Bid for Black Vote Takes On Racial Overtones

Corey Dade, National Public Radio, October 27, 2010

No one expects African-Americans to vote in anywhere near their numbers from 2008, when their 65 percent turnout matched that of whites for the first time. But that isn’t stopping Democratic organizers and supporting groups from using aggressive, even racially charged, tactics to get them to the polls Tuesday.

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If trying to overcome the Republicans’ strong momentum in congressional races isn’t motivation enough, the Democrats have an added incentive this year: Several of the tightest congressional and gubernatorial races are in states with significant black populations, giving blacks in heavily minority districts an uncommon chance to tip statewide contests.

To rouse them, some organizers are applying aggressive tactics, including the use of openly racial invective directed at Republicans and Tea Party activists.

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The charged messaging appears to be a “fight fire with fire” counter effort to what Democrats and some political analysts describe as a racist undercurrent in the rhetoric from Tea Party activists and Republican candidates and pundits.

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The Tea Party movement first raised hackles when some of its supporters questioned whether President Obama had been born in the U.S., a constitutional requirement for the office. In March, members of the Congressional Black Caucus said Tea Party demonstrators shouted racial epithets at them while protesting heath-care legislation outside the Capitol. One member said he was spit upon. Tea Party spokesmen have challenged those claims.

In 2009, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck called Obama a “racist” with “deep-seeded hatred for white people.” In August, he defended his decision to hold a Washington rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, by pledging to “reclaim the civil rights movement” from liberals. He said civil rights leaders had “purposely distorted Martin Luther King’s ideas.”

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‘I Ain’t Going Back to the Cotton Fields of Jim Crow’

In Alabama, a recently recorded phone message targeting heavily black communities lays out an ominous warning before the narrator goes on to endorse Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ron Sparks and lieutenant governor hopeful Jim Folsom. The voice is that of an African-American state senator, an influential longtime politician in Alabama, who begins, “Hello, this is Hank Sanders . . . and I’m still mad as hell.”

“I say hell no!” he continues. “I ain’t going back to the cotton fields of Jim Crow days. I’m going forward with Ron Sparks, Jim Folsom and others who will do right by all of us.”

The Alabama “robocall” came in response to Republican candidates’ pledges to roll back the health-care overhaul and other initiatives pushed through by Obama. {snip}

The Alabama Republican Party has accused Sanders of race-baiting. “It’s pretty sad that the Democrat Party believes that the only way they can win in 2010 is to scare people with images of slavery and cotton fields,” state Rep. Mike Hubbard, chairman of the Alabama Republican party, said in a statement. {snip} Sparks has responded to questions about the calls by saying racism still exists in Alabama, The Birmingham News reports.

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Spreading the Word via E-Mail

Separately, an e-mail circulating among African-Americans nationwide takes a similar swing at the right and calls Tea Party activists “hate mongers.” It isn’t clear if the message, with the subject line “Wake Up!!! Stop The Tea Party,” was authored by a political organization. The e-mail is addressed to Democrats and urges them to vote on Nov. 2 “like our lives depend on it, because it does. The Republican party [sic] has been hijacked by dangerous, radical hate mongers called the ‘Tea Party.’ They are led by Glen [sic] Beck and Sara [sic] Palin [whose] only goal is to take down President Obama and the government.

“These people hate Blacks.” it continues. “They hate Latinos. They hate Muslims and have at times made many anti-Semitic statements. They hate Gays. They hate any moderate Republican who might be likely to cooperate with Obama. Their rallying cry? ‘We want to take back our country!!’ Take it back from whom?”

“These radicals could take this country back to Jim Crow and the hey-day of the [Ku] Klux Klan. Don’t think it could happen? Just stay home on election day and see what happens to this country.”

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Spending Big to Get Out the Vote

Blacks historically have turned out to vote at rates below the national average. But a recent survey conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University showed that 80 percent of black Democrats are as engaged, or more so, in the midterm elections than they were in the 2008 presidential election.

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The Democratic Party says it is spending more than $3 million–its biggest commitment ever in a midterm cycle–on ad buys targeting African-Americans. On Monday, the Democratic National Committee announced a new ad featuring R&B singer John Legend that will air in urban markets in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and on nationally syndicated radio shows with predominantly black audiences.

First lady Michelle Obama has appeared on Tom Joyner’s morning radio show, the highest-rated program among blacks. African-Americans within the Obama administration are hitting the campaign trail. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who is black, appears in the October issue of Essence magazine.

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Michigan Offers a Cautionary Note

In Michigan, where black turnout was 57 percent in 2006 and 64 percent in 2008, the Democrats are struggling to energize their base despite having committed several million dollars to the effort.

{snip} But at a rally in Detroit on Sunday, former President Bill Clinton drew a crowd of about 500 people, enough to fill only a third of the room. For a city that still adores Clinton, who once packed any venue there by the thousands, the thin showing illustrates the lack of excitement for Michigan’s Democratic candidates.

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Bernero’s selection of African-American Brenda Lawrence as his running mate has done little to energize black voters or other Democratic loyalists. And he’s had to overcome relative obscurity, as mayor of the small capital city of Lansing. {snip}

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The malaise among voters could pose problems for Obama and the Democrats in 2012, given Michigan’s traditional role as a bellwether for presidential elections. Democrats admit the same could be true in other future battleground states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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