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Black voters oppose Bush - but aren't sold on Kerry

BOSTON — BOSTON - Bored and sitting in a folding chair in a gymnasium at Roxbury Community College, seven miles from Boston's FleetCenter, Job Corps member Lashonda Jackson can't muster excitement for John Kerry.

The 18-year-old hasn't registered to vote and - despite the best efforts of Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, leading a panel of political experts in the front of the room who weigh in on the urgency of black voters going to the polls on Nov. 2 - she remains ambivalent about taking part in this year's elections.

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"I'm just not sure about the whole thing," Jackson says before wandering off.

As Democratic Party activists return home from this week's national convention, charged with igniting grass-roots passion for the presidential race, they want Americans like Jackson, who is black, to keep listening. The challenge: energizing black voters to believe that the 2004 election can offer something they don't have and getting blacks to vote in large enough numbers to make a difference.

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"The concerns that we've had in the African-American community about Kerry are the same concerns we voice in every electoral season," explained Patricia A. Ford, co-chairwoman of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation's Unity '04 Voter Empowerment Campaign. "It's pragmatic: What is he gonna do for us?"

Pocketbook issues

The Kerry-Edwards answer is straight out of the Democratic playbook: reaching out to traditional black power structures such as churches and community groups to relay a platform of health care reforms, minimum wage boosts, after-school programs and incentives to encourage businesses to keep jobs at home.

These issues formed a main current of Kerry's acceptance speech last night. "We value jobs that pay you more, not less, than you earned before," Kerry said. "We value jobs where, when you put in a week's work, you can actually pay your bills, provide for your children, and lift up the quality of your life. We value an America where the middle class is not being squeezed, but doing better."

Jack O'Kelley III, a securities lawyer from New York, tuned in hoping to hear Kerry communicate "some intangible evidence" that he is mindful of the specific interests of black Americans.

"We're not monolithic," O'Kelley hastened to say. But Kerry has to lay out "an agenda that appeals to me as a professional African-American - a combination of economic policy, foreign policy and domestic policy that acknowledges social responsibility."

Said University of Maryland government and politics professor Ronald Walters, "You ask ordinary African-American people and they'll tell you they have some misgivings about Kerry - but that's not the issue this election." The issue, said Walters, is black hostility toward President Bush.

Among the hurdles party organizers face is nostalgia for a candidate in the folksy mold of Bill Clinton, rather than Kerry's patrician style.

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"I think there's no doubt that John Kerry has not captured the hearts of African-Americans the way Clinton did," said Barack Obama, a black candidate for an Illinois U.S. Senate seat whom Kerry tapped to be the convention keynote speaker.

One solution, said hip-hop activist and Air America radio talk show host Chuck D, is for Kerry "to be more felt than heard."

"Carter, Gore got through their feelings this week, Obama especially, and Clinton got over that hump, too," the performer said. "That's got to be Kerry's goal as well."

"Clearly President Clinton had tremendous charisma and an ability to connect with black voters," said Steven Horsford, a black convention delegate from Nevada. But, Horsford said, Kerry's record on issues that are important to the African-American community "is rock-solid. Look at his voting record on civil rights."

A BET-CBS News poll earlier this month questioning 986 black adults on their feelings about Kerry and Bush found the Massachusetts senator on shaky ground. Twice as many people expressed satisfaction or ambivalence about Kerry as professed to be enthusiastic about him. Passions ran higher on Bush: 83 percent described feeling angry or dissatisfied with the president.

It was Clinton's approachable personal story - born into a working-class, Southern, single-parent household - that prompted Nobel-prize winning novelist Toni Morrison to dub him America's "first black president," in a controversial 1998 New Yorker essay. Clinton, she said, was "blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime."

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And blacks rewarded Clinton at the polls in 1992 with 82 percent of their votes cast. Four years later, his black voter base grew. Al Gore, running for president in 2000, won more than 90 percent of the black vote.

The Massachusetts senator's history - rooted in a Boston Brahmin family - is day to Clinton's night and so is his style, prompting the knock that John Kerry is too rich, too aristocratic, too Catholic, too New England and too Ivy League for black voters to identify with and get excited about.

Party regulars insist that what he lacks in bully-pulpit fire, Kerry more than makes up in a commitment to issues black voters care about: jobs, the economy, health, military benefits and education. And they're determined to keep the focus on what Kerry would do for America, rather than his background.

"I think that African-Americans basically need to ask themselves a simple question: Do they think their dreams and aspirations will be best served by this president? That's the fundamental question they - and all voters - have to ask," said Washington Gov. Gary Locke, a member of the national steering committee for Kerry's campaign and the first Asian-American governor in the continental United States.

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume noted in floor remarks last night that Bush refused an invitation to address his organization's convention in Philadelphia earlier this month, an invitation Kerry accepted. Bush took the podium at the National Urban League's convention last week in Detroit instead, using the occasion to rebuke the Democratic Party for allegedly taking the black vote for granted.

Political strategist Donna Brazile, Gore's former campaign manager, tersely dismissed the president's allegation. "How dare you question my party's commitment to the African-American community?" Brazile, who ran Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, told Marylanders at a delegation breakfast.

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'It's more about Bush'

Obama said most African-Americans are mindful that the GOP has little to offer them.

"The Republican Party offers African-American voters the familiar laissez-faire argument: If we just dismantle government, you will be better off. The less we do, the better we're off. That's not connecting with the African-American vote," he said.

"Bill Clinton just had the knack and it's hard to find a person whose style is comfortable with almost everyone," added Martha Dixon, a delegate from the swing state of Arkansas. "But I do think that John Kerry is getting the message out to black voters that he has the right ideas about what to do about Iraq and the economy," said Dixon, who designed presidential and state house gala gowns for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The crucial question is whether black voters can be sufficiently motivated to go to the polls, said Walters, the College Park professor. "What's happening here is it's not about Kerry; it's more about Bush," he said. "But in the end, it's the votes cast that matter, not the reason."


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