February 10, 2008
With Super Tuesday around the corner and the Virginia primary just a week later, some key African-American Democrats on the Peninsula and in other parts of Hampton Roads see a defining moment at hand this Black History Month — a chance for a historic political breakthrough.
But there's no unanimous sentiment. Many African-Americans in this region say they enthusiastically support the campaign of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who has gained more momentum than any black candidate in a presidential race — although supporters are quick to position him as the "change" candidate instead of a black candidate.
Others support U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, spouse of former President Bill Clinton, who because of his views and manner was sometimes known affectionately as the first black president.
While buoyed by their options in the race, plenty of African-American Democrats say they have been turned off by the negative tone and personal attacks that erupted before the South Carolina primary, ultimately won handily by Obama.
Those concerned hope the candidates' criticisms of one another won't affect party unity after the nomination — or hurt the nominee's chances against the eventual Republican nominee.
"After all is said and done, it becomes critical to come back together," said state Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton. "Then the goal changes; the goal is beyond who the nominee is."
Obama appears to have solid support from key Democrats on the Peninsula, including U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, D-Newport News, Locke and state Del. Mamye BaCote, D-Newport News.
Obama also has the support of Gov. Timothy Kaine and Hampton University President William R. Harvey.
Among Hampton Roads Democrats who support Hillary Clinton is Del. Lionel Spruill, who is black and represents Chesapeake and part of Suffolk.
Earlier, Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, was thought to be supporting Clinton, but Lucas said Thursday that she is supporting Obama.
On the national level, Obama also has the support of Jesse Jackson, while Clinton has high-profile endorsements from Kimora Lee Simmons, former wife of hip-hop executive Russell Simmons; the Rev. Calvin Butts III, pastor of one of New York's most high profile churches; civil rights pioneer John Lewis; and Charlotte Bobcats owner Robert Johnson, founder of the BET television network.
Harvey, describing himself as an independent who has supported both Democrats and Republicans through the years, said he has been most impressed with Obama's ability to "inspire a whole generation of young people to become involved in the political process" and the fact that Obama "bridges many divides ... young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Christians and Jews, Democrats and Republicans."
Roy Tatem, the regional coordinator for Hampton Roads for Obama, a grassroots organizing committee, said the Obama candidacy is "history on so many levels."
"He is such a different person than what we have come to expect in a president," said Tatem, a 31-year-old graduate of Virginia State University who grew up in Virginia Beach. "He's the new voice outside of the Baby Boomer generation that has dominated politics forever. He's the voice of the hip-hop generation. Now people are interested in politics who had no prior interest, because there is someone who cares about their perspective.
"Also, as an African-American in the truest sense (Obama's father is Kenyan; his mother is white), he is able to bring a different perspective to this country. He was raised by a single parent; so many people can relate to that."
Tatem, who worked on a Bill Clinton campaign as a student at VSU, called Hillary Clinton "a great candidate."
"With all due respect to the Clintons and all they have accomplished, we just think that Barack Obama is the best candidate."
Spruill counters that the nomination should hinge on one factor: "Who can win in November?"
And to him that's Clinton.
"It's about experience they've had in Washington, and what experience they have across the world," Spruill said. "We need someone who can heal the wounds across the world."
Locke said she officially endorsed Obama the week after the South Carolina debate with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, who has since dropped out of the race.
"The campaign had taken a turn that was not good for the Democratic Party, and it doesn't do much to motivate the electorate — and I've gotten that from people who I've known for years who were apolitical," Locke said.
Like several others interviewed, Locke said she was particularly impressed that Obama has sparked interest among 18- to 30-year-olds, which she called "a part of the electorate that has been disconnected for years."
She noted that she attended an Obama fund-raiser in Richmond that attracted about 1,000 people and that 60 percent of them were in that age group, including the people staffing the event.
Moses Wilson III, an HU junior from Rocky Mount, N.C., believes Obama's message of change resonates with younger voters, because "he shares something very common with us."
"When you think of Washington, first you think of negative and old money and old politicians," said Wilson, who is the deputy state coordinator of Students for Barack Obama. "Barack Obama is a fresh face. He doesn't come from old money. He didn't agree with the war in Iraq ..."
BaCote said she believes Obama is simply "the one that can best direct these United States."
Lucas, who defected from the Clinton camp, said she was somewhat swayed by recent events, including some of the national support picked up by Obama.
"I started with Obama last year, then I took a neutral view and leaned toward Hillary," Lucas said. "I listened to people who endorsed him, and when I listened to the daughter of President Kennedy say that she is inspired by him, that really said something."
Gaylene Kanoyton, chair of the Hampton Democratic Committee, who as an individual supports Obama, said she believes many young voters would be lost if Obama does not win the nomination.
"To me, the key is Generation X and Generation Y," Kanoyton said. "I don't think that even Bill Clinton had the younger voters motivated the way Barack has. They see someone new with some fresh ideas who can represent the views that they support."
Most agree that whoever the nominee is, the party will have to come together afterward.
"We have two fine candidates who are running," Spruill said. "In November, when the time comes, they're going to need each other."
Kanoyton was one of a few not afraid to touch on the subject of the two candidates sharing the ticket for a presidential candidacy.
"Well, you know politics always makes strange bedfellows," Kanoyton said. "We're all family, and families have their differences, but at the end of the day, we need to come out united."
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