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Capitol Hill Blacks Pan Kerry’s Ads

Times Staff Writers

Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry unveiled a $2-million advertising drive Wednesday targeted at African American voters, but several black lawmakers who reviewed the radio and television commercials panned them as uninspired and disappointing.

The criticism from Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and other African Americans on Capitol Hill was striking because it revived questions about whether the Massachusetts senator has done enough to reach out to black community leaders -- and by extension, spark enthusiasm for his candidacy among black voters.

“The ads ... were lackluster to say the least,” Cummings said after the black caucus reviewed them in a meeting at the Capitol.

Saying his opinion represented the consensus among the 25 or so caucus members who saw and heard the commercials, he added: “We felt the ads just did not, would not grip African American people in a way that would cause them to be very excited about going to the polls for John Kerry.”

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He also said, “It would have been nice if we could have seen the ads before they were out there.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) called the ads “very disappointing.” Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) termed them “horrible.” Allison Dobson, a Kerry spokeswoman, said the campaign would consider altering the ads, some of which began airing Wednesday. “It’s a dynamic process,” she said. “There could be ... changes.”

Meeks praised the campaign for responding swiftly to the harsh criticism. “We had some strong opinions, and they listened to us,” he said.

The negative reactions to the ads came on the same day the Kerry campaign took another step aimed at quieting complaints that it had not worked hard enough to court support from minorities -- criticism that first flared several months ago.

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Kerry initially responded by expanding his campaign staff to include more blacks and members of other minority groups.

And on Wednesday, his campaign named Barack Obama, an African American, to deliver the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention this month in Boston. Obama is heavily favored to win an open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois this fall. His speech is scheduled for the night of July 27.

If Obama, an Illinois state legislator, wins the Senate election in November, he would join a 100-member chamber that has lacked an African American since Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) lost reelection in 1998.

The commercials garnering the bad reviews from the Congressional Black Caucus were a 30-second television ad, two radio ads and a print ad.

In the TV ad, Kerry is shown talking with black voters and children. He hugs one African American man. “So this is John Kerry,” a woman’s voice says. “Is he really any different?” A man’s voice asks: “Does he care about me?” An announcer replies: “Find out how John Kerry will fight to bring back the 1.8 million jobs that have been lost under George W. Bush.”

Another woman asks: “Can he really make a difference for me and my family?” And a man asks: “What can he do for my community?” The announcer responds with praise for Kerry’s education and healthcare initiatives. “John Kerry,” the announcer says. “Get to know him.”

One 30-second radio ad asks, “How many African American adults have no healthcare insurance?” and then answers, “One in five. And a million and a half African American children also have no healthcare coverage.”

The print ad shows a black man standing behind a Kerry campaign T-shirt. It cites sobering statistics on unemployment, healthcare and education among blacks.

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“There was no oomph to them,” Lee said. “It seemed like the ads didn’t understand the constituency it was targeted for. African Americans want to believe and feel they’re voting for a person they connect to.”

For Kerry, motivating black voters is a prime concern. The African American electorate gave 9 out of 10 votes to Democrat Al Gore in 2000, exit polls showed. Kerry is seeking not only to win that ratio of support this year, but to increase turnout by blacks.

Alexis Herman, former Labor secretary under President Clinton and a Kerry campaign co-chair, said the $2-million ad purchase should send a strong signal about the candidate’s commitment to energizing black voters. She said no candidate had spent so much to deliver messages to African Americans so early in an election year.

“John Kerry, to his credit, had the foresight to recognize this is a conversation that needs to start now,” said Herman, who is African American.

UniWorld Group Inc., a black-owned firm, created the ads. Charles E. Morrison, executive vice president and general manager of UniWorld, said the ads were tested with viewers and were found to resonate with them.

Today, Kerry is scheduled to address the annual convention of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in Philadelphia, an appearance that could heighten his profile within the black community because it follows a public spat between the group and President Bush.

Bush declined an invitation to speak at the convention, saying that NAACP leaders have been unrelenting in their attacks on him. That comment spurred more critical comment about him from the leaders.


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