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Kerry sounds clarion call to Florida's black voters

Published October 25, 2004

FORT LAUDERDALE - Anyone doubting the Kerry-Edwards campaign's determination to mobilize huge numbers of black Floridians this election needed only look at the political activity across Florida on Sunday.

John and Teresa Kerry attended services at a black church in downtown Fort Lauderdale, while former Vice President Al Gore hit black churches in Jacksonville and rallied Tallahassee voters to vote early.

Former President Bill Clinton, hugely popular with African-Americans and on the mend from heart surgery, is to campaign for Kerry in Miami tonight and in West Palm Beach on Tuesday.

In African-American communities across Florida, the 2000 election - and talk of disenfranchised black voters - is proving to be a mighty rallying cry.

"Our votes are going to count this time like they never counted before," the Rev. John F. White of Mount Hermon AME Church in Fort Lauderdale roared to his congregation, with John and Teresa Kerry sitting in the front row. "We're going to vote, and we're going to vote, and we're going to vote, and we're going to make a difference in this election!"

At Abyssinia Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Senior Pastor Tom Diamond introduced Gore as "president-elect" and reminded his 500 congregants in the pews of the spoiled votes in Duval County four years ago.

"The Republican Party threw out 27,000 of our votes," Diamond said. "It's as if they were spitting on the graves of our ancestors, by taking away the rights we have fought for and died for."

Gore quipped that he'd like to make some changes to the economy because "I was the first one laid off."

He told everyone to vote early to avenge the 2000 vote.

"A lot of preparation has been made this time around to make sure everyone's vote is counted," he said. "Turn all of that energy and all of these feelings into a nonstop effort between now and the time the polls close at 7 p.m. on Nov. 2."

Anything but strong turnout and overwhelming African-American support for Kerry could doom his chances. In 2000, record black turnout in Florida helped turn Florida into a virtual tie that took Republicans by surprise. This year, the mobilization effort is far greater, with a major focus on getting people to vote early.

But for all the anecdotal evidence of heavy African-American turnout, there are hints that Kerry might not be doing as strongly as he needs to be. At a John Edwards rally in St. Petersburg on Saturday, white people held "African-Americans for Kerry-Edwards" placards.

A St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll released Sunday showed Bush more than doubling his support from black voters since 2000, with 19 percent support. That estimate is imprecise because the pollsters surveyed fewer than 100 likely black voters in Florida, and the Kerry-Edwards campaign says its internal polling never shows Bush in double digits. But it mirrors a national poll released last week showing 18 percent of African-Americans backing Bush.

"I'm hoping that we will at least double what we did last time," said Dorsey Miller, a Broward County consultant leading Bush-Cheney's African-American outreach in Florida. "We haven't fared well on the national level giving all our support to one party, and people are beginning to think about that."

Exit polls showed Bush winning fewer than one in 10 black votes in 2000, the worst Republican performance since Barry Goldwater in 1964. He could hardly do worse this time, but Rob Schroth, one of the pollsters who conducted the Times/Herald poll, questioned Bush's prospects of approaching 20 percent.

"I think the African-American vote is going to polarize as the days get shorter before Election Day, but it is certainly a flank of the war plan that Kerry has to pay very close attention to," Schroth said.

Republicans see opportunities to pick up support among black voters who appreciate alternatives to public school and especially among black Christian conservatives, who are far more sympathetic to restricting abortions and banning gay marriage than much of the Democratic base.

At the Fort Lauderdale church, Kerry sprinkled his remarks with biblical quotes to make his argument that America needs a more compassionate president.

"In the book of James we are taught, "It is not enough to say you have faith when there are no deeds. Faith without works is dead,"' Kerry said.

The Massachusetts senator is a Catholic who tends to keep his faith to himself, but later Sunday a speech outlining how his faith guides his priorities drew cheers.

"I know there are some bishops who have suggested that as a public official I must cast votes or take positions - on issues like a woman's right to choose and stem cell research - that carry out the tenets of the Catholic Church. I love my church. I respect the bishops, but I respectfully disagree," Kerry said.

"My task as I see it is not to write every doctrine into law. That is not possible or right in a pluralistic society. But my faith does give me values to live by and apply to the decisions I make."

Democrats in 2000 mobilized massive black turnout focused on one day. This year, they're pouring far more resources into the effort and have two weeks of early voting to boost turnout.

After Gore's speech in Jacksonville, congregants passed out blue fliers that gave people directions to the nearest early voting location. Like a dozen or more black churches in Jacksonville, Abyssinia organized caravans to take people to the polls. For the folks at Abyssinia, it was the Bradham Brooks Northwest Regional Library, a few miles away.

The library was one of four early voting sites that opened Saturday in Jacksonville; at the start of early voting on Oct. 18, the large city had only one early voting site, in the supervisor of elections office in traffic-clogged downtown.

A half-hour before the polls opened Sunday, about 40 people stood in line. The parking lot was jammed by 1 p.m., with elderly women in colorful church suits and matching hats, parents with kids piled in minivans and a handful of voting activists milling around.

Most said they wanted to vote a week before Election Day in case there were any problems. Gloria Orr, a 53-year-old teacher, requested a paper ballot and refused to cast her ballot on a machine.

"With all eyes on Florida, they know not to throw away the votes this year," she said.

Like many of the African-Americans gathered at the library, Orr said she cast a ballot for Kerry. The downturn in the economy has been a big issue for her. "The economy is great for those making a million dollars," she said.

Orr dismissed the idea that some churchgoing African-Americans may be more inclined to vote for Bush because he is a Christian. "We have the same faith and I wouldn't vote for him," she said.

John Mays, 58, of Jacksonville felt differently.

"Bush has made a few mistakes, but he's human like everyone else," Mays said, adding that he is voting for Bush because he likes the president's stance on terrorism.

Mays, who is African-American, brushed aside concerns about disenfranchisement in Jacksonville even though he said he wasn't allowed to vote in 2000 because poll workers confused his registration with that of a wanted felon.

On Sunday, many people said the voting procedure went smoothly, with an extra large turnout of several hundred people.

"I feel more confident today than I did the last time," said Helen Crawford, a 61-year-old Kerry voter. "I'm just praying that this year, the Lord will let everything go like it should."

-- Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or

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