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Democrats need to repay black voters for their loyalty

By PHILIP GAILEY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001


The Democratic Party owes a huge debt to black America, and it's about time it started making more than token payments. Black voters are one of its most loyal constituency groups, sometimes to the point of voting against their own interests. And that loyalty has yet to be adequately repaid. No political party should be able to take any voting group for granted.

Florida is a case in point. With the exception of the late Doug Jamerson's unsuccessful bid for the office of education commissioner, Florida Democrats have been unable -- or unwilling -- to rally around a black candidate for statewide office. One of the Democratic candidates for governor in next year's elections is Daryl Jones, a black state senator from Miami. Jones comes across as a political centrist who should be considered a viable contender for his party's nomination. But Democrats -- and much of the press -- don't take his candidacy seriously because . . . well, you know.

Maybe Jones can't be elected governor, but shouldn't he at least be considered a credible prospect for lieutenant governor? It's unlikely, however, that the Democratic nominee for governor, whoever that turns out to be, would take the risk of choosing a black runningmate. Democrats would never say so publicly, but they apparently don't believe Florida is ready to elect a black to statewide office. One way to test that theory is to put more black candidates on the state ballot. It is true that Jones carries some political baggage. His nomination as secretary of the Air Force by former President Bill Clinton was withdrawn in a controversy over his record as an Air Force reserve pilot. But his record as a state senator is respectable. On most issues, Jones is a mainstream politician who probably has more in common with Gov. Jeb Bush than with the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Janet Reno, who became the instant frontrunner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination the moment she announced her candidacy last week, is not likely to consider Jones as a runningmate if she wins the primary election. Her reasoning probably would go like this: Both Reno and Jones are from Miami, and Reno needs a more conservative partner to help her win votes in Florida's Panhandle. That is probably a smart political calculation.

But what about former U.S. Rep. Pete Peterson, whose political base is the Panhandle? He is probably Reno's closest rival at this early stage of the campaign. He has accused Gov. Jeb Bush of dividing the state along racial lines -- the least credible of the many charges Democrats will hurl at the Republican incumbent. But will Peterson, if he is his party's nominee, be willing to choose Jones for the No. 2 spot? My guess is that he would not. Too risky.

Let me be clear: I'm not endorsing Jones for governor or lieutenant governor or any other office. I cite his candidacy only to raise a larger question: Why, in the year 2001, have Florida Democrats not cultivated a generation of black candidates to compete for statewide office? The answer is obvious: Florida Democrats know they can take the state's black vote as a gimmie, especially in the wake of last November's disputed presidential vote count in Florida. It's easy to understand why blacks want nothing to do with the Republican Party. Some day, however, Florida Democrats, the party of affirmative action in college admissions, need to be held accountable for their poor record in nurturing and nominating black candidates for statewide office.

There are some 9,000 elected black officials in the United States. Most of them are mayors, city council members, county commissioners and state legislators. There are 39 black members of Congress, all of them in the House of Representatives. That represents major progress, but few blacks have been able to win nomination to statewide offices. In 1984, Doug Wilder, a Virginia Democrat, became the first black to be elected governor since Reconstruction, and no African-American has won a governorship since. In fact, none has been nominated, not even in predominantly Democratic states. A fair question is, why?

The answer may be that Democrats value African-American votes more than they do African-American candidates. This has to change. One of these days Democrats are going to have to live up to their diversity rhetoric, in Florida and the rest of the nation. The party needs to extend its affirmative action commitment to the recruitment of minority candidates. It needs to do what baseball and football scouts do -- find young blacks with political potential and help them develop into major-league players.

If blacks can serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and as secretary of State and White House national security adviser, if they can be elected to the U.S. Senate and serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then surely the two political parties can come up with black candidates for lieutenant governor, attorney general and other state offices.

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