Democratic candidates, put on the spot, stay distant

Times Staff Writer

In their quest for black voters, Democratic presidential front-runners Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama raced to Selma, Ala., six months ago to commemorate a historic civil rights march. Each used tightly scripted church sermons to declare their personal links to the freedom fighters of the 1960s.

But Thursday, as thousands poured into a small Louisiana town to protest the case of six black youths that has emerged as a cause celebre for the modern-day civil rights movement, the candidates kept their distance -- addressing the issue with measured statements and appearances this week on black-oriented radio shows.

The contrast underscored the challenges posed to each candidate by the case of the so-called Jena Six.

Both Clinton and Obama need black support, particularly in the crucial South Carolina Democratic primary, where half of the electorate is black and polls show the front-runners competing neck and neck for that bloc. But both campaigns also must avoid potential political damage from becoming linked too closely to a racially explosive case that may carry far less moral clarity in the minds of the broader electorate than do the civil rights battles of old.

“I’m a little disappointed,” Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said of the candidates’ responses to the Jena case.


“The Democratic presidential candidates should weigh in,” she added. “It’s a much larger issue, much larger than Jena. If they want to lead America, they should speak on it -- on Jena specifically, but in a broader spirit.”

The case erupted last year after a series of racially charged events, including the hanging of nooses by three white teens from a tree at their high school. The three were suspended from school but not charged with a crime. Later, after months of sporadic incidents, six black teens were arrested in the beating of a white student. The black students were charged with attempted second-degree murder, but those charges were later reduced.

Civil rights leaders have said prosecutors showed racial bias in bringing such tough charges against the black students.

Obama, a former civil rights lawyer who would be the first black president, issued a statement this month calling on the local district attorney to drop the “excessive charges” against the black teens. He said the case “shows that we still have a lot of work to do as a nation to heal our racial tensions,” and he pledged to “monitor this case closely.”

This week the Rev. Jesse Jackson, an Obama supporter, accused Obama of being too soft in his response. After Jackson was quoted by a South Carolina newspaper accusing Obama of “acting like he’s white” in his reaction to Jena, Obama appeared Thursday on the Steve Harvey Morning Show, a black-oriented radio talk show.

“We shouldn’t have to have a national rally for people to recognize the injustice of what’s been happening down there,” said Obama, who had been asked by Harvey whether he was satisfied that Louisiana officials were trying to resolve the matter fairly. “The degree to which folks haven’t stepped up, I think, doesn’t speak well.”

Jackson later said that his comment about Obama had been taken out of context.

On the radio program, Obama also singled out the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which has come under fire from Democrats who say the Bush administration has shifted the agency’s focus away from racial injustice.

“Unfortunately, we have not had a president or an attorney general that considers these issues priorities,” the Illinois senator said. “And I guarantee you, when I am president, my attorney general will consider it a priority.”

Clinton, too, has used the occasion to attack the Bush administration’s handling of civil rights. Appearing Wednesday on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show, Clinton called the Jena case a “teaching moment” in which “people need to understand that we cannot let this kind of inequality and injustice happen anywhere in America.”

Clinton’s statements over the last week have offered more careful moderation than outrage.

She has noted consistently that she was “troubled” and “worried” by the events in Jena. Her first written statement said she was “deeply concerned” about “potentially disparate treatment of white youths and African American youths in the criminal justice system.”

At the same time, she has consistently offered a caveat hinting at the complexity of the situation, arising in part from the fact that the black teens were accused of assaulting another student. “Look, I know you, and I don’t condone violence of any kind,” Clinton told Sharpton.

Such caution by the Democratic front-runners reflects each candidate’s unique circumstance.

Despite his African American heritage, Obama has struggled to build ties to black voters at the same time that he campaigns as a mainstream candidate with appeal across races. And Clinton, the New York senator who would be the first female president, has built her campaign around the perception of strength -- an image that could be hurt in a general election if conservatives accused her of defending someone charged with a violent crime.

“We see this as one of the civil rights issues of our time, but it’s a hot-button topic for Sens. Clinton and Obama as they’re looking at the primary but also looking at the general election,” said Adolphus Belk Jr., an assistant professor of political science and African American studies at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

Belk said the Jena case might force Obama or Clinton to deal with questions of “toughness” in a general election, such as whether Obama’s race or Clinton’s gender might affect their leadership on law enforcement issues. But for the primary, he added, reacting with too much detachment could alienate black South Carolinians -- more than half of whom already feel taken for granted by the national Democratic Party, according to a recent Winthrop survey of the state’s black population.

In issuing moderate statements, Belk said, the candidates “want to be on record on being on the right side. But they don’t want to run so far left that they can’t come back to the middle.”