Friday, July 04, 2008

How black voters took on the Clinton machine

by Lenora Fulani
Posted July 4, 2008 12:01 AM
The Daily Voice

The big spotlight is on how the Obama/Clinton rift is being healed. As expected, the Democratic Party is coming together. After all, it has a White House to win.

Personally, I'm more concerned with the Black Home than with the White House - the Black Home being black America - which has just been through a game-changing experience. It began with marked splits at the leadership level, including within the Congressional Black Caucus, and involving Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, the black clergy and the black media. But as ordinary African Americans repudiated the Democratic Party "old guard," and as black independents and insurgents came to play a new and important role, the black establishment was forced to follow the lead of the community in backing Obama and forsaking the Clintons. It was by no means a smooth ride.

The Congressional Black Caucus went into the Democratic primary season with some of its heaviest hitters lined up with Hillary. Congressman Charles Rangel of New York, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas were front and center (the center's the only place to be in Clintonland) on the Hillary bandwagon.

Not everyone in the CBC agreed. Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama, a "young gun" came out early and strong for Obama as did Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina was neutral until the end of the primaries when he endorsed Obama. But the message from the black establishment was unmistakable: Black America is vested in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party belongs to the Clintons. If the Clintons want the White House, black America best line up behind them, Barack Obama notwithstanding.

There were problems, however, with this proposition, and not just because Obama was an attractive challenger. There were hundreds of local black elected officials from South Carolina to California, from Georgia and Alabama to New York, who saw the Obama candidacy as an opportunity to leverage against their own local Democratic machines. These "new guard" politicians felt that the Clintons' claim on black voters was overrated and undeserved. In addition to that insider insurgency, there are growing numbers of African Americans who have become independents and are not stakeholders in preserving an old guard status quo, some of whom - myself included - had born the brunt of Clintonian racial politics and supported the Obama challenge. The situation was pretty combustible.

Whenever there is a fault line of this kind in black politics, Al Sharpton is invariably navigating it. An outsider and civil rights leader, Sharpton is also a consummate insider with ties to the Clintons. Beginning in the summer of 2007, he publicly questioned Obama's credentials. On the one hand, Sharpton raised important issues about the extent to which Obama's post-racial politics would honor the history of the civil rights movement and the black empowerment surge of the 1960s and 1970s it engendered. At the same time, though, Sharpton was echoing the "Is he black enough?" drumbeat strongly encouraged by the Clintons.

But in the Black Home, the question was never whether Obama was black enough. It was whether or not he was just an Establishment Democrat. Circumstances became much hotter than Sharpton - and the black establishment - expected. In New York, where Clinton had lined up 400 elected officials to endorse her in April 2007, the point was to signal that the die was already cast - for her. But it wasn't. My independent posse went to the streets with a simple question: "Who Decided Hillary Was Best For the Black Community?"

Before long, black New Yorkers were sporting bright yellow tee-shirts with that slogan and at the end of last summer, several hundred people, wearing the challenge to Hillary, marched in the African American Day Parade.

Our message in the Harlem march had a special resonance because the old guard Democratic machine's grip on the black community was already loosening. In 2005, a coalition of black voters and white independent voters gave Michael Bloomberg a landslide reelection victory. We'd run a vigorous campaign for Bloomberg, the independent mayor, in the black community. Half of African Americans had voted for him and against the Democratic Party candidate. The Clintons, in particular, were incensed by this, and it fueled their longstanding vendetta against me and against the Independence Party. While Obama's 61 percent of the black vote in New York on Super Tuesday was a smaller share than that of some other states (88 percent in Georgia, 93 percent in Illinois, 84 percent in Alabama and Missouri, 86 percent in Delaware, 82 percent in New Jersey), it was still a dramatic default in the Clinton coalition.

That wasn't supposed to happen, according to the Clinton game plan. Before Super Tuesday, South Carolina was to be the Clinton firewall with black voters. Early on the Clinton campaign put black political operatives on payroll and projected itself into the black churches. Pastors and deacons circulated the seemingly scriptural idea that "It's Hillary's Time."

Wayne Griffin, a black elected official in Greer, a small businessman and a longtime independent, who chairs the South Carolina Independence Party, was hearing the Clinton rumblings and thought the odds were in her favor. But as an independent Griffin was repelled by the Clinton style of partisan politics. He set up the first committee of its kind - Independents for Obama - and as South Carolina is an open primary state, began to popularize the idea that Obama's call to "turn the page" fit with independents' desire to overcome partisanship and reform the political system, running radio commercials across the state promoting that message.

When black support for Obama - driven by independents and insurgents - began to creep up, the Clintons were forced to come out swinging. Bill Clinton called Obama's campaign "the biggest fairy tale I've ever heard" and repeatedly reminded reporters that Jesse Jackson had won South Carolina twice - suggesting that a black non-contender could easily carry the state. The response was thunderous. The Clintons were playing the race card, demeaning a political vision based on hope, and insulting voters in the process. Obama won the South Carolina primary handily, and it was a shot heard round the world. He polled 78 percent of the black vote. The Clinton firewall had collapsed. The character of the black electorate was changing. The Black Home had spoken.

After South Carolina, exit polling picked up a new trend for the first time in a number of Super Tuesday states. In Massachusetts 33 percent of black voters who cast ballots in the Democratic primary self-identified as independents. In Missouri it was 18 percent. In Connecticut the number was 22 percent, in California 14 percent, in New Jersey 13 percent, in Tennessee 17 percent. Among black independents, the support for Obama appears to have been astronomical. For example, in Georgia, where 12 percent of all African American voters in the Democratic primary were independents, 97 percent of those cast ballots for Obama.

Obama now turns his attention to the general election. For its part, black leadership needs to come together to discuss the changes that have occurred. It is no longer sufficient to equate being black with being a Democrat. Black independents - at the base and at the leadership level - played a vital role in turning the page. And the emerging electoral coalition between black voters and independents of all hues is a powerful new component of American politics. Make note of this black and independent alliance. This election season produced more than a "turn the page" candidate and perhaps a "turn the page" president. It brought forth a "turn the page" political partnership, the power of which has only just begun to make itself felt.

Dr. Lenora Fulani is America's leading black political independent, a developmental psychologist and innovator in the field of supplemental education.

NOTE: This article also ran on Black Politics on the Web

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