After spending much of the spring and summer courting swing voters, Sen. John F. Kerry is now hurriedly trying to rev up enthusiasm among African Americans, turning his attention to a stalwart Democratic constituency that some community leaders complain he neglected for too long.
In the last several weeks, Kerry has tapped the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a senior advisor, held a summit of African American clergy in Philadelphia and visited black churches in Cleveland and Miami, joined by Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, a onetime rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.
During his final debate with President Bush on Wednesday, Kerry spotlighted the high unemployment rate among African American men and the large proportion of black students who dropped out of high school.
On Sunday, he attended services at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio, where he delivered a 25-minute address laced with biblical references and promised to protect voting rights.
“We’re not going to let this be a repeat of 2000,” Kerry told the predominantly black congregation. “We’re not going to see a million African Americans deprived of their votes in America.”
He struck the same theme later in the day at a rally in Pembroke Pines, Fla., as he kicked off a two-day swing through the state with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and celebrities such as actress Alfre Woodard.
Kerry’s newfound focus on the group is more than October’s traditional get-out-the-vote effort. It comes amid signs that many African Americans remain ambivalent about the Democratic candidate, despite their antipathy toward Bush and ongoing anger about the contested 2000 presidential election, in which the ballots of hundreds of thousands of black voters were disqualified.
Republicans concede that they have no hope of winning the black vote -- four years ago, Bush’s share of that segment of the electorate was about 9%. But Democrats are hoping for a high turnout of African American voters to boost their prospects in key states, such as Ohio. In 2000, Bush won the state by 166,735 votes, and nearly 100,000 African Americans who were registered to vote in Ohio did not go to the polls.
GOP consultant Eddie Mahe said Kerry’s ability to get African Americans and other minorities in Midwestern cities to support him could decide the election.
“If they turn out the minority vote in half a dozen cities, it gets very difficult to see how we win,” Mahe said. “That to me is the scariest thing in this race.”
Although there are reports of increases in voter registration among African Americans, polls indicate that many remain lukewarm about Kerry.
Surveys taken by the Washington Post and ABC News in September showed that while nearly 80% of African Americans respondents said they planned to vote for Kerry, less than half of those considered themselves “very enthusiastic” about his candidacy.
That tepidness was articulated by more than a dozen black voters who were interviewed in Cleveland last week. Kerry, they said, has not communicated a concrete agenda for improving housing, creating jobs or fighting poverty. Others said they did not sense a connection with the Massachusetts senator.
“I’m just not feeling it,” said Laura Goodrum, 45, as she ran errands at a shopping mall in Glenville, a predominantly black neighborhood on the city’s east side. “I think that Kerry would do the job better, but not much.”
Stanley Tolliver, a longtime Cleveland civil rights activist and radio host, said callers to his weekly show were often brimming with anger at Bush but didn’t show the same passion about his challenger.
“They’re not necessarily in love with Kerry, but it’s between the two and we don’t have a choice,” he said. “We certainly can’t vote for Bush.”
The president’s reelection campaign has made some efforts to expand its support within the black community.
Since early this year, Bush officials have aggressively courted African American ministers, setting up meetings in the Midwest to stress the president’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion. Many have been invited to the White House for similar gatherings. The campaign also held a First Ladies Summit in the winter, inviting dozens of pastors’ wives to Washington for an event that emphasized Bush’s religious values.
“We have a record that resonates,” said Robert Traynham, an advisor to the Republican National Committee. “That’s the main reason you see the Democrats playing defense now.”
Some Democrats privately admitted that the GOP had made inroads. Democratic supporters said Kerry was suffering from comparisons to Bill Clinton, whom author Toni Morrison famously referred to as the “first black president” for his ability to connect with African Americans.
Not only does Kerry lack Clinton’s charisma, but he is not as adept as the former Arkansas governor at campaigning in African American communities. In Kerry’s home state of Massachusetts, the black population hovers about 5%.
“Clinton was comfortable around black people,” said Ron Edwards, 40, the owner of a Cleveland painting company, as he stopped for lunch at a local eatery. “I think intellectually, Kerry is, but emotionally, I’m not so sure that he’s that comfortable.”
Supporters said that although the senator might not be a natural at charming voters, he could build support among African Americans by stressing that he shared their priorities.
“They don’t have to like John Kerry as much as they have to understand that they need John Kerry and the Democrats in office to change the current dynamics,” said Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000.
But until recently, the Kerry campaign hadn’t focused on courting African Americans. This spring, Brazile and others criticized his campaign for failing to assemble a more diverse array of advisors. And in July, members of the Congressional Black Caucus disparaged campaign commercials aimed at African Americans as flat and ineffective.
Aside from the requisite appearances before such groups as the NAACP and the Urban League and occasional stops at black churches, the candidate has not regularly appealed to black voters, rarely addressing affirmative action, poverty or housing on the campaign trail.
Instead, he told The Times in July that he planned to reach out to conservatives and “people on the right,” adding that he expected Democratic constituencies to back him based on his record.
Lately, that’s changed.
In early October, Kerry promoted his support for affirmative action in a 20-minute interview with Black Entertainment Television.
His campaign also unveiled a high-profile team of legal experts charged with ensuring voting rights in an effort to reassure African Americans who feared being disenfranchised.
The candidate also made a personal pitch to more than 50 African American clergy from the Midwest who were invited to a meeting in Philadelphia.
“I want to begin by saying to each and every one of you, these aren’t new words for me, these aren’t new feelings for me,” Kerry told them. “These are the beliefs and the values and the principles and the causes that I have championed for 35 years or more.”
Community leaders praised Kerry’s new focus on African American voters but warned that his failure to reach out earlier might cost him.
“I think he went too long, and if he were not to prevail he may regret that he did not secure what is the most reliable part of the Democratic base in the last 40 years,” said the Rev. Marvin McMickle, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland. “You don’t want to abandon the people who brought you to the dance in the first place.”
But Kerry has not taken African Americans for granted, according to deputy campaign manager Bill Lynch.
Organizers have been deployed to Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota to recruit black supporters, and Lynch insists that the candidate has been promoting an agenda that appeals to those voters.
“If you look at the issues he’s been speaking to, as it relates to healthcare, education, economy, jobs -- those are issues that affect the African American community,” he said.
Jackson, who has been campaigning for Kerry full time, said that although the campaign was “a bit slow early on ... they’re picking up steam.” He added: “Black voters are going to vote for this ticket because we vote for our interests.”
That’s the only thing motivating Zandria Lee to go to the polls.
“I don’t think the economy can handle another four years of Bush,” the unemployed teacher said, shaking her head in disgust as her nails were being done in a salon at a Cleveland strip mall.
But when asked about Kerry, she just sighed. “Dry,” Lee said. “We’re not excited about him, but the alternative is worse.”
Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report.
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Going to the polls
In three of the last four presidential elections, the turnout of black voters exceeded the overall turnout of U.S. voters.
*--* Total Blacks 1988 50.1% 51.5% 1992 55.1% 54.0% 1996 49.1% 50.6% 2000 51.3% 54.1%
Source: Federal Election Commission