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Courting the coveted voters

Gore counts on blacks who supported Clinton.

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By WAYNE WASHINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2000


TAMPA -- A banker, a professor, a restaurant owner, a union leader, a financial services representative, a lawyer and a librarian.

They're all black, all middle class or better. They live quiet lives of prosperity in a time of plenty. And collectively, they represent Vice President Al Gore's best hope and the wall Bill Bradley has not been able to scale.

Both Gore and Bradley have worked overtime to appeal to black voters as they pursue the Democratic nomination for president. They have criticized efforts to wipe out affirmative action and promised to promote racial healing. They even offered the unprecedented spectacle of two white presidential aspirants having a verbal slugfest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, a major center of black culture and entertainment.

The urgent appeals of Gore and Bradley for black support show the increasing importance of that support. Long-ago Democratic candidates openly courted blacks only at the risk of losing more cherished white support, but those days are gone.

Blacks are now the most loyal bloc of supporters in the Democratic Party. They gave Bill Clinton overwhelming support in 1992 and 1996 and have stuck with him through the fundraising and Monica Lewinsky scandals.

Gore has inherited much of that support. Polls by Gallup and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, have shown that he has opened up a 50 percentage point lead over Bradley among non-white voters. The vice president is also leading in polls in most of the 16 states that will hold primaries on Tuesday, and a clean sweep could end Bradley's run before Floridians vote March 14.

Throughout the primary season, Gore has reminded voters of the booming economy and talked of his drive to keep it going. But his strong support among black voters has less to do with the roaring economy and much more to do with his connection to Clinton.

Sitting in the living room of their elegant home in Town 'N Country one evening last week, Keith and Sadahri Berry forked through spaghetti.

Sadahri, a 28-year old commercial banker, and Keith, a 34-year old history professor, are the picture of prosperity. Still dressed in their work clothes, they look like they belong in a Dillard's ad. They each have multiple degrees and a fondness for current events.

Both like Bradley. Both plan to vote for Gore.

"Bradley can't win," Keith Berry said. "His candidacy is too academic. That's not going to translate to the masses."

Black voters, the Berrys said, have special concerns when choosing a candidate, concerns white voters don't have.

"White folks have the luxury of saying, "I think I'll vote for him because he'll lower our taxes,' " Keith Berry explained. "With us, we have to be concerned about health care, taxes -- and our issues."

Those issues include making sure the candidate understands that racism remains a problem for many blacks. "They don't have to teach their son how to respond to a police officer," Sadahri Berry said. "That's something black parents have to do."

That Bradley has failed to impress black voters has been a surprise and a disappointment to his campaign. The former senator from New Jersey has lined up the support of some prominent blacks -- retired basketball star Michael Jordan, scholar Cornell West and filmmaker Spike Lee -- but he remains in a crunching bind: He must distinguish himself from the Clinton-Gore administration without criticizing a president blacks love.

For his part, Gore has talked about what he would do as president. He has been just as quick, however, to remind voters that it is he who serves with Clinton.

Natalie Zellner, director of Bradley's campaign in Florida, said black voters would be more supportive of Bradley if they knew more about him and Gore.

"Al Gore is not Bill Clinton," an exasperated Zellner said. "Bill Clinton is not Al Gore."

Certainly, black voters know Bill Clinton. He is the president who listens to Aretha Franklin, who had Maya Angelou read poetry at his inauguration and who went on the Arsenio Hall show to play the saxophone. More importantly, he is the president who has made more high-level black appointments than any of his predecessors. The black poverty rate has decreased under Clinton, and the black employment rate has reached record highs.

Clinton takes particular pride in what he has accomplished for black voters. The president's Web site has a detailed account of those accomplishments. Printed on office paper, it runs 13 pages in length.

Beyond the appointments and the programs, however, Clinton's appeal boils down to more subtle things, black voters said.

"It appears that he has solidified some solid friendships with people of other backgrounds," Sadahri Berry said. "He strikes you as a guy who could come through my door and sit down and be comfortable."

Not even scandal soured blacks on Clinton.

David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that focuses on black issues, said blacks reacted protectively during the Lewinsky scandal.

"A substantial portion of black voters saw what happened as a Republican attempt to take their president away," Bositis said.

Gerald White, vice president of the electrical workers union in Tampa, said the timing of Bradley's departure from the Senate -- which came on the heels of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 -- could lead some to question his toughness. After the last two years serving under Clinton, few would question Gore's, White said.

"(Gore) served with Clinton through the trials and tribulations," he said. "He didn't leave Clinton when times got hard. I'm looking for someone who won't leave the African-American community when times get tough."

Harriet Thompkins, a librarian from Largo and a self-described "early baby boomer," said she, too, gives Gore points for sticking by the president.

Thompkins said she likes Bradley but worries that his learning curve would be too great if he became president.

"He's a newcomer," Thompkins said. "He's not in the spotlight. He would need some time to get up to speed. And you know how people are. We want results immediately."

That Bradley, an 18-year Senate veteran, could ever be described as a newcomer shows how ineffective his campaign has been.

Bositis said Bradley's campaign has been hurt by the upswing of interest and support of Arizona Sen. John McCain. If Bradley had been able to capture some of the momentum McCain got, his race with Gore would be closer. The inevitability of Gore's nomination might then seem less iron-clad, Bositis said.

As it stands now, Gore is in firm control of the race.

"He's Bill Clinton's vice president and chosen successor," Bositis said. "Unless there is some type of prominent breakup between the president and the vice president, the vice president gets credit for what the administration has done."

Drew Ware, owner of Quincy Restaurant, a soul food establishment on 40th Street in Tampa, said that's the way it should be.

Ware, 39, said he thinks Gore has been helped by working with Clinton.

"He's gained some sensitivity in realizing things are unfair for people of color," Ware said.

Albert Lee, a 36-year-old financial services representative from Tampa, said Clinton has been helped by Gore, too.

"Al Gore is a former senator," Lee said, pointing out that Gore played an important role in helping Clinton establish a relationship with key members of Congress. "He's bright. He's bold. He's willing to take the step and start the debate. He's impressive as a leader."

As for Bradley, Carl Hayes isn't convinced his days on the political scene are numbered.

Hayes, a Tampa attorney who ran an unsuccessful campaign for City Council last year, said he thinks blacks will yet have an opportunity to vote for Bradley.

"I think Gore's going to pick him for vice president," Hayes said.

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