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Reigniting the passion of African American voters is key to Democrats’ hopes

Two years ago, Rep. Larry Kissell, a moderate freshman Democrat, was among a number of congressmen who received a boost from voters, particularly African Americans who turned out to make history and elect the first black president. This year, in a district that is 28% black, Kissell is challenged with reigniting those passions — when failure to do so could help tip Congress into Republican hands.

In this struggling textile town, conversations with black voters demonstrated how difficult Kissell’s job may be. Yarn mill worker Ray Ellison, 55, voted for Barack Obama in 2008 — when a record 61% of voting-age African Americans went to the polls — but didn’t know if he’d be voting again this November.


FOR THE RECORD:
Black voters: An article in the Oct. 10 Section A about Democratic Party efforts to persuade black supporters to vote in November’s midterm elections identified Democratic National Committee spokesman Derrick Plummer as the head of African American affairs for the group. He is the director of African American media affairs. —


Ellison said he had missed a number of elections when the presidency wasn’t at stake. “I really have to be pushed to vote,” he said.

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Barber John McPhatter, 48, said he’d probably vote this time around. But he was less than enthusiastic about Kissell after the congressman voted against the president’s signature healthcare overhaul legislation.

“I may just close my eyes and pull the lever for him, even though I know about the things he’s done,” he said.

Energizing black voters for midterm elections has always been a challenge for Democrats. This fall the Democratic National Committee plans to spend more than $2 million in outreach ads and direct mail to black voters, more than 10 times the amount spent in 2006, said Derrick Plummer, who heads up African American affairs for the DNC.

Plummer said ads are already up on popular black-focused syndicated radio shows hosted by Tom Joyner, Michael Baisden and Steve Harvey. The group is also reviving the network of more than 1,000 barber and beauty shops that helped get the word out to black voters two years ago.

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On Wednesday, President Obama spoke on Baisden’s program, warning that low turnout could allow Republicans to take power on Capitol Hill and stymie his agenda.

“Everybody in the barbershops, the beauty shops, and at work — everybody’s got to understand: This is a huge election,” the president said.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, agreed that black turnout would play a particularly important role at a time when the national political momentum has shifted from the “Yes We Can” crowd to the conservative “tea party” movement.

“Look, without a strong African American vote on Nov. 2, Democrats can kiss the House goodbye, and maybe the Senate, too,” Sabato said. “It’s just that critical.”

Kissell , whose 8th Congressional District in North Carolina covers a swath of suburbs and rolling rural country between Charlotte and Fayetteville, is among a handful of white freshman Democrats, including Tom Perriello and Glenn Nye of Virginia, and Steve Driehaus of Ohio, whose fates may hinge on black voter enthusiasm. All are running for reelection in districts where African Americans make up more than 20% of the population, and where Obama in 2008 significantly outperformed Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry in 2004, said Isaac Wood, an editor with Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the Center for Politics’ handicapping publication.

This month, a SurveyUSA poll gave Kissell, a 59-year-old former hosiery factory worker and social studies teacher, a one-point lead over his Republican challenger, Harold Johnson, a former sportscaster known as “The Big Guy” who has pledged to repeal the healthcare law and whose campaign has accused Kissell of creating “more jobs in China than the 8th District.”

At a farm bureau meeting Thursday in rural Concord, Kissell said he planned to run a campaign focused on job creation — an issue, he said, that resonated with all colors and creeds in an area hard-hit by the loss of small manufacturing jobs overseas in the age of NAFTA, from which Kissell wants the United States to withdraw.

“Trade deals really devastated this district,” he said. “We’re trying to build the district up, and that’s something that everybody appreciates.”

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In Kissell’s Fayetteville office, a flier for his canvassing teams features a photo of him chatting with a black constituent, and notes that he offered a resolution honoring African American veterans. Another handout features a photo of Obama superimposed on a gauzy background of signs reading “Thank You” and “Standing Together.”

Unmentioned is Kissell’s vote against the healthcare law. He has said he was concerned about the bill’s plan to find cost savings in Medicare funding. The vote may have endeared him to conservative white Democrats here, but it also aroused the anger of many white liberals and African Americans, demonstrating the difficulty many moderate Democrats are having, in this polarizing season, in appealing to two constituencies at once.

The North Carolina Black Leadership Caucus, which endorsed Kissell in 2008, declined to endorse anyone in this year’s general election, said Chairman Walter L. Rogers.

“Oh, people will vote,” Rogers said. “But for him? That’s something they’re going to have to work out on their own.”

On Thursday morning, at a small sewing and alteration shop, owner and Obama supporter Gwen Baker said she would vote Nov. 2, but certainly not for Kissell after his decision on healthcare. Textile jobs here, she said, “have disappeared. How can they afford healthcare when they don’t have a job?”

A contrasting opinion could be found an hour away, on the outskirts of Fayetteville, where truck driver Lance Van Clief might be the best a Democrat like Kissell can hope for from black voters this year.

Van Clief, 47, supported Obama, but thought the healthcare bill, as ultimately constituted, was a mess. He said he would definitely show up next month and pull the lever for the Democrat — whoever he is.

“We’ve definitely got to keep the House,” he said. “If we don’t, it’s back to Reaganomics and the Bush syndrome.”

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richard.fausset@latimes.com


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