recorded in 1984, Jarvis said.

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“What it does in effect is take us back to 1980 levels, which means eight years of work down the drain,” she added.

Activists warn that black turnout--or lack of it--may determine the outcome of a close election. Alice A. Huffman, executive director of the Black American Political Assn. of California, said the election rides “on the backs of blacks. We could bring home a victory. We need it. We stand to lose the most by not having (Dukakis) elected.”

Assemblywoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles argued that in the time remaining, black leaders can help create the enthusiasm now lacking. “I think it takes us continuing to talk about why it’s better to get out and vote for Dukakis, than to get Bush by default,” she said. “We’ve got to keep saying it over and over.”

Less Than Maximum Effort

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But some admit they are simply not willing to make the maximum effort for Dukakis.

“Most black leaders are working to get the vote out, but you don’t see them wearing any badges or buttons for anybody,” said the Rev. Samuel B. McKinney, an influential Baptist minister in Seattle who counts himself among the less enthusiastic. “I didn’t like (1984 Democratic nominee Walter) Mondale, but I got out and worked for him.”

To an extent, this ambivalence is merely a reflection of what appears to be general apathy toward the election and the candidate. “Black folks aren’t any different from anyone else. (Dukakis) doesn’t inspire anyone to get out and work hard,” said Ed Cole of Mississippi, the only black Democratic state chairman in the nation.

Cole and others predict that as the campaign season moves into its final days, black voter interest will inevitably pick up.

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‘Rather Remain Positive’

“We’d rather remain positive,” said Debra Speights, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. “Our efforts were slow in getting started, but we’ve picked up a heck of a lot of steam . . . The word that I’m getting from out in the field is that it’s accelerating.”

“Within the next two or three weeks, we are going to mobilize, and we are going to make the difference to give this state to Dukakis, rather than Bush,” said Rep. Harold E. Ford of Tennessee, a critical state where black votes are considered Dukakis’ best hope for victory.

Skeptical Community Leaders

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Community leaders, however, appear more skeptical than their elected officials. “Michael Dukakis has not caught fire in the black community,” said Wilbert A. Tatum, editor of New York’s Amsterdam News, which claims the largest circulation of any black newspaper.

Many blacks are still reeling from the emotional roller coaster ride of Jackson’s campaign. Elation over his early campaign successes turned within weeks to devastation at his ultimate loss. As McKinney put it, “We got a whiff of what it even smells like in the White House.”

The intensity of their feelings made it all the more difficult to accept Dukakis’ refusal to choose their candidate as his running mate. Their uneasiness worsened after the convention, amid reports that Dukakis wanted to limit Jackson’s role in his campaign. It appeared to be a slap at the Chicago civil rights leader and at the 6.8 million people who voted for him.

Jackson insists that he is satisfied with the relationship he now has with Dukakis and with the supporting role he is playing in the national campaign. Keenly aware that any sign of ambivalence might leave him open to blame if Dukakis loses, Jackson’s schedule of public appearances on Dukakis’ behalf often is fuller than that of the candidate himself.

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Indeed, Jackson’s praise for his one-time rival has become effusive in recent days, even as Dukakis’ prospects have worsened. To the Black American Political Assn. of California, Jackson said: “Dukakis inspires me. . . . When Dukakis stands for health care, and housing, and day care, and womens’ rights, and South Africa, I’m inspired.”

However, it is unclear whether Jackson can transfer this enthusiasm to his supporters.

‘Jesse in ’92'

“This election isn’t a good one,” said Anthony Bennett, a 26-year-old student who had waited 2 1/2 hours to see Jackson speak for Dukakis in Seattle. He carried a placard that said “Jesse,” and above it he had penned “in ’92.”

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Bennett said he will vote for Dukakis, but primarily “because I cannot see Bush and Quayle running this country. . . . I’d rather see (vice presidential nominee) Bentsen be President than Dukakis.”

Some black leaders claim that Dukakis has neglected--or even shunned--them in his scramble to win the votes of “Reagan Democrats,” the conservative whites who defected to the Republican Party in the past two elections.

“Both candidates are so busy beating each other over the head going after the Reagan Democrats, so where does that leave the black voter?” asked Jarvis. “During the campaign of the 30-second sound bites, how many pictures have you seen of Michael Dukakis in black neighborhoods? You can count them on one hand. I know, because I have.”

Some say Dukakis has failed to make even symbolic gestures toward blacks. In August, for example, Dukakis made a speech in Philadelphia, Miss., without mentioning the three civil rights workers killed there by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964.

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Many Feel Frustration

However dissatisfied they are with Dukakis, few blacks say they are willing to throw their support behind Bush. This has left many feeling frustrated and unsure of their place in either party.

When Jackson made an appearance at McKinney’s church in Seattle last week, the pastor was quick to take advantage of the public attention.

“I want a message to get out to Dukakis not to take us for granted,” he said. “Don’t play us cheap. Don’t tell us, ‘Be quiet until after the election, then we’ll take care of you.’ That day is over.”

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Staff writer Bob Secter contributed to this story.


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