MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - Leaders of the nation's most prominent black civil rights organization assailed three Democratic presidential candidates yesterday for failing to show up for a forum that the group held here at its annual convention.
The six Democratic presidential contenders who did attend the NAACP forum appeared on a stage alongside empty chairs with placards bearing the names of the three who did not attend: Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.
President Bush did not attend the forum either - an empty chair was placed on the stage for him as well - but his absence was not unexpected, particularly because he has not been to an NAACP convention since he took office.
It was the absence of the Democrats that appeared to cause the biggest stir among the delegates attending the meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
"You now have become persona non grata," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said, referring to the candidates who did not attend. "Your political capital is the equivalent of Confederate dollars."
Georgia F. Allen, president of the Virginia Beach, Va., chapter of the NAACP, agreed. "I would say to the African-American community nationwide not to even consider voting for any of the candidates who did not attend this forum," she said.
In one sense, the flap reflects the difficulties that every candidate has had in trying to accommodate the crushing demands of the various and sometimes competing constituencies that make up the Democratic Party.
But that said, the campaigns of Lieberman, Gephardt and Kucinich moved quickly to quell the controversy, issuing statements saying, in effect, that the candidates meant no offense by their absence.
Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for Lieberman, said the campaign had notified the NAACP days ago that the senator had a previous commitment and could not attend the forum yesterday. He also noted that last month, Lieberman attended the 32nd annual conference of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the organization run by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
"While we cannot accept every invitation that is extended, no one should question Senator Lieberman's commitment to racial equality and equal opportunity," Cabrera said. "His record, dating back to the 1960s when he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and personally fought for the rights of African-Americans to vote in Mississippi, is as strong as anyone's."
Erik Smith, a spokesman for Gephardt, said he, too, attended last month's Rainbow/PUSH conference but could not take part in the NAACP forum because of an "unavoidable family obligation."
Jeff Cohen, a campaign spokesman for Kucinich, said that the congressman thought it would be a mistake for him to leave Washington on a day when Congress was voting on important legislation, including expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs.
"Congressman Kucinich has the utmost respect for the NAACP, its leadership, its members and its mission," he said. "Congressman Kucinich strongly believes that it is wrong to campaign across the country on the issue of expanding health-care coverage and then miss one of the most important health care votes in years."
The two black candidates, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and the Rev. Al Sharpton, drew the most enthusiastic cheers.
In her opening comments, Braun warned of extremists in the Republican Party in Washington who "threaten the progress we have made."
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts retold a story he told to Jackson's group last month, one about the kinship he forged fighting alongside a black man in Vietnam.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina spoke of having grown up in the South witnessing the indignities of segregation. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida spoke of his role in expanding opportunities for minorities when he was governor of Florida. Howard Dean reaffirmed his opposition to the war in Iraq and talked about expanded access to health care when he was governor of Vermont.
But it was Sharpton who brought the crowd to its feet. Sharpton compared the Democratic Party to the late Lester Maddox, a segregationist and former governor of Georgia who in the 1960s chased black patrons from his restaurant with an ax handle.
"Anytime we can give a party 92 percent of our vote and have to still beg some people to come talk to us, there is still an ax-handle mentality among some in the Democratic Party," he said, raising a wooden ax handle.